When I was in high school, my parents brought home a new dog. I was away on a Key Club retreat and returned to discover Frodo, a full-grown Dalmatian, running laps from living room to den, stopping periodically to snort and nuzzle whatever hand presented itself. He was one spasmodic wag, and I remember being shocked at having a new housemate. After my childhood dogs died, my parents never expressed any interest in a new pet, but there was Frodo.
We never bonded. High school ending and plans set, I was already half gone, too busy and too distracted for new affections. I’ve hardly given Frodo a thought until recently, as my own son prepares to leave for college in New York.
Frodo stationed himself every evening in front of the door to the basement, the one my father used when he came home. Frodo lay there with his head between his paws, occasionally huffing in what must have been his sigh, waiting. When my father returned, Frodo came to life again, leaping and spinning and snorting anew.
I wonder what it means to be so much to someone. Though my attachments run deep, I’m not sure I’ve ever been anyone’s one and only the way my dad was Frodo’s.
My son’s been gone most of the summer. He’s had two jobs, one during the week and one on weekends. Most of the rest of the time, he’s busy with friends. They’re all keenly aware they will soon say goodbye to one another, and—based on calls I’ve overheard—turning down invitations is perilous. Doing so brings hints of insensitivity and callousness. He and his friends are very nearly family to one another, much closer than my friends were at his age. They owe each other companionship. In high school, when I declined a movie or dinner, my friends went without me. They might promise to ask again and express hope I’d be available later, but they signed off saying we’d see each other when we saw each other, talk when we talked.
That level of autonomy seems appropriate—you wouldn’t want a friend to be anyone other than him or herself or to do anything undesired—but maybe that’s jealousy speaking. I worry I’m not as important to my son as his friends are.
My father died when my son was a year old. Recalling my relationship with my dad, I see how different a father I’ve been. Winning the family bread kept my dad occupied and away. When he came home, he seemed weary and out of words and energy. But I never pressed him either. We talked when we had something to say, and most of our conversations were about common interests or niceties. My father and I hardly ever fought, probably because we seldom spoke. I’ve always regretted we weren’t closer—and I’ve been lucky to spend more time with my son. If we sometimes fight, at least we have more heartfelt and honest communication.
How can we know how much we owe one another? Being taken for granted feels horrible but so would insistent companionship. Relationships ought to spring from yearnings much deeper than proximity or convenience but they can’t compromise a person’s individualism either. Affection should be unconditional, counted on, and willingly borne, yet a friend has a right to expect something.
These paradoxes are tough to sort out. Maybe our deepest connections create such assurance—such confidence these links will survive every pull—that we need no longer work to maintain them. Maybe we can’t know their meaning until they’re gone.
I’ve been saying that I spent more time with my dog than my son has spent with me this summer. That’s an exaggeration, but it’s revealing too. I’ve been thinking about Frodo, my sympathy for him awakened at last.