The Dog of My Dreams

The Dog of My Dreams

Actress Mary Steenburgen knows a few four-legged earth angels.

Mary Steenburgen's earth angels are the four-legged, furry kind!

My 12-year-old dog Lucy was lying under the kitchen table, one of her favorite spots.

She looked up at me with those intelligent eyes of hers—one blue, one brown—but I knew when she didn’t get up to greet me that the day I’d been dreading had come. I called the veterinarian, who’d taken good care of Lucy ever since I’d adopted her, and asked her to come over one last time.

I sat down on the floor next to her to wait for the vet, stroking her fur and thinking back on everything we’d been through together. Lucy was part Australian shepherd, part Queensland heeler. A rescue, so you could say I saved her life. Really, though, she saved mine. That’s why I thought of her as my angel here on earth.

When I met Lucy at the Humane Society, I was living with my two children in an old farmhouse in Ojai, a laid-back California town with paths made for strolling, gorgeous sunsets and mountains all around. Although I worked in Hollywood, I didn’t want my kids to grow up there. I wanted my daughter and son to have an upbringing more like my own back in Arkansas.

The farmhouse had a curvy staircase and on Christmas morning, I insisted the kids come down it with their hands over their eyes. “Okay, everybody, open your eyes!” I’d say. I loved to see them take in the presents, the tree, the lights…the wonder of Christmas.

It didn’t take Lucy long to fit into our family. She decided her job was to watch over us, like any good herding dog. She claimed certain spots—a particular section of the sofa, under the kitchen table, outside by the lavender, places where she could keep an eye on things. She snapped at bees and occasionally got stung. She even took part in our rituals, like coming down the stairs with the kids on Christmas morning (though she didn’t put her paw over her eyes).

One day I got home from grocery shopping and Lucy trotted out to the driveway to greet me. I walked slowly on the gravel because I couldn’t quite see around the bags I was carrying. All of a sudden Lucy blocked my way. I moved to the right to go around her. She blocked me again.

“C’mon, these bags are heavy,” I said. But she wouldn’t let me pass. In fact, she started barking at me—which she never did—forcing me to back up. I lowered the bags. That’s when I saw it. Right where I was about to step was an angry coiled rattlesnake. “Good girl!” I told Lucy. We made our way around the rattler and into the house.

I gave Lucy a hug—and an extra-large helping of treats, of course. And I thanked God for giving her to me. Not only because she’d saved me from the rattler, but also because she was saving me from being overwhelmed by the tough stuff I was coping with.

My father, whom I adored, had recently passed away. And although the divorce I’d just been through had been amicable, I was still learning to adjust to life as a single mom. Lucy was there for my kids and me day in and day out, which made me feel incredibly protected and loved—and hopeful that things would work out.

Eventually they did. When Lucy was middle-aged I got another amazing and unexpected gift from God. I fell in love with and married Ted Danson, who is my dream friend and husband. There’s never anything so wrong with me that he can’t make me laugh. Our family blended amazingly well, and his two girls and my kids are hilarious and adorable and the lights of our lives.

Ted and Lucy, of course, fell madly in love. The only time she put up a fuss was when he and I started dancing around the living room. Something must have triggered Lucy’s herding instincts (maybe we were moving like unruly sheep!) because she tried to tackle us and knock us over. Did I mention how she made us laugh?

Now I couldn’t hold back my tears. The vet was here. I stood to talk to her. Lucy slowly got up too and walked over to the doctor. Then she sat down and looked at me, her gaze steady and serene, guiding me through this moment as she had so many others. She was telling me, It’s time to say goodbye.

I knew she was right, but that didn’t make losing her any easier. Every day for weeks afterward, I’d glance at the sofa or under the kitchen table, expecting Lucy to be there. We still had a dog in the house—Roxy, the pug we’d given my son for his fourteenth birthday. She was funny and quirky and had quite the talent for hypnotizing us into thinking we hadn’t fed her. I loved her, but there wasn’t that soul-deep connection I’d had with Lucy.

Ted could tell how much I missed her. “Maybe we should get another dog,” he said. “I’m not ready,” I said. I didn’t know what I was waiting for. Some sign, maybe, that it was okay to move on.

Three months after Lucy died, Ted and I took a trip to Todos Santos, Mexico. One night the image of Lucy came to me in a dream, looking right at me. I got a message: You’ll meet your new dog tomorrow. As soon as I woke up the next morning, I told Ted, “Lucy’s going to help find us a dog today.”

He groaned. “How? And where? We’re supposed to be on vacation.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s going to happen.” I was sure of it. We saw dozens of dogs that day—napping in doorways, roaming the streets. Each time I wondered, Is this the one? But none gave me the certainty my dream had.

We ate at a restaurant and were driving back to the hotel when I saw a little white head pop up from a hole in a crumbling wall. A terrier mix. Her eyes locked on mine for a moment before she dropped out of sight.

“Stop!” I shouted. “That’s the dog!” We got out and tracked her down. She was with a pack of street dogs. She was scruffy, malnourished, covered with fleas and ticks—the most pitiful-looking dog I’d seen all day. Maybe ever. If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have chosen her. I like bigger dogs. And she didn’t seem healthy. But the choice wasn’t mine. I was being guided. This dog needed me.

I approached her slowly, not wanting to scare her. When I got close, she sat down and gave me a look that said, I know you’ve come to get me. I’ve been waiting. She let me pick her up and put her in my beach bag. “You’re coming home with us,” I told her.

She lay absolutely still as if she understood. That’s how I was able to sneak her through the hotel into our room. We had a patio with an outdoor shower. It took me two hours to clean her up and get all the fleas and ticks off her. “We’re naming you Lulu,” I said, “after Lucy.”

The next day I took Lulu to a local vet. He was bewildered. Of all the strays to adopt, why this one? He said she wouldn’t have lasted another week, she was so weak from starvation.
To me, that was another sign that this little dog was meant for us. Lucy had come to me when I needed her most, and we’d come for Lulu when she needed us most. There was a wonderful spiritual symmetry to the whole thing.

We brought Lulu home to Ojai, and she hadn’t been with us long when I noticed something amazing. She was drawn to the exact places where Lucy used to hang out, places that our pug totally ignored. I’d find Lulu lying under the kitchen table, sleeping in that same spot on the sofa and outside by the lavender, snapping at the bees and sometimes getting stung.

Like her predecessor, Lulu is very smart and loyal and watches over our family, which now includes an Australian shepherd named Arthur. She charges ahead of him on our hikes, as if she’s blazing trail for him. She and Arthur walk down the stairs in front of our pug, who’s elderly now, guiding her so she doesn’t fall. She hasn’t had to rescue me from a rattler, but if anyone tried to hurt me, it would be Lulu who’d protect me.

She sets the tone for our other dogs and shows them how to behave. I like to think of her as an elegant Spanish lady. You have to take care not to offend her dignity. If she’s trying to jump onto our bed, I won’t lift her up. She’s perfectly capable and doesn’t like to be helped.

Yet Lulu always knows when I need help. If I’m feeling out of sorts, she’s there in a heartbeat, letting me know how deeply I am loved. Of all the gifts our four-legged angels bring us, I think that may be the greatest.

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