Ever notice that a dog is a great way to get a quick handle on a person or family that you don’t know very well? A big claim, maybe, but I’ve found that canines can clue you into a lot. Put me in a room with a person (or family) and their dog and I can figure out more about them in an hour than spending a week with someone who doesn’t have a pet. Just the type of dog they own is a huge insight. Then there’s the level of interaction and the general attitude of the dog—its playfulness and attention to its owner and vice versa. These are all pieces of a puzzle that reveal a lot about the people who own a pet.
I bring this up because I recently met someone extraordinary. Someone I never knew existed and who suddenly popped into my life this year with great consequence. It was my sister, Gay, who we discovered because of a DNA test my brother took with 23 And Me, a company that does DNA testing for ancestry, wellness and genetic health risks. Given a test kit as a gift from a friend, my brother followed the directions and sent it in, hoping to find out something about our ancestry mix and what parts of the world we originally came from. Little did he imagine it would lead to finding out that we have a half-sister, a daughter that my father had before he married our mother and raised a family of four sons—a daughter that he probably never knew about or, if he did, never acknowledged.
To find out I had a sister at 60 years old was quite a revelation. It was even more stunning because I had just lost my best friend to lung cancer two months before. It was an incredible reversal of fortune, moving from tragedy to joy in losing a friend and then suddenly gaining a family member. Next thing I knew I was on the phone with her and we’re both laughing and crying, amazed at this gift that had suddenly been bestowed, as if fallen out of the sky. I could only imagine how it was on her end, an only child finding out she now had three brothers. Suddenly there was a desire to get to know each other as soon as possible to make up for lost time, leading to endless Facetime chats and trying to figure out how this all came about. But, since it all happened so long ago—and everyone who could answer any questions had long since passed—there was no getting to the bottom of it. No real clarification. Only one faded old picture of our father with Gay’s mother, which made it somehow even more mysterious and wonderful.
All that was left, then, was to make plans to get together, which we did. First, she flew to New York with her husband, Allen, where my brothers and I spent three days together with them, mostly in a Marriott, starting to get to know each other. Who looks most like who? What physical traits do we share? What did we all do for a living? How many kids, if any, do each of us have? Do we have any personality similarities? And, finally, the big question: Do we actually like each other? The answer to the last question turned out to be a resounding Yes, so much so that we made plans to visit her at her home in Arizona in the very near future.
And that’s where Dante comes in—her amazingly smart standard poodle who greeted us at the door when we arrived. He was tall and alert, but a little wary of our presence, as if quietly assuming protection mode for Gay and Allen. After a short time, though, he warmed up and was licking our legs and happily taking the treats that we offered him. Unfortunately, though, Dante, who is 10 years old, has a very aggressive form of lymphoma. Gay found out about the cancer after we met and I could tell she was devastated, though committed to taking the right course of action. No treatment if it would make him sick or cause pain, and only pursuing it if it would extend his life—all compassionate and intelligent considerations that gave me a better insight into my new sister. After she met with the vet, she decided to go ahead with the treatment and, as of now, Dante is in complete remission, though the cancer cannot be cured. The only real visible sign of the chemo is that he’s lost his beautiful dense, white curly fur and now has the look of a tough but ever optimistic streetfighter. Otherwise, he’s nimble and quick and concentrated on Gay and Allen’s every move, as they are on his.
On the last morning of our visit, as I watched Gay serve Dante a breakfast of freshly cooked eggs, I wondered if our love for animals was another one of the many genetic traits we shared or whether it was just a coincidence. Who knows? In the amazing saga of our coming together, it would have to be just another unanswered question. One thing is for sure, though, is that watching my sister and her husband take care of their dog in such a loving way made me realize that no matter what life throws at us, it is short, sweet, tenuous and, above all, endlessly full of surprises.