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What a dog can teach about fatherhood

Two years ago, after years of parenting pets, actor John O'Hurley, best known for his role as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld,” became a father to his first child. Along with the many new joys of being a dad, John faced a new set of challenges — and it was Scoshi, his wise white Maltese and faithful confidante for nearly two decades, who, at every turn, pointed the way. In “Before Your Dog Can Eat Your Homework,” O'Hurley passes on to his son the life lessons he's learned from his pooch. An excerpt.

From chapter one
Waiting for an infant to be born has the uncertainty of a game of keno. The child-in-wait holds all the cards. He is like the multimillion-dollar casino armed with a multimillion-dollar computer. You have a piece of paper and a crayon. Now we’re going to play a game called “I’m Thinking of a Number.” You go first. The game, like their birth, is always in their favor.

It’s also about as interesting as keno. Once Lisa was given her epidural (which she still describes as the only tangible proof that God exists) we began the tedious lingering. We talked. We watched television. We played cards. We read. We sat in silence. I finally started to entertain myself by reading the logos on each piece of medical equipment in the room. The time moved like a taffy pull. 

There was not a moment, however, that wasn’t filled with both the realization and the sense of awe that we would leave the hospital differently than we arrived, that no single moment would so alter the course of our lives together as one that lay in wait. We came as a couple, we would go home as a family, and life as we knew it would never be the same.

But it’s true that the moments that are the most real and the most meaningful are often the quietest. Little William’s birth was just that. It was undisturbed by incident, with the possible exception of the fact that I was called to duty at the final, pivotal moment. I had planned to position myself safely out of harm’s view by standing where other boobs would stand — up by the wife’s head so my first sight would be a hygienic one.

The doctor had other plans for me. He asked me to support one of her feet to give her something to push against to east the delivery. So there I stood, aiding and abetting in full view of the meaningful and memorable moment of my life.

When the head began to emerge, it was the size of a small coconut. It came to a bit of a point, which made the shape unrecognizable at first. Only after the doctor carefully coaxed the shape forward did the image of a tiny human form appear.

I suppose I have been wondering since the age of twelve, since that wonderfully enlightening night ages ago, how I would react to the moment when my first child came into the world. I imagined theme music, some tears, a moving but terse statement that would send quotation collectors scurrying. I imagined some apocalyptic pose that would be caught by camera for posterity to remember. I imagined very good lighting.

My first thought? This can’t be my child. My wife has mated with a prune.

He was purple and swollen from his twenty-four-hour, twelve-inch journey. He was also crying, I suspect from the embarrassment of being the only naked one in the room. And he was all hands. The biggest, purplest hands I have ever seen, seven pounds and fifteen ounces of them. I put my fingers inside his hand, and his large purple fingers squeezed my finger like a vice. It was the grip strength that a father would give the handshake of his daughter’s first date. This could not be part of my gene pool. I searched his little purple body for any sign that he was mine. And then he furled his brow tightly, so tightly that the eyebrows almost touched. That was it. The sign I was seeking, the cinched brow. Less than five minutes old and already he had issues. Perhaps he was cold, perhaps he was afraid, perhaps the lighting was not to his liking. No matter. Something was wrong with the world and he knotted his brow to let us know. He was definitely my son.

Two days later we brought him home. Two little faces were pressed against the iron-and-glass door as we arrived. Betty and Scoshi were yelping as we walked up the stairs. As we crossed the threshold everything went strangely quiet. They sniffed the air as they darted around the foyer in silent frenzy, sensing the presence of a new and foreign energy. The Little Pink Thing was finally home.

It wasn’t until later that night, after the bags were unpacked, the requisite phone calls made, and new parents’ nerves quieted, that the formal introductions were made. Betty was first. She is our stray mix — a delightful combination of a black Labrador retriever and a dachshund, which has left her looking like an eternal black lab puppy with all the sweetness of a dog grateful for being rescued. She gave Will a few quick sniffs, but was careful to not acknowledge him with eye contact or lend any importance to the first meeting. She then grabbed one of his tiny red socks that had fallen to the floor and ran down the hall. Clearly this was a cry for help. After that moment she would cry anytime my wife or I went near the Little Pink Thing. She would wedge herself in between us and William anytime we approached. In her little black eyes I could see the same fear of abandonment that I sensed years ago when she was rescued.

It wasn’t until one morning months later that she recognized his presence. We were all lying in bed, the dogs and the three of us. William was sitting up, his head still bobbing a bit to and fro from its sheer weight. He reached out with one of his newly discovered and still-oversized hands (complete with opposable thumbs) and grabbed one of Betty’s ears. Before we could reach out to separate the two, Betty turned her head sharply to him. In a moment that seemed frozen in time, she leaned out and licked his other hand. She licked it for several seconds while Will’s eyes glowed with a new sensation.

Betty still yelps when attention turns toward the Little Pink Thing. I expect this will continue for some time. But one day little William will develop an embrace; he will learn to pet and snuggle. He will be a source of chewies and food dropped from a high chair. He will learn to throw a ball and the Fuzzy Bunny, and he’ll be there when she retrieves them. He will learn to take steps and then walk, and eventually he will hike. He will walk around ponds, different ponds from when I was a child, but still searching for the same wonders. And Betty will be at his side, as my dog Taffy was at mine then. And Betty will realize that the Little Pink Thing was not a rival for affection, but simply a companion-in-waiting, and someday they will be inseparable. The thought of all of that waters my eyes and fills my heart.

Excerpted from “Before Your Dog Can Eat Your Homework, First You Have to Do It” by John O'Hurley. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Penguin Books.

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