How Tom Hanks Changed My Life

There is no better companion than Tom Hanks.
09/08/2016 09:48 am ET Updated Sep 12, 2016

“So, would you say... he was... a pup-sicle?”

This was my reaction to hearing my best friend’s dog had frozen to death in their pool.

I was eight. It was not my finest moment.

My father, a child of north Alabama, grew up with red dirt and bright yellow pollen covering every surface. He was the sort of skinny kid who went to the hospital because his allergies were so bad.

Needless to say, I didn’t grow up with dogs in the house.

My brother and I both suffered from a similar, if less intense, set of symptoms. Mold, pollen, dust, and (chiefly) pet dander sent us through a box of tissues in a matter of days. Our friends who had pets must have rolled their eyes at the high maintenance McAnnally kids, who would come over to play in ship-shape and leave sniffling and red-eyed. We probably looked like pansies. But we got it honestly.

So, while all our friends grew up with at least a dog - most of the time more than one - our longest-running pet was a Beta fish who, amazingly, lived two and a half years before swimming across the rainbow bridge.

But we didn’t feel deprived; we didn’t really understand the emotional connection people had with their pets. We weren’t animal-haters, of course, but we certainly weren’t getting weepy when we saw a Lost Dog sign in the neighborhood. We did grow up among dogs - only a bike ride away from Allie, Bandit, Rascal, Pappy, Bear (named after the legendary University of Alabama football coach, of course), and Mr. Pibb. To me, these dogs, while nice enough, were slobbery, made me sneeze, and soiled everything they touched. Who would want to live in a house covered in dog hair? I wondered to myself.

High school passed, as did college, and, with them, about a half dozen boyfriends. It was spring 2013, and I was living in Huntsville, serving my second year teaching high school English with Teach For America. I’d just returned from visiting my new beau’s family in coastal Alabama for the first time, and besides a vacation to the beautiful white Alabama beaches, I’d also fallen head-over-heels in love with his family’s black labradoodle, Abbey.

After our trip, I was musing on the phone to Jordan, who was a dental school student in Birmingham at the time.

“If I ever got a dog,” I said, “It would be a goldendoodle, I think. They’re so sweet! They’re like little blonde teddy bears. We could be twins!” I twirled my own blonde hair imagining this.

“What would you name your dog? The name is an important part, you know.” “I think I would name him something human. I really like dogs with human names, like Henry, or Jack, or maybe even something hyper-average like Ronald or Terry. I think that would be hysterical,” I told him.

“What about Brinkley?” “...why does that name sound so familiar to me?” I wondered. After a few seconds of thought: “I know! That’s Tom Hanks’ dog’s name in You’ve Got Mail.

“Oh. I must know it from someplace else.”

(I later found out that You’ve Got Mail was, in fact, exactly where he’d heard that name. Busted.)

“Forget that movie,” he continued, trying to recover. “You should just name the dog Tom Hanks.”

And it stuck.

A year later, Jordan and I were engaged, and Abbey the dog was pregnant. The night Tom Hanks was born, Jordan and I were at my parents’ house in Birmingham. Every so often, our phones buzzed on the glass coffee table with an update from the coast. “The first one is a girl!” “The second one has the biggest paws you’ve ever seen - I think this may be Tom Hanks!” We sat in the living room, French doors open to the first warm signs of spring, gobbling up each message. 12 hours of labor later, all nine puppies were born.

Jordan’s family threw us an engagement party, which was perfectly scheduled a week after the birth of Abbey’s pups. Though we were briefly seduced by the novelty of the single chocolate puppy among its eight black siblings, once I held the 7-day-old second born, tears ran down my face. You’d have thought I was holding my adopted infant for the first time. But I guess, really, I was.

Tom Hanks, nestled right there the whole ride home.
Tom Hanks, nestled right there the whole ride home.

We brought two puppies home ― Tom Hanks ― and another for a friend. The other pup cried and whined all the way from Lillian to Birmingham, but Tom Hanks crawled to a spot between my neck and the seat back, got comfortable, and fell asleep for five straight hours.

This was foreshadowing of what was to be the greatest dog in the history of dogs.

During his first night in Jordan’s and my first house together, a cottage in precious Homewood, Alabama, a four-week-old Tom Hanks sniffed around for a bit, looked a little hungry, then promptly fell asleep on top of a floor vent to keep cool. His fat little body covered the whole vent. Loose puppy hair blew throughout our entire house, and I didn’t even notice. Though he’s a labradoodle, he’s three-quarters labrador, and he sheds for two.

