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‘Mutts’ Cartoonist Inspired by His Pets

Patrick McDonnell created his cartoon based on the wisdom and joy he found in his own cat and dog.

Jack Russell

I knocked on my 17-year-old son’s bedroom door and cracked it open. Jordan looked up from his homework, his brow furrowed in irritation. Please, Lord, I prayed, don’t let this turn into an argument.

“Can we put Max in your room until we’re done painting the den?” I asked. “His cage is in the way.” Max was the exotic one among our family’s pets—a sugar glider, a tiny marsupial native to the Australian rain forest.

Jordan shrugged, turning back to his notebook. “Sure, that’s fine.”

I let out a sigh of relief and went to get Max and his cage.

A few months earlier, Jordan had gotten his first job. I was proud of him for taking responsibility and saving money for college. But the stress of working and finishing his senior year of high school was getting to him. He was grumpy and snappish with everyone in the family. Even me.

Jordan and I had always been close, but lately, whenever I tried to start a conversation, he’d cut me off. “Not now, Mom! I don’t have time,” he’d say. I found myself avoiding him because our interactions left me feeling angry or hurt—or both.

He’s a teenager, I reminded myself. He’ll get over this phase. But I missed our chats. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d laughed together.

I couldn’t seem to break through the wall that had grown between us. The only thing I could do was pray. Lord, lead Jordan back to me.

I moved Max into Jordan’s room, along with his cage and a nearly full bag of food. Jordan agreed to take over feeding his new roommate.

Just a few days later he told me that Max was almost out of food.

“You’re overfeeding him,” I said. “There was enough in that bag to last another month.”

Jordan shook his head. “I’m feeding him the same amount you did.”

“You must be giving him too much,” I insisted. “What other explanation could there be?”

“Can’t you just buy more and not hassle me about everything?” he snapped.

This conversation was turning out like every other. I walked away before things got worse.

The next morning, I was alone in the house when I heard a thumping sound and then a yelp. I followed the noise into Jordan’s room. There was Piper, our Pomeranian-poodle mix, with the bag of sugar glider food stuck on her head. The empty bag. She thrashed from side to side, then walked into the wall and yelped again. I burst out laughing and pulled the bag off her head. “You silly girl.” I picked her up and held her next to Max’s cage so they could see each other.

“Well, Max, the mystery of your missing food is solved,” I said. “This crazy dog has been helping herself.”

Max huddled in the corner of the cage farthest from Piper. “She won’t hurt you,” I said, reaching in to stroke his silky fur. “The two of you are so different, and you don’t understand each other. But if you took the time….”

Maybe Max wasn’t the only one who needed to do that.

That night when Jordan got home from work, I said, “I owe you an apology, bud. You weren’t overfeeding Max.” I told him about the mischief Piper had gotten into.

He chuckled. “Did you take a picture of her with the bag on her head? I’d love to see that!”

“No, but it was pretty funny.”

We both laughed. “I miss this,” I said. “Just talking and laughing with you.”

Jordan nodded. “I’ve been so busy with school and work. I’m really stressed out.”

I took a deep breath and said what I’d been wanting to say for a while. “I’ve noticed your stress. We all have. Because you’re taking it out on us.”

“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry, Mom.” His face softened. “You know, I’m glad Piper was eating Max’s food.”

I wrapped my arm around his shoulders. “Me too,” I said.

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