Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Sheba, a cocker spaniel mix, relaxes at her owner's home in New York.

What about when he goes to college?

Before my son, Tim, came along, there was Char, my black Labrador.

When I adopted my infant son in 1986, I was already a mom for most, if not all, intents and purposes. I had my black Labrador, Char, to whom I was devoted beyond all reason or reckoning. I’d brought him home from the shelter 10 years earlier and was grateful ever after to have found such a steadfast companion. 

The head of the adoption agency, noting my attachment to the dog in a home study, asked me, “What would you do if the baby was allergic, or this animal wouldn’t accept him?”

“Work it out,” I answered. Char had arrived first and wasn’t going anywhere.

Having also seen my abject devotion to the dog, a close friend, who became my son’s godmother, cautioned just before the adoption, “You know, Sue, this child will go to college one day, and you’ll have to let go.” I told her that was fine, but that dogs didn’t need college, so I wouldn’t have to let go of him.

As a pup, Char would look at me longingly as I paused at the front door to leave for work. There was no choice but to clip on his leash and take him along with me for the five-block walk to the university campus where I had an office. 

Char would make himself at home beneath my desk and remain ensconced there as I churned out article after article profiling faculty research. The campus office had a grassy backyard, which was Char’s bailiwick while I ate my lunch at a picnic table. The dog became completely at home in the university milieu as I walked him down the brick-paved streets and about the historic quads. Students doted on him. He was clearly in his element.

Late one afternoon, after a crew of carpenters carelessly left the gate of my yard wide open, Char, then a mature dog, wandered out and probably made a beeline for the university. But my frantic searches that night were fruitless. No Char outside my office building or anywhere else I looked, though I knew academia was his siren call. I wondered if someone had taken him into a dorm. 

I found him in front of the student union when I drove around again at daybreak, casually seated on its venerable limestone steps as if he were a senior awaiting commencement ceremonies. True, he looked a bit confused, but also alert, as if he were weighing how to cajole a meal from one of the sympathetic students walking by. When he spotted me pulling to the curb, he climbed into the car with a yawn and a side glance, knowing breakfast awaited him at home. I was helpless with gratitude as our life together resumed.

When Tim was born I happened to be walking the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah Park in Virginia, unaware my yet-to-be son had arrived. I often brag about the 80-mile trek during his late gestation to people who don’t already know I did not bear him. But there he was in my arms a few weeks and a round-trip plane flight later. A seatmate, seeing how tiny he was, asked how we were doing. “I don’t know,” I blurted. “We’ve only just met.”

Barely four pounds as a 3-week-old preemie, he inexplicably flourished under my inexpert care. The foster mother during his first days had provided a brilliant launch to this fragile new life. As she explained his feeding schedule (every four hours) I asked, “So I wake him every four hours?” She smiled a bit uncertainly, answering, “Dear, you never wake a peacefully sleeping baby.”

That sounded just right to me. As I said, we did fine. 

To my relief, Char accepted Tim readily enough, with some grudging loss of my complete attention, and my son adored Char, developing a deep bond before the dog died peacefully at an advanced age when Tim was 5. 

Many other dogs have graced our lives. In contrast to his godmother’s foresight, Tim has not opted for higher education (not even at the local campus), but remains close at hand and has gone on to pursue other life goals. 

And so I will always think of Char as the son who went away to college.

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