It was an icy January morning, and I was walking to East Harlem to adopt a dog. With every step, I wondered why.
I had long dreamed of owning a dog but constantly found reasons for not doing so. I knew there was a city animal shelter exactly 17 blocks north of my apartment, and I had always imagined myself one day taking that walk and bringing home a dog.
But now that I was finally doing it, I was filled with doubts.
It's so much work, I worried. It totally changes your life. And how do you choose a dog by just looking at it in a cage? What if it turns out to be nasty or indifferent or rude? What if it ruins your home, scares your neighbors, alienates your friends?
This is only your first visit, I told myself as I walked. You probably won't see the right dog. Any kind of commitment is likely months away.
Strengthened by these thoughts, I pushed on.
I wasn't alone when I reached the shelter. A little group of pet seekers had assembled in the lobby. Nervously, we exchanged names and information. Many of us were first-timers, but some were shelter veterans, back to adopt another pet and full of advice for the rest of us.
"Relax, you'll know the right one when you see it," an older woman named Madeline assured me. "This will be my fourth, and it was that way each time."
Next thing I knew, we were by the cages. Dogs barked wildly, sticking their paws through the wires, begging for homes. I could barely think straight.
I tried to scan the cages. Small, I told myself. Small was essential, given the dimensions of my apartment. I read the little information placards on the front of each cage. I saw German Shepherd mixes, Rottweiler mixes, Labrador retriever mixes.
They were beautiful; they were perfect but they were large, and they weren't my dog.
I felt sad, but also a bit relieved. My dog wasn't here today. I'd have to come back another time.
I saw that Madeline had scooped up a black-and-white bundle of fur. Her face glowed with joy as a dog of unknown breed chirped happily in her arms. How quickly could she bring it home, she asked the attendant.
I wandered closer, wanting to share in her happiness for a moment.
That's when I saw a small black dog, hiding scared at the back of her cage. Earlier, I had walked right past this little female, somehow dismissing her on sight.
This time I stuck my hand through the wires. Her tail wagged tentatively, but she continued to hang back.
I glanced at the identifying sign. "Male, five months, German Shepherd mix," it read. That seemed odd.
"Could there be a mistake on this?" I asked the man helping Madeline. "I don't think she's a male or a German Shepherd."
"Yeah, it could be," he said. "Could you stand here for a moment while I check?"
He disappeared. I turned back to the cage and called, "Here, Sheba." I don't know why I said "Sheba." It was just the way she looked.
Shyly, she came forward and touched my arm with her paw. I slipped my hand under her skinny chest and felt her heart pounding with fear.
"It's all right," I murmured. "We're going to put the right sign on you, and soon everything will be OK."
She was so thin, her shoulder blades protruded sharply from beneath a mangy black coat. If you saw her on the street you might have avoided her, fearing she was so hungry as to be dangerous. But here in the cage, she trembled, fixing a pair of warm chocolate-colored eyes cautiously on my face.
I leaned toward the cage, pouring out all the comforting words I could conjure. Soon she was pressing herself against the wire, warming to the sound of encouragement, her wagging tail now sounding out a steady drumbeat.
"You're right, it was a mistake," the shelter worker said, suddenly coming up behind me. "It's a female, cocker spaniel mix, two years old. If you step away from the cage, I'll put the right sign up there."
I moved to step back. But the little dog had other ideas. She quickly thrust her paw through a slot at the bottom of the cage and wrapped it fiercely around my arm, pushing her whole body up against the wire and holding me to her with all her strength.
From nowhere, it seemed, came the tears that flooded my eyes. I heard Madeline's voice behind me. "I see you found your dog," she said gently. "Or maybe she found you."
It was a week before I could get her. But the next Friday night I was back at the shelter, slipping a hastily purchased new collar and leash around Sheba's neck.
"We're going home now, girl," I whispered into her neck. "No more cages for you. You've got a family now."
We stepped out into the cold night and retraced the same 17-block walk I had first made alone. Sheba pulled wildly at the leash. She didn't know where she was going, but she did seem to know what she was leaving behind. That was enough to propel her forward at a furious pace.
At that point, really, the whole story still lay before us. I didn't yet know how quickly her gaunt frame would become sleek and graceful, how soon her coat would grow glossy and rich.
And, of course, I couldn't possibly foresee the way she would initiate me into her special games and whimsies, acquaint me with her generous heart and considerate nature. We would develop our little routines and habits, have our special jokes and daily cuddles, forge ourselves into a unit more quickly and happily than I would have believed possible.
But all that still lay ahead. All I knew as we crossed the dark streets that night was that a little dog was making a very big journey, moving from a shelter cage to an apartment home, from abandoned stray to loved family member.
I couldn't tell what her little heart was doing as we walked pounding against her rib cage, perhaps but I knew what was happening to my own. It was full of such a crazy joy. At that moment, I wouldn't have known what to call it, except to say that it had to be the beginning of love.