The Best Gift My Parents Gave Me Was An Abandoned Dog

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For Adopt-A-Shelter-Dog month, we've asked our friends to share their personal animal adoption experiences in the hopes that these stories will encourage more people to seriously consider adopting not shopping for their next pet. This story is written by Sarah Harbug-Petrich who shared her fondest memories with us of her childhood best friend, Ethel — a husky mix with a heart of gold.

I am the youngest of four girls, and although I didn't know it at the time, I was born into a family war over getting a dog. For my first eleven years, my sisters and I waged a campaign of notes, tears, and thorough discussions in favor of getting one. My mother was ostensibly neutral but secretly on board (she loved her childhood dog Tara, even when Tara decided to have puppies on my mom's bed). My father, a man who prizes order and predictability, got as far as hamsters and fish, but dogs were a no-go. So we campaigned, leaving notes around the house about why we'd love the dog and how we would take care of it, strategically bringing the topic up at birthdays and Christmas. We all assumed it was a futile effort as it's difficult to change my dad's mind on anything, but the effort was what mattered.

"They told my mom that [Ethel] was born to a pure-bred husky who had a 'midnight visitor,' so the husky's owner had left the whole litter at the shelter — as if a pile of wiggly-waggly, mixed breed black and white puppies were worthless."

One Christmas, my mom had an idea. Why not give my dad the dog as a Christmas gift? You can't give back a gift, and you certainly can't pry a puppy away from the arms of three girls. She and my oldest sister went to the Humane Society (just to look, she swears) and they saw the nicest dog. She was skinny and underfed. She was black, with white paws, a white-tipped tail, and a white chest. She also had fur on the bottom of her feet! They told my mom that she was born to a pure-bred husky who had a "midnight visitor," so the husky's owner had left the whole litter at the shelter — as if a pile of wiggly-waggly, mixed breed black and white puppies were worthless.

My mom and sister had planned on getting a boy, so my dad would have at least one other male at home (which he eventually got in the form of a bearded dragon), but this little black and white puppy was just too sweet. Floppy, and loving, she had giant ears that perked up at every new noise and a feathery tail that curled into a C when she was happy. How could they choose any other dog? She was ours already. My sister took the dog to her friend's until they could spring the surprise on my dad.

It was still a few days before Christmas. School had gotten out late that year, so it was an early Friday afternoon when I walked home from fifth grade and in the front door. It gets dark in Washington early in the winter, so all the lights were on already. My mother walked up to me with a serious look, and my sister was right behind her, smiling big. "I have something to tell you," my mom said. She looked at my sister. "We got a dog."

I felt like a bottle of champagne that had been shaken up and opened. I screamed and jumped and ran around and kept screaming and jumping. Another sister came home a few minutes later; a normally dignified 13-year-old, she sat on the floor and sobbed. There is no happiness greater than the happiness of child getting a dog she never thought she'd get. I was in such a daze of joy and excitement that I don't remember what my third sister said or when we told her. We did decide that my dad would name her, since she was technically his present.

The dog was a small silky puppy, and her ribs showed. Being adopted and doted on by a small herd of girls tuckered her out, and she was curled up on the seat of the big brown leather chair by the front door when my dad got home. I was on the floor, with my chin resting on the chair, looking at her. My dad walked in the door, and I beamed up at him. "We got a dog."

"She lay next to me and let me cry on her the first time I got my heart truly broken."

Dad decided to name her Ethel, after Lucy's best friend in I Love Lucy. She later earned the additional names Finnegan Lazarus when she learned the trick of being "shot" and then rising from the dead. She ate my favorite pair of leather sandals, took a little too long to house-train, and she pulled on walks. In her younger days, she could jump our 4-foot fence and take off running around and around the neighborhood, but she always came back. She lay next to me and let me cry on her the first time I got my heart truly broken. When she got excited, she roo-ed instead of howled or barked. As she aged, my mother would feed her salmon skin and olive oil for her coat, which was starting to gray around her snout and paws. On a warm August day almost 16 years after we brought her home, she was laying in her favorite spot in the yard under the grapevines and passion flowers, sniffing the air, and she died. Her ashes were scattered on Mount Rainier.

All images courtesy of Sarah Harburg-Petrich