We’ve never known a marriage without Tom Hanks - he preceded our vows and was waiting for us when we returned from our honeymoon. The very idea of him may have been what made us a family.

His first few months were spent strolling past our neighbors’ perfectly cultivated flower beds, sniffing at all the toys left by young children on our street, and being carried like a lamb thrown across my husband’s shoulders to and from our neighborhood ice cream shop as summer got hotter. Jordan claimed Tom Hanks was too tired to walk, but I know better.

We also discovered that in the greatest of cosmic jokes, Tom Hanks is allergic to pollen and seven kinds of grass. It doesn’t slow him down, but it does mean he and I take our allergy medicines together each morning.

I taught him to sit. I taught him to balance bacon on his nose until I gave him permission to eat it, which can go on for minutes at a time, even if I leave the room. I taught him to come to my side and do a little circle before sitting. I didn’t effectively teach him to walk on a leash, but when Jordan and I moved to Asheville, North Carolina in 2015, that became less of an issue. Who needs a leash on the Appalachian Trail?

As a hiking dog, there is no better companion than Tom Hanks. Much like my affinity for animals has changed, so has my affinity for the outdoors (another thing for which I can blame Jordan). On our many walks on the steep and winding trails of Western North Carolina, Tom Hanks runs ahead, but stops just before he loses sight of us. Then, barreling back toward us at the speed of sound, leaves flying in his wake, he makes the lap again, until he’s undoubtedly hiked the trail four or five times over.

“Did you teach him to do that?” our friends ask.

“No,” we reply. “He just came out that way.”

Max Patch, 2015.
Max Patch, 2015.

One of the things we hadn’t considered when naming him is that his name would be shouted across the yard in our praises and our punishments. Things like, “Tom Hanks! Go back there and get your ball!” or, “Tom Hanks, go potty. Good boy!” are met with as many giggles from in-the-know neighbors as they were totally bewildered stares from confused strangers.

We could’ve shortened it to “Tom,” I guess. But what’s the point, then? Maybe I’m biased because I have a double name. I’m Mary Catherine, and he’s Tom Hanks, and that’s just the way it is.

Gentle, but not a pushover; intuitive, but not clingy; kind, but still protective; very trainable, but energetic - Tom Hanks’ amber eyes show just enough white to make you feel like a human being is looking back at you. Onlookers watched in awe as we put a Halloween wig atop his head this fall, while he sat stone-still and waited for us to take a picture. Among his many great qualities, though, the biggest crowd-pleaser is his facial hair - a ginger beard, moustache, and eyebrows that, contrasting against his mostly-black coat, gives him a distinguished, even professorial, air. It does seem that he knows something we don’t.

I have never felt joy like that of my dog greeting me at the door, bounding toward me, ears flopping, struggling to gain traction on the hardwood floor. I have never known sadness like thinking about the inevitable day that I will say goodbye to this creature who has carved out a place in my heart so particular to him, there’s no way anything else could fill it. His paw on my knee is familial, familiar.

I have become the person who feeds her dog from the kitchen table; who allows her dog to lick her in the face; whose social media accounts are practically minute-to-minute diaries of her dog’s behaviors and activities. I hesitate to admit it, but I even have a canvas tote bag with his likeness on it. Or, I did before he ate it. I think even he knew that bag was a bit much.

Sometimes, when it’s very quiet, I can hear him slump over in the next room and heave a sigh that an untrained ear would perceive as boredom or exasperation, but one that I know is a sigh of pure satisfaction. He falls asleep on his side, in a position we’ve named the “tumped-horse,” and breathes steadily until his puppy dreams take him on adventures galore, and in real life, his sleeping paws run and his eyebrows twitch with delight.

Friends from childhood who drive the serpentine Blue Ridge Mountains to visit can’t believe I have a dog, let alone that I lie on the floor with that dog and feed him my last bite of scratch-made buttermilk biscuit (my favorite thing). But I do.

I imagine the conversation Tom Hanks has with his canine brethren, as they look over at me, standing googly-eyed, heart softened, grinning wildly, eyes full of adoration and excitement watching the love of my life play with some tatty tennis ball in the dirt.

“Did you teach her to do that?”

Yes.

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