It’s hard to choose a favorite photograph of our kids. There’s Nia at 10 months wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt and a silly sun hat; Mavis at 16 reading Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters (my favorite book); both of them at 6, all dressed up for my sister-in-law’s wedding; and another at 15, their arms entwined, standing before the Great Wall of China.
One photo I’m particularly fond of shows both girls, 11, on a tree limb, holding our first dog in their laps. Chump was a peculiar critter. He was part toy poodle and part something else. Perhaps the something else was cat, since he was an independent character who loved curling up in the windowsill and keeping track of the neighborhood.
Born the day we were married, Chump was a wedding present from friends. He was still a puppy when his life (and ours) was profoundly changed by the arrival of twin girls. From that day forward, we would be raising kids with a pet.
Nancy and I both kept working when the girls were infants, so only one of us was home at a time. The girls had colic and could only eat while rocking. We’d sit in a rocker feeding one baby on our lap, while feeding and rocking (with one foot) the other one, as she sat in a facing rocker. This left only one foot for poor Chump. For the rest of his life, he only liked being petted with a foot.
When the girls first began sitting up on their own, Chump fascinated them. He was the only living being in their world the same size as them. When he walked between them, they would chatter and often grab his long fur. Despite his feline aloofness, Chump was always gentle with the kids. When they pulled his fur, he’d sit very still and issue a quiet whimper until we freed him from a baby’s grasp.
As the three of them grew, they sometimes seemed like siblings, playing and romping together—even understanding each other. Days might go by when they ignored one another, only to erupt in a flurry of playing, running, and snuggling. They watched out for and comforted one another.
Of course, when Chump got older, we eventually came to realize we’d have to “put him to sleep.” The girls gave him special attention and love the day before the vet visit, including a walk in the park, which was when this photo was taken. They cried when Chump died and were there when we buried him in the backyard.
There’s something especially vibrant about their expressions in this photograph. Mavis seems to show a peaceful mixture of concern and gratitude, while Nia seems happy and energized by the nearness of her sister and pet. There are probably many moments in our daughters’ lives when the complex brilliance of their gifts and personalities radiates from them. But there are many fewer times when we recognize their light and energy with the clarity that I see in this photograph.
Yes, I wish I had paid more regular attention to how amazing my daughters are. Still, I’m always grateful for the times I am open to them, and feel the force of all they have to offer the world.
When that happens, I feel like Chump must have felt, lying on his back while someone’s foot rubbed his belly. There’s nothing better.
Joe Kelly is the author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Understand, and Support Your Daughter When She is Growing Up So Fast. You can find him at joekelly.org.