meSomeone told me that adopting a dog was a bad idea. I was an avid traveler; a freelance writer, and a great respectful of routine. My longest commitment to anything remains the direct debit of my telephone network provider. But in March 2020, just as the world was beginning to change, I made my way to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in London to meet an eager greyhound named Jasper.
I hadn’t told anyone other than my housemates about my plans to adopt. They had politely agreed to hang out with a canine and we had surveyed a site full of drooling pit bulls and champagne puppies. In private I dreamed of a dachshund. Then I met Jasper.
A four-year-old greyhound that looked more like a deer than a dog, it was surprisingly smooth. It wasn’t just his soft fur, a cashmere coat, the color of night rain, but his big amber eyes, which sparkled as he watched me nervously. Jasper’s anxiety entered the room before him; a long, slow-paced cloud that hampered our interactions. Battersea told me he was a former British track racer. He had never lived in a house with an owner and was likely mistreated. They left me alone with him for 20 minutes while I gave him treats and rubbed his ears. It was the tamest dog I had ever met, but I had never considered a greyhound. Is this the dog I want? I thought. Is it really mine? An hour later and we were in a taxi home.
I intended to go home that week, spend the lockdown with my mother and brother where I grew up, in Sutton and Carshalton in London’s commuter green belt. But I thought Jasper needed to acclimatize to a house first and stayed in London. “Why did you buy a dog?” my mom asked, exasperated. “Are you trained?” Jasper, like most retired Grays, was home-trained but not very well socialized. Although he seemed to possess the energy of a large dog in abundance, weighed 30 kg and seemed, as a friend put it, “scary”, I soon realized that he was actually the one who was afraid of everything. New people, other dogs, heavy traffic, balloons, car doors slamming, postal workers, your own shadow. He didn’t respond to her name, and once when he was adjusting his coat in the park, it shot through my legs. “Jaaasper!” I screamed as I watched him trot down the road with casual nonchalance. I tried to reach it by cutting the grass. “Stop that dog!” In the end someone did. I returned home to find remedies for the nocturnal barking that bothered my housemates and Googled, “How many times must you say a dog’s name before he understands it?”
Despite the challenging reality, I had always envisioned myself as a dog owner, taking leisurely walks under the summer skies with a furry friend who was right on my heels, playing fetch, and coming back when ordered. I wanted to indulge a pet’s little conscience, feel her snuggle next to me on the couch, listen to her rituals. roo-ing (a particular barking of dogs) in the quiet of the suburbs. And after losing the greatest love of my life, my father, I also longed for a new source of unconditional love.
When Jasper and I finally returned home to Sutton, I discovered that my mother and I disagreed about whether my father had truly loved dogs. “He wasn’t really a dog man,” she said, as I argued that no, actually, he was. I can still see Dad in Ireland with Mom’s family, rubbing the head of my cousin’s black and white collie, Lassie. Or lying horizontally on the floor next to a board game at Christmas while tickling my uncle’s springer spaniel’s tummy. It is true that the memories are less sharp, less saturated now that I approach the sixth anniversary of my membership in the Dead Dads Club. The pain, like the cancer that killed it, is an invasion of tiny internal growths. Little by little, the memories fade. The intensity of my focus on my dad’s characteristics, our shared moments together, fades a little more with each passing year. However, I’m sure he loved dogs.
My mother and I had disagreed on much more than this in recent years. We had spent some time apart from each other, after DNA tests in 2016 confirmed that my father and I were not biologically related; It was a hidden truth that I blamed my mother for in her absence. My childhood had been padded and comfortable, apart from the silence and secrecy of the whole family around my blackness. My parents were white, as were his parents, as was my younger brother. “You could be a genetic setback,” my mother had said, a phrase that anchored me in the tradition of our family, but which I later realized didn’t make any sense. Race and its meaning were ignored in our home for 23 years. Finally, after the DNA results, I had therapy with my mother. In those early sessions, Mom insisted that I was just exaggerating the impact of her racial denial. I couldn’t understand his lack of empathy, but I reserved judgment on my father, whose memory I wanted to protect. It had been an arduous and complex journey. Coming home now, and with a difficult dog in tow, could make or break us.
