What Makes a Family?

On June 10, a friend of mine, Ellie, shared a blog post on her Facebook that she said made her “sad.” The post, No, Your Dog Is Not Your “Baby” — Saying That Is An Insult To Moms by Elizabeth Broadbent can be found at this link for those of you who desire a personal glance:


In the post Ms Broadbent compares raising a dog to raising a baby and finds that there is no comparison. After a string of examples she concludes with the following words:

“Say you love your dogs. Say they make your life worth living. Say they’re your one-and-only. Call yourself a dog person. But don’t call your dog a baby. Don’t call him your ‘furkid’ or ‘furbaby’. Because baby, it’s not even close.”

Though I don’t share her opinion, it’s not my intention to take Ms. Broadbent to task (hundreds and hundreds of angry responders have already done so), but rather to share two examples from my own life where the species of the family member was really not the yardstick by which we measured how much we could love each other.

When I was quite young, for about three or four years, we had a Great Dane named Max. Max was a black Dane with a beautiful white star on his chest and an even more beautiful disposition. We were inseparable and he and I all too briefly were the best of friends. I used to lie on Max’s belly and watch television, and he would sleep in my bed during thunderstorms. He was protective and kind and I sometimes think he thought I was his boy. In a way I was. Max developed cancer of the back end but as a child I was left unawares of this by my parents. One Sunday my mother and I were sitting in church while the minister droned on about some such and in a moment that I can’t explain I leaned over to my mother, said, “Max is gone,” and continued to not listen to the sermon. When we arrived home we discovered my father weeping in the garage over a blanket, under which lay the deceased Max. I can’t explain what happened in church that day other than to say that Max loved me and I loved him and before he crossed over the Rainbow Bridge he dropped by the church to say goodbye. We were, after all, family.


In December of 2010 I lost another great love of my life, a Russian Blue cat named Ivan that I often refer to as my “first born.” Ivan and I shared life together for twenty years – literally half of my life up to that point – and were for large parts of it inseparable. Ivan had wandered into my father’s music classroom at Conestoga Valley High School around 1990, a kitten straight off an adjacent breeder’s farm. When my father tried to return the kitten the breeder remarked that he would just drown him as Ivan had been born impure (he had faint white rings on his tail signifying tabby blood), and as such his life had no value. Enraged my father stormed off, cat in hand, and Ivan became officially a member of our family. Ivan and I had twenty years to play together, laugh together, eat together. We romped in and out of the house; he briefly stayed with me at my first apartment; he moved with me to Virginia when my mother went into a retirement home. In October of 2010 it became apparent that Ivan’s kidneys were failing. For the next few months Nancy and I gave him subcutaneous injections of IV fluids to keep his kidneys from shutting down. He grew weaker and weaker and it became evident by Christmas that he had had enough and was ready to cross over. On December 27, after days of round the clock watches, my mother, Nancy, and I went out for a rare breakfast. We returned home to find Ivan in our bed, but gone. He had wanted to cross over with dignity and wanted to do it without us present. Ivan is never far from my mind and often when I think about my own time to cross over he is the first face I envision seeing.


I do pity Ms. Broadbent. I think her blog was wrongheaded though well-intentioned; I just don’t think she thought it through. We live in an age where far too many people are making a cottage industry out of telling others who they should love and what that relationship should be. Her remarks about not calling pets “fur babies” strike a broader chord in our culture. Who is she, or for that matter anyone, to decide how you or I will love and how we will choose to label that relationship? For many people a pet is all they have, all they can afford, or all they know. Rather than wasting time trying to define the rightness or wrongness of the relationship and its labeling, perhaps we should all just be thankful that within the diversity of life on this planet there are other species that want to cohabitate with us. And some of them, some very special ones of them, become family.

RIP Max and Ivan

I’ll be seeing you again

Sonnet 20 (For Duke and Ivan: Two Brothers)

I have not posted in months. Truth is I got married in October and my wife is expecting in September and life has just been one whirlwind of activity after another. But, hopefully, I’m getting a handle on it…at least for now. This is a sonnet I just finished, dedicated to my somewhat new kitten/son who just celebrated 1 year with us this week. It is co-dedicated to his brother, Ivan, a Russian blue who called me dad for twenty years before crossing over two years ago. Ivan’s presence is still felt in our house in Duke’s resemblance to him and it is often hard to not see one without the other inside. Enjoy.

A little man has come into our lives,

A grey and white expression of pure joy,

Within his gaze a brother passed survives,

Assuring us he is, in fact, our boy.

His antic mayhem livens up the dawn,

A silver blur that breaks the day’s repose,

Transforming tranquil times for stretch and yawn

To “pounce and run” attacks upon our toes.

And thus the day is born and bound to stay,

With wacky happiness patrols on tap,

In swift pursuit of life’s most “purrfect” day

Till playful kittens crave a Dukey-nap.

Though none could take the place of brothers gone

In this new son my love for both lives on.