Santa Claus brought her two and a half years ago. Left her under the tree, in an open box with a big red bow. The kids, then 5, 3 and 18 months, shrieked upon discovering the 8-week-old Saint Bernard clumsily loping around the living room.
"It's a real dog!" they shouted repeatedly, smitten on sight.
My friends and family told me I must be crazy for agreeing to add a puppy to our already busy household, but I brushed it off. I grew up in a house teaming with dogs, cats, rodents, feathered friends and creatures with claws and fins. I could handle this: I was an animal lover!
And Lucille Cinderella, aka LuLu, was adorable. Every time I walked her, people would stop to give her belly rubs and comment on her size, which was rapidly increasing.
But LuLu wasn't like any of my previous pets. To my surprise, I found it challenging to open my heart to her.
For one thing, caring for her was a lot more work than I had anticipated. It didn't take long to house-train her, but she was so lazy that sometimes she had to be carried outside to do her business.
When she did go out, she liked to dig; our backyard became a minefield of three-foot-wide holes. She also liked to scale the garden fences and flop down on my husband's veggies. She always managed to escape from our house when one of the kids left a door open. And oh, how she loved the snow and the mud! She tracked it all over the house.
A nipping phase turned into a full-on chewing phase. We lost more than 10 pairs of shoes, countless stuffed animals and sections of our stairs and walls. Not to mention toys — and she preferred to gnaw on the expensive, wooden ones.
I was worried she was going to turn into a biter and sink her teeth into my precious kids, but fortunately she outgrew it.
And boy, did she grow. That adorable little puppy became a drooling, shedding, 150-pound beast. Her classic Saint Bernard eyes got droopier and droopier. Her jowls, like her body, developed at an astounding rate. One shake of her head sent slime flying — on walls, cabinets and shirts.
My kids simply wiped it off. They sang to her, brushed her coat, fed her and played whirlwind games of "Bull Shark," with LuLu in the leading role. My husband didn't grow up with a dog, but he softened to her and was happy to provide a lap for her to lounge on.
I, on the other hand, dreaded being coated with her drool and pungent dog smell. I perfected a sidestepping technique when we passed so as to not make contact with her. I was embarrassed by the dog hair she left on people's pants, and all over my house; I greeted guests with, "Oh no, you wore black!"
I'm a working mom with three young kids, and LuLu became another item on my dreaded to-do list. Eventually she recognized my indifference. She stopped looking to me to take her for walks. We shared a house but led separate lives.
Then, late one night this past spring, I was reading a book in our living room. LuLu came running in and pressed her nose against the glass of the bay window. She snarled in a deep, menacing way that I had never heard before. I realized that she saw something outside and was protecting me — me, who barely gave her a second thought. I had to admit that it felt good to have a faithful watchdog.
Then, a few weeks later, I wound up sick at home with a double ear infection. Laying on the couch in total agony, I was sure my eardrums were going to explode. As I started to cry in pain, LuLu leapt up onto the couch and staked out a spot next to me. I reached out to pet her, and she dipped her Herculean head and snuggled into me. Just like that, LuLu forgave me. My heart swelled with the realization that this beautiful beast accepted me for who I was. She was willing to be friends if I was — so I dove in.
Now LuLu seeks me out when I'm alone. She knows the weekday mornings and afternoons are busy. She stays out of my way, as much as a 150-pound dog can. But when I pause to catch my breath and curl up on the couch, she finds a spot right next to me. If I go near her leash, she sits at attention, ready for the signal that we're headed out.
And I've found that I have boundless love for her — my walking partner, who loves romping in the snow and has taught me to enjoy the mud squishing through my toes and that the dishes can wait. My friend, who encourages me to lay in the grass and feel the sun on my face.
LuLu has redeemed herself. I only hope that I have, too.