At first it was strange seeing Jasper in the little backyard that my dad used to manage and that my mother now cared for. I imagined the tone in which he would have called Jasper “little friend” (as he had all dogs) and wondered how he would react to the giant swirls of shit on our lawn. On my first night back home, in late April, on what would have been my father’s 60th birthday, I lost Jasper in the most dramatic way. Wandering the deserted streets of Sutton while the night was spitting rain, I slipped on the sidewalk and let go of the leash. Startled as always by the loud noises, Jasper sped off into the night at top speed, the heavy lead handle rattling behind him.
She wasn’t sure if losing Jasper again was the final sign that she should give him back, some kind of divine intervention. Is this the dog I want? I wondered again as I tearfully walked the streets with my mother and brother, who had arrived at any moment, calling out Jasper’s name and reproducing the image of his stringy silhouette disappearing into emptiness.
When a stranger found him a mile from our house the next morning after I posted an alert on Facebook, I was overjoyed, but Jasper’s legs were smashed. If my father had been present, he would have consoled me, told me it was not my fault, and he would have taken me to the vet. Fortunately, my mother, who hates driving, dutifully cleared her vet visit schedule, helping me care for Jasper’s wounds at home. She bought him candy, her affection grew simply because he came with me, her daughter.
Jasper showed my mom, brother, and me that we could live peacefully under one roof once again. The state-approved quiet allowed once-difficult conversations about breed and my father to take place inside our home, or on joint dog walks. “I would have done a lot of things differently,” Mom told me over coffee as we talked about the Black Lives Matter protests that take place around the world in June. “If someone said something about who you are, your heritage … I would be there for you.” It felt enormously comforting. My mother had met the standards that I had set for both of them.
As a child, I often wondered if I possessed some inherent trait that made it harder for me to love, if there was a reason why a large part of who I was was not recognized in our home. My mother assures me that I did not, that the goal was never to erase the identity, that my parents simply did not know how to deal with their infidelity. But I often wonder how my dad felt when I was born. Was he disappointed or dismayed by the arrival of a black boy who looked nothing like him? Is this the baby I want? Is she really mine? must have thought. But I did not detect an iota of uncertainty about myself in our relationship, nor did I witness anger towards my mother. She tells me that when I was born, he took me in his arms without hesitation. He loved us all fiercely.
Growing up, not knowing where I fit in, I sometimes tested the elasticity of my father’s love. “If someone hurts me, Dad, what would you do?” I asked, at six years old, back from school.
“Kill them,” he replied without hesitation while grabbing my hand while swinging my blue backpack in the air and laughing. My father was not a violent man, but when he was a child unsure of his family’s tradition, I took this as an affirmation that my place was always by his side, no matter how we saw each other.
Despite more DNA test, parts of my past – my heritage and my biological relationship – remain shrouded in mystery. This is something I share with Jasper, who recently discovered that he comes from Ireland like my mother, not from the UK as I was told. This revelation, combined with frequent encounters with other dog owners, was almost too direct. Oh what kind of dog is it? Where is he from? feels like the canine equivalent of asking a black or brown person: No, where are you really from? – a question that I have found pervasive in the context of my white family. Black greyhounds They are the most unpopular dog in Battersea and due to superstition and prejudice, black animals are adopted at much lower levels, globally, than other animals. Nervousness in a dog is also more likely to lead to euthanasia than other behavior problems.
Jasper wasn’t the perfect Instagram dog my friends had imagined he would have, but so what? I know that real love is not about optics, biology, or even logic, but simply an innate connection with another living being. With time, training, and affection, Jasper has reminded me of what it takes to love and be loved: courage.
Georgina Lawton will join Nikesh Shukla and Nadia Owusu in sharing their personal stories of race, identity and belonging at a Guardian Live event on Monday March 15th. Book your ticket for the live broadcast here.
Georgina Lawton’s Raceless is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy, visit guardianbookshop.com.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism