My Turn: The Dog That Made Us a Family

We inherited my daughter Liana when she was not quite 5. She had been adopted from China by my closest friend of 30 years, Linda, a single 51-year-old woman, tiny and fragile-looking but full of steel. Linda had a history of various illnesses, and my husband later told me that when she walked happily off the plane on Christmas Day in 1994, with her round, worried-looking Chinese baby wrapped in bright red and clutching a teddy bear, he had a premonition that we would eventually raise this child. Three years later, my best friend died—complications from Crohn's disease—and Liana came home with us. I was 55, a fulltime textbook editor with two almost-grown daughters. My husband, an English professor, was 48. I was looking forward to a few years of empty nesting and then some grandchildren. Starting over with a feisty kindergartner was, to be candid, not in my plans.

Shortly after she came to us, Liana began asking for a dog. She had been passed from family to family during her mother's six-month illness, indulged by people who wanted to make her happy. She was not used to hearing the word "no." I love dogs—I had grown up with a beautiful collie named Sunbeam—but I already had one unexpected new responsibility and I didn't want another. Initially our apartment was our excuse: too little space. But four years later we moved to a house, and we could no longer resist Liana's pleas. So off we went to an animal shelter.

Molly was a regal chow mix, chestnut red with a feathery tail that wagged all the time. She was gentle but energetic. As long as Liana and my husband, John, promised to do the walking, I decided I could handle having a dog. So we brought Molly home. Twenty-four hours later I opened the front door, and a red streak pushed by me—Molly, bolting out the door, through a neighbor's yard, into a nearby woods. Liana ran after her, screaming, and John headed out, too, into the dark, drizzling rain, frequently catching sight of the dog and then losing the trail.

Liana came back into the house, sat on her new dog's bed and cried. In her four years with us, she had hardly ever cried. And she had hardly ever mentioned her adoptive mother, my best friend. I almost resented that she seemed to have moved past grief without a second thought. But now she sobbed. She howled. Her thick black hair stuck to her cheeks, wet with tears. She wrapped her arms around herself, then around me, squeezing hard. She cried for three hours—until well after John returned. "She's gone," Liana moaned. "My dog is gone. My mother is dead. I loved my dog. Why did my mother die?"

She hadn't moved past grief, it turned out. She had just buried it, deep beyond reach, until now.

For John, finding Liana's dog became a mission. Luckily, we had taken some cell-phone photos of Molly during her few hours with us, and we sent them out to all the shelters in the area. After three weeks I gave up. But then we got a call. A woman had spotted a dog matching Molly's picture 15 miles away, in the woods near her home—across two highways, two rivers and I-95. As John often points out, Molly could have easily made it back if she'd only had an E-ZPass.

Despite repeated sightings, Molly somehow stayed out of reach. For two more months our dog lived in the woods. The wonderful woman who'd noticed Molly left scraps on her back porch and enlisted the neighborhood kids to report sightings. The food would be gone every morning, but the red dog eluded them all. Finally John hired a team of animal facilitators—they used to be called dogcatchers—and they set out a cage. For another week Molly ignored it until they changed the bait, at John's suggestion, from tuna to steak. Then she walked in, and she came home.

For five years now, Molly has slept with Liana every night. When Liana is away, her dog paces. Molly's tail still wags, but she is 7 now, a little slower and much less rambunctious. Liana, a tiny beauty of 15 with fashionably black nails and a loyal circle of ebullient friends, has moved on to "Twilight" and the Jonas Brothers. She still loves dogs, but she'd prefer the Paris Hilton model—a yappy little dog that she can dress up and put on like a pair of rhinestone earrings. Sometimes it seems as though Liana hardly remembers when her dog ran away and she hollered for her dead mother. But John and I remember, because that was the moment that Liana and our lost friend and our lost dog all came together, and we became a family.