Homefront: Dinghy Keeps Family Afloat

By Lisa Smith Molinari

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Quite often, the thing that wakes me in the morning is not my alarm clock. It’s not the National Anthem blaring over the base loudspeakers. It’s not my husband plodding off to the bathroom. And it’s certainly not our teenagers getting themselves up on time.

Most mornings, our dog Dinghy, a 110-pound Labradoodle with an explosion of blond hair and long, gangly legs, is the first to wake me up. Whether he has snuck up onto our bed, leaving my husband and me teetering at the edges, or splayed out on the cool hardwood floor of our bedroom, he starts his morning with a stretch, followed by an elongated yawn before beginning his “bath.

As a male dog, he starts with the unmentionable area that males find most important. After spending an inordinate amount of time licking that general location, he comically attempts to scratch inside his ears with his long awkward hind feet. Inevitably, he misses the first few times, haphazardly wapping his neck and the back of his head, until he finally finds that sweet spot. Without looking, I know he’s found it when I hear him grumble deeply as if to say, “Oh yea, that’s the ticket.”

Once done scratching, he cleans his paws in preparation for what is arguably one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen. Alternating each enormous front foot, Dinghy wipes his own face over and over, then with paws daintily crossed, he licks them one last time.

When finished, he looks like the canine reincarnation of Phyllis Diller, but is ready to face the day. And after kissing the fuzzy top of his head, so am I.

There are so few constants in military life. We hold on to those things that bind us together and make us feel that, despite frequent moves, deployments, separations and an uncertain future, we are a family. No matter where we are in the world, we belong to each other.

Ten months before my husband left for a year-long deployment to Africa, we picked Dinghy out of a litter of fat pups on a farm in North Carolina. During that deployment, Dinghy chewed countless socks, dug trenches in our lawn and stole an entire baked chicken off the kitchen counter, but he captured our hearts. Every morning, I’d open my eyes to his fuzzy face and hot breath, urging me, “Look! It’s another day! I want to spend it with you because you’re my best friend and I love you!”

Sure, some days became stressful and chaotic. I had my share of meltdowns and drank my share of wine. But I found it nearly impossible to be sad for long, because I started every morning staring into the face of pure, unconditional love and utter acceptance.

Dinghy moved with us from Virginia to Germany to Florida to Rhode Island. No matter whether we lived in a stairwell apartment, temporary quarters, base housing or on the economy, Dinghy, like us, felt at home as long as we were together.

Eight days ago, our family rented a cabin with no internet or phone service at a remote Navy Morale Welfare and Recreation center on Great Pond in the North Woods of Maine. We had a wonderful week of hiking, doing crafts, watching favorite movies, cooking Thanksgiving dinner and cutting down our own Christmas tree. Dinghy was there with us, tramping through the woods, swimming after sticks in the cold lake, stealing socks, demanding attention and sneaking into bed to snuggle with us at night.

As always, he was a constant reminder that we belong to each other and are loved.

Late on our last night in the cabin, Dinghy suddenly seemed sick. In the morning, my husband went to the park office to use the phone to call a veterinarian. But it was too late. Unbeknownst to us, Dinghy’s stomach had twisted – a sudden and deadly condition known as “bloat” – and he died that morning in our cabin, with us all around him. With permission from the park manager, we buried Dinghy in the woods near the lake under a huge elm tree.

This morning, for the first time since March of 2006, we woke up feeling sad. But Dinghy would not like that. In his unbridled enthusiasm and perpetual loyalty, he taught us that, as long as we have a family who loves and accepts us, every new day has promise.

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