Buffett Leigh O'Brien

Buffett Leigh O'Brien

Dogs of Our Dreams

I have always loved dogs. In almost every snapshot of me as a child, I am clutching a squirming puppy in my chubby arms or trailing after one of my black, flop-eared Cocker Spaniels. Teddy and Tim, father and son, were the definitive dogs of my early life. They accompanied me everywhere I ventured in my midtown Memphis neighborhood—to friends’ backyards, to the patch of woods behind David Brown’s house, to the playground attached to our Episcopal church—and they were frequently enlisted as partners in mischief. On several occasions, my group of ragtag companions and I tethered all our dogs together in one barking cacophony, rang all the doorbells of a nearby boarding house, and set the pack loose in the foyer, scaring the stew out of the various residents who opened their doors to the collective dervish.

After high school, I endured a desolate, extended, period of doglessness. I couldn’t keep dogs at college, in East Tennessee, and when my husband and I moved to New York City to start our early careers, dogs were out of the question. We lived in a 600-square-foot “one-bedroom” on the Upper West Side and worked 12-hour days. After work, we went out to dinner. We were virtually never home. For years, I pined for a dog, coveting the motley packs orchestrated by the inveterate professional dog-walkers of Manhattan. But when we finally moved to Austin, the issue having been forced by the addition of three children under five, we moved to a tranquil, suburban cul-de-sac on the greenbelt and immediately scanned the “dogs” section of the classifieds. We bought Jordan, the chocolate runt of a Lab litter, from a plumber in Cedar Park. She became the definitive dog of our early family life, sticking close by the children and tracking their every move. When strangers approached, she circled them, sniffing, making sure they were kind. With her amber eyes, noble snout and velvet ears, Jordan was a vision of dog perfection. Her gentle temperament was equally stellar; and as the children grew up, and Jordan needed another “job,” she and I became “pet partners” with Therapy Pet Pals of Austin. We visited the forsaken elderly in nursing homes, and Jordan—instinctive in her compassion—padded over to the old folks in their beds and wheelchairs and delicately lay her head in their laps. Even those with the blankest of expressions would light up in her presence and stroke her sleek, seal-like head.

Jordan died in our arms two years ago. She had lymphoma, and since she was 12 and a half, putting her through chemo, and further compromising the last months of her life, was not humane. Our vet, Ian Voelzel, came over to our house with his assistant, Daniel, to administer innocuous-looking pink liquid through a Draconian needle and syringe; and after placing a lady-like paw, with black-lacquered nails, on our daughter Owen’s shoulder, she slipped away. When Ian and Daniel loaded her onto a stretcher and ferried her to the back of their SUV, I carried our young Bichon Buffett out to the tailgate and lowered him to her lifeless body to sniff her one last time and say his goodbyes. For the following four months, Buffett was listless in grief.

Now Buffett is back to his former, jaunty self. He has Jamie now, another chocolate Lab—a female yearling with half a screw loose. It is eerie how much she looks like her predecessor, Jordan. She started out as Jesse’s pup. My eldest son, 23, loves dogs as much as I do. He acquired Jamie by happenstance—when he was out jogging at dusk in Fort Worth last September. A college student then, he knew better than to get a dog, especially since his lease forbade pets. But as he jogged past a redneck couple hawking a box full of Labrador puppies, his mind flashed to Jordan. Before he knew it, he had reserved the runt. An hour later, he was back, cash in hand. At just shy of six weeks, Jamie was too young to adopt. Jesse cleared out a dresser drawer, lined it with soft towels, and placed it next to him in bed. He installed a doggie door in the ramshackle bungalow, knowing he wouldn’t get his security deposit back anyway. The crater in the kitchen wall, from a particularly wild party he and his roommates hosted, took care of that.

Jamie settled in and life was good. Jesse popped home between classes, and before work, to look after Jamie, feed her and take her out for quick walks. When he was free, he took her out for long adventures to Fort Woof, the premier, off-leash dog park in Fort Worth. But one night when Jesse came home, Jamie was not herself. She didn’t get up from the couch to greet him, and when he called, he saw that she couldn’t walk. And then he remembered, and ran to the kitchen. Sure enough, a soft plastic rat poison wrapper lay in tatters on the floor, just by the back of the stove. The exterminator, a crotchety old character dispatched by Jesse’s slumlord, had visited a few days before. Jesse and his roommate John rushed Jamie to Metro West Emergency Animal Hospital, where the vets swarmed into action. They hooked her up to tubes and machines, and at one point had to drain her chest of blood. When the plasma transfusion didn’t do its job, the vet used her own dog to give Jamie live blood. Miraculously, after three days on life support, Jamie, then five months old, pulled through. But just to be safe, my daughter, Owen, and I drove up to Fort Worth and took her home to Austin. Months later, Jesse and John were still finding soft packets of rat poison behind appliances, and under beds.

Jamie turned a year old in late July. Though the vets insisted she would suffer no ill effects of the rat poison after she recovered, she’s a little unbalanced. She spooks at children and machinery, becoming wild-eyed and even aggressive. But otherwise, she’s a jewel—a chocolate beauty with an  intelligent, exuberant spirit. Buffett adores her, although he still rules the roost. As for me, a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern, I have two resident, furry therapists to listen to my dreams.

Jamie Leigh O'Brien

Jamie Leigh O'Brien

Launching Ourselves

By Elizabeth O’Brien

My husband and I are decidedly uncool in the eyes of our teenage son. Even though it’s only been a couple of years since our daughter was a high school senior, and four and half years since our firstborn son was this age, it seems we’ve forgotten, again, how to back off. We’re clingy, intrusive, overly affectionate and corny. We try too hard.

