Last Christmas Eve, my mom, glass of merlot in hand, shuffled into the kitchen and yelled, “Where’s Malli?” My kids, who are both in their twenties, glanced at me, and with the synchronization of a professional drama troupe, we all three rolled our eyes. Malli is a ninety-five-pound English Mastiff, not the type of dog that is easily overlooked. And even though she is only two years old, barely legal drinking age in dog years, Malli’s lifestyle resembles that of an octogenarian at an assisted-living facility. When she’s not sprawled on the sofa staring indifferently at the bird feeder that hangs just outside the living room window, she’s in my mom’s bed, head on a pillow, snoring like a passed out drunk. Of course these hobbies are interspersed with three daily meals along with a steady stream of Beggin’ Strips, Snausages, and Ritz crackers slathered in peanut butter.
From the kitchen I called Malli’s name. When she failed to appear, I shook a bag of Pup-Peroni’s and recited the magic phrase: “Who wants a treat?” While most dogs would answer that call like a demon summoned from the bowels of hell, Malli sauntered into the kitchen with the apathy of a teenager who’d just been asked to empty the dishwasher. As Malli gnawed on her treat, my mom exhaled sharply and topped off her wine glass. “Malli, you’re the best thing in my life,” she said. The kids rolled their eyes again while I eased the bottle of wine behind the toaster oven.
To my mom, Malli is a comforting companion. A reassuring presence that, despite being the size of a miniature horse, is coddled and indulged like a toddler named Piper or Dashiell. But at age 80, my mom’s mind is not what it used to be, and the anxiety that often accompanies mental decline can easily send her into a panic. “Hurry, close the door before Malli runs away!” my mom will scream when I step out to get the mail. And while I do sometimes fantasize about Malli sprinting down the driveway then hopping into an Uber for a nice long ride to a farm somewhere on the other side of the state, I know she has no desire to escape. Malli is like my 24-year-old son who still lives with me, is still on my phone and auto insurance plans, and eats 75 percent of my groceries. Why leave when you have it made?
On Christmas morning the kids and I unwrapped our gifts, while Malli ate French toast and strips of bacon directly from my mom’s fingertips. When we’d finished, my mom took the last gift from under the tree and placed it on the sofa next to Malli’s face. Malli gave the package a couple of unenthusiastic sniffs then rolled over onto her side. My mom removed the wrapping to reveal a bag of something called “Wild Weenies Cage-Free Duck Recipe Dog Treats.” When I commented that Malli was probably going to have to be forklifted to her next vet appointment, my mom hissed at me to “Hush!” Malli nibbled a cage-free duck treat and stared at me. I could swear she was smirking.