Moodswing - Drowning

Life preservers come in all shapes and sizes

My sister was supposed to have been saved by our dog once. She was on her way to the pool in our apartment complex and, since she was only 11 months old, certain death no doubt. I was just 3 myself, but I remember that day, as I do the day my parents brought her home after she was born.
“Look what we found in the hospital parking lot!” my father exclaimed that morning, wheeling the carriage into the room. That is about all I remember from that day, except that I never got a good look at the baby. People were constantly crowded around her carriage like car-wreck witnesses, and she was so swathed in cotton she might as well have been a bundle of underwear. I couldn’t figure out the fuss, but the fuss soon dissipated. I mean, this was my mother’s fourth kid, after all. While my father was joking with well-meaning neighbors and the extended family members with whom we were still on speaking terms, my mother was alone on the patio, smoking her fourth menthol that morning.

“Did you hear what I said, honey?” my father called out to her above the hearty guffaws of the visitors. She nodded and waved from the other side of the sliding-glass door, mouthing the words “parking lot.” Most likely she had heard it before, more of my father’s well-worn shtick, which he probably pulled out and performed at all their previous spawnings. “Parking lot,” my father repeated, slapping his knee.

I don’t remember how my sister, at 11 months, actually came to be in a parking lot, alone and unnoticed by all except our smart mutt Echo, but she would have had to crawl across one to get to the pool, that I know. Evidently, Echo stood between my sister and the water and barked so menacingly that it kept my sister from advancing. This drew the attention of our neighbor, a large Hawaiian lady with flared nostrils and black hair piled in a bun as big as a bicycle seat on top of her head. The scene startled her out of the hammock she had hung in her living room, and she bustled over to our place to knock on our open door and tell my father that my baby sister was at that moment being attacked by a dog down by the pool.

My father darted past her and across the parking lot, where he saw Echo holding vigil near the pool’s edge and my sister wailing like a frustrated little walrus, unable to reach the water and commence drowning. I’m told there was no tearful clutching of my sister to my father’s chest or anything, no shower of kisses on her cherished face and precious blond head. No, he simply took her by the hand and led her back home, where he opened another Budweiser and fashioned a barricade out of dining room chairs to keep my sister’s wanderings isolated to the area between his feet on the ottoman and his favorite game show on TV.

After that, my mother insisted that Echo sleep inside with us, rather than on the patio behind the sliding-glass door, even though it meant that our home became so infested with jumping fleas you could actually see them en masse like a little dusky cloud that always stayed at ankle level above our carpet. Two years after saving my sister, Echo give birth to a litter of puppies under the big wooden desk in my brother’s bedroom. They were sweet little mutts like their mother, with coats of red fur that would turn wiry one day.

One afternoon I thought it would be fun to place one of them on the end of a tennis racket and flip it like a furry little pancake, but my brother put a stop to that by beating me over the head with a can of artificial snow. Weeks later, the guy who adopted that puppy came back and demanded another one because that one was faulty on account of it died just days after he brought it home. I always blamed myself, thinking the puppy never fully recovered from the flipping, though my mother told me not to fret. “Some puppies don’t make it,” she said with little sentiment.

All this was in keeping with my mother’s demeanor. She was not that physically demonstrative. For example, when she returned from work the day my sister almost drowned, her gratitude over a tragedy diverted was apparent only when she took my sister by the shoulders and shook her briskly. Echo, though, was a different story. That dog became a conduit for my mother’s sanity, a loving presence in the midst of an often-unloving marriage fraught with blame and broken dreams.

Often I would find my mother asleep on the couch in the morning, clutching Echo like a life preserver. When Echo died a decade later, it was my mother who found her curled up in the garage, under the big wooden desk that used to belong to my brother. She closed the door and wouldn’t let us come inside. My sisters and I hovered by the door waiting, but my mother stayed in there all morning, holding vigil over our old mutt Echo, the sweet old dog that saved people from drowning.

Hollis Gillespie’s commentaries can be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” To hear the latest, go to