I have to hand it to Sam. He’s the only one left, and at 18, he is holding up admirably. He is tolerant of our sentimentalism, but he’s quick to draw the line. He knows who he is. His boundaries are firm. We are trying to respect this new young adult, while maintaining a certain dignity.

How do parents restructure their roles as their children mature? With our eldest, an exuberant and impulsive boy who bulldozed every limit, we never figured it out. I still catch myself treating him, at 22, as if he were 14. With our daughter, who is 20, it was never an issue. She was born an old soul and was more likely to play the adult. If her dad became too rigid, or I too emotional, she “contained” our anxiety by being calm and reasonable. She conducted her life-both at school and beyond-with a quiet self-confidence.

Sam is another being altogether. Since he was a baby, he’s been focused and intense. He sets goals for himself, and accomplishes them. Then he raises the bar. If he chooses to “disobey,” to break the proverbial rules, it is a determined, considered decision. A few weeks ago at a friend’s house, he and two friends snuck out in the middle of the night, having stuffed their beds, and when they were caught, he stepped up and took his punishment. He suffered no remorse, nor did he reveal their late-night agenda. It is almost as if he feels it is his obligation, and part of his job, to act out just enough.

Indeed, he is right. Psychological research bears out that adolescents who don’t experiment, and try out different roles-who don’t rebel-are not as healthy as those who do. When they leave home, they generally don’t handle themselves as well as young people who have “done their job” in individuating from their parents by pushing against the rules. Of course, this is a delicate period, and not every teenager negotiates it unscathed. Still, human beings articulate themselves through pain and adversity, through forging their own path-not by being sheep. The ability to face obstacles and figure out a way to remove them is a necessary, and invaluable, vehicle for coming of age. In fact, it is a lifelong task that leads, ultimately, to what the late psychologist Abraham Maslow calls “self-actualization.”

Sam is on this path. He’s been accepted by two colleges now, and is awaiting word from others. Every day, as we watch his face and stature morph into manhood, his character fills out in kind. He connects to us now, in a way he never could before. He integrates his knowledge, making new connections daily. He is making sense of the world, and we are in awe of him.

Though I can’t hug and kiss him, now, as much as I’d like, there are occasional chinks in his teenage aloofness. The other morning, he came into my room, dressed in his soccer gear, and asked for my help. He gave me his necklace, bowed his head to my height and allowed me to clasp it. His neck is still soft, with traces of peach fuzz.

As my husband and I work to prepare his “launch-pad” and loosen our grip, we are realizing that he is already in tentative flight. Now it is up to us to look in the mirror, swallow hard, and launch ourselves.

Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC-I, is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern practicing in Westlake under the supervision of Dr. Sunny Lansdale.

Love in the Afternoon

By Elizabeth O’Brien

A month ago, I was surprised by a call from my childhood friend, Mary Jo Wade, with whom I grew up in Memphis. We had not corresponded, except for Christmas cards, in a few years.

Mary Jo and I had been tomboys together in our midtown neighborhood, exploring the forbidden woods behind the houses on Rozelle Street, playing silly tricks on the boys and, when we got older, sneaking out my bedroom window to roll somebody’s yard. To be fair, I was the ringleader, and Mary Jo, my reluctant, but accommodating partner. I adored Mary Jo and admired her greatly: her family had a farm in La Grange, TN, and she was an accomplished horseback rider. My father worked for hers in the real estate business. Her mother made the best fried chicken in the South.

When we came of age, we went off, together, to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and became roommates in Clement Hall. But our lives diverged. I fell in love and spent all my free time with the young man who became my husband. Mary Jo joined the Campus Crusade movement on campus. We grew apart, and I always felt guilty about “abandoning” her. In the intervening years, I got married, moved around the country, working as a journalist, and then raised three children. Mary Jo stayed in Memphis, got a good job at Federal Express and never married. She spent weekends on her farm, riding her horses and rescuing some 40 barn cats. To her friends, she was a treasure, always available with a ready ear. If she was lonely, she never complained.

When I picked up the phone, I recognized the sweet voice of my old friend.
“I have some news,” she said. “You’re not going to believe this!”
I held my breath.
“I’m getting married!”
I screamed so loud that my dog put his paws over his ears.

She went on to tell me her love story. She had dated Barney Gordon briefly in 1980, but broke up with him, ultimately, because he was too shy and non-committal. This was difficult, as she was quite fond of him. He moved away and she lost track of him for 28 years. Then, this year, his mother died in Memphis, and Barney went home. He got a mutual friend to ask Mary Jo to the funeral. When they saw each other, Barney—now a Ph.D. agronomist living in Kansas—invited her to lunch with friends. They convened at Barney’s late mother’s house, and the friends, in a scripted maneuver, excused themselves briefly to go home and “let their dogs out.” Barney asked Mary Jo to sit down. He told her that he had dated a few women over the years but had never found the right one. He lived as a bachelor with his faithful Collie Gus, and immersed himself in his work. In fact, he had never forgotten Mary Jo.

“You are the love of my life,” he said, softly.

Mary Jo sat on the couch in shock, then asked him if would kiss her. When he did, fireworks exploded. A week later, after they cleaned out his mother’s house together, he proposed. They are getting married Feb. 21 at our old church in Memphis, Grace St. Luke’s. I plan to sit on the front row.

I have a number of middle-aged friends in the Westbank who are single. Some are content, but others crave companionship. Let this be an inspiration: it is never too late. Love is timeless, and age-less. And, if one has faith, it comes back around.

Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC-I, is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern practicing in Westlake.