Neither dogs nor exchange students are the same as having your own kids

annie-9314When a friend at church choir said that his 50th wedding anniversary was June 22, I mentioned that that was the date I married my first husband. After practice, he came up to me at the piano. He said he hadn’t realized I had had a husband before Fred. He asked if I had any children from that marriage. “Nope,” I said, covering the keyboard and turning out the light. He started to walk away, then turned back to tell me I could always host an exchange student. He and his wife have done that for years.

“Sometimes I can barely tolerate my dog,” I said, successfully going for a laugh. But really, why would I want to take in someone else’s teenager, only to send them home at the end of the school year? That is nothing like having a child of your own. Besides, as a stepmother, I’ve done the taking care of someone else’s kid thing. It is no replacement for your own.

Meanwhile, there’s the dog. A bear has been prowling around our streets lately. Neighbors have seen her—they think the bear is female—in their yards. As my chiropractor neighbor adjusted my spine yesterday, he told me his wife had found the bear with the chickens. One of the chickens died.

“What about the fence?” I asked.

“The bear just mowed it down,” he said, cracking my neck.

Since he’s uber-Christian, I didn’t say the word that came to mind. I had hoped my chain-link fence would keep the bear out of my yard.

Last night, Annie started barking around 9:30. She would not stop. She would not come in. Something is out there, she insisted. She’s too big to pick up and carry in. I lured her in with cookies and covered up the doggy door. She was so desperate she pulled the cover off. Racing around the yard barking, she ignored the treats I offered. “I’ll give you 10 if you’ll shut up!” I yelled.

Around midnight, I looked everywhere with the big flashlight, then sat holding my dog under the stars. She was shaking and panting, every muscle taut. I tried to explain to her that it was okay to go off duty and go to sleep. I tried to explain that the neighbors needed to sleep and that the bear might hurt her. But no. She couldn’t rest. She ran off to bark some more.

When I dragged her in and blocked access to the door, she whined as if she were in incredible pain. Lax dog mom that I am, I got out of bed and let her go. Perhaps with the fence, Annie’s high-pitched barking, and the complete lack of anything a bear might want to eat, the bear would not bother us. I hoped gun-toting neighbors would also stay away.

I don’t know what time Annie stopped barking, probably when it started to rain. Now she’s conked out on the loveseat. This morning, I see no sign of the bear, but in her anxiety, Annie shredded the lounge cushion. Nuts. In the middle of my dog’s barkathon, I wanted to a) go sleep at a motel, b) give the dog a sedative, c) never get another pet, or d) trade Annie for a cat because cats don’t bark. But this morning, I love my dog too much to do any of those things.

I hope if I had a baby, I would be willing to stay up all night when she cried and do whatever it took to keep her safe and happy, even when she turned into a teenager. In return, by the time I reached the age I am now, I would have a younger adult who (I hope) loved me and made sure I was all right. Someone who would call and say, “Hi Mom. How are you?”

I will never get that from an exchange student or a dog. My friend means well, but as a father of three with several grandchildren, he doesn’t understand.

As for that first husband we don’t talk about at church because Catholics frown on divorce (I got an annulment!), he got married two more times and never had any children, but that is ancient history.

What kind of lame things do people suggest to ease your childless emptiness?

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Neighbors unite to find a dog named Donut

Annie and I came around the bend, and there was old Tom. He was holding a empty leash.

“She got away?” I asked.

He nodded, his ancient face working with tears and frustration. His black Lab, ridiculously named Donut, broke through a fence and escaped. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. She keeps taking off.”

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My puppy Chico in the early days

I sympathized. I once had a black Lab-pit bull mix named Chico, Annie’s brother, who was always running away. I couldn’t build a tall enough fence to keep him in. I remember the fear that filled my heart as I walked the streets of our forested Oregon coast neighborhood with an empty leash in one hand and a box of Milk-Bones in the other. What if he never came back? What if he got out on the highway and was hit by a car? Why doesn’t he come when I call? Ultimately I had to take him to a shelter. I couldn’t keep him in, and he was fighting with other dogs. One neighbor threatened to shoot him. The day he bit a dog and then bit me while I was trying to stop the fight, I knew I had to give up my baby, whom I had raised from seven weeks old. I still have a scar on my leg and a pain in my heart.

“Is that her?” Tom asked, pointing way down 98th Street where I could just make out a black dot next to a green garbage bin.

“I think so.”

Just then, another neighbor drove by the dog, and Donut started running west toward Highway 101. Please God, I prayed, let her turn on Birch and go toward my house where it’s safe. The neighbor, Shirley, stopped and rolled her window down.

“Is that my dog?’ Tom asked.

“Yes, it is.”

Shirley and I, both widows, talked for a minute about how glad we were to see a break in the weather, some blue sky instead of constant rain. “It’s depressing,” she said. “And I never get depressed.” Oh, I could tell her things about being depressed, but Tom was already walking toward where we had last seen Donut. Tom will be 80 this year, and his legs seem to miss a beat with every step. I feared this chase was too much for him. Annie and I hurried to catch up.

You see, dog owners understand each other. When a dog is in trouble, we all jump in to help. I may not be part of the Mom club, but I’m deep into the dog lovers’ club. I think Tom has children and grandchildren, one of whom may have chosen Donut’s name, but at that moment, it didn’t matter. There were no kids around. It was all about our dogs.

We caught up. Tom leaned down to pet Annie. “You’re a good dog,” he told her. I shared that she had been throwing up earlier and seemed a little sluggish, but now she seemed better. He rubbed her tawny head. “Not feeling so good, huh?” Donut and Annie are both nine years old, starting to feel the aches of old age.

We walked down Birch to where the resident dogs would have been barking if Donut were nearby. Nothing. Annie had been sniffing the trail where Donut had urinated, but she didn’t find anything on Birch.

It was getting late. Annie was limping. I had to be at church in an hour to lead choir practice. But all I could think about was Donut. Tom was hoping Donut had come home by now. We parted at the turnoff to my street.

As we got to our house, Pat across the street was just getting out of his truck.

“Have you seen a big black dog?” I asked.

“Well, yes.” He said he had seen Donut prowling around his yard at 3 a.m., but he didn’t know where she was now. He shook his head. His own yellow Lab named Harley barked at us from inside the house.

Twenty minutes later, I was at the piano practicing when Pat pounded on my door. He and another neighbor had gone looking for Donut and found her on Highway 101 heading south. The running dog did not respond when they tried to capture her.

Oh no. I ramped up my prayers. She could get killed out there.  I called Tom’s house. No answer. I left a message, but that wasn’t enough. What if he was in his yard or still walking around with his empty leash? I drove to his house. Nobody home, garage open, car gone. Clearly he had gone to look for Donut.

Please God, please God. Should I get in my car and try to catch her? But Pat and the other neighbor had already tried. Donut didn’t know me. I could cause a wreck or cause her to run into traffic. Tom was already out there somewhere. I had to get ready for church.

A half hour later, my phone rang. Tom. He and yet another neighbor named Larry had found Donut up near the airport, a half mile north of here. I was afraid to ask. “Is she okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s a wonder she didn’t get hit.”

I let out my breath. Thank you, God. I could picture their teary reunion, Tom scolding and hugging his dog at the same time. This morning, writing with Annie asleep beside me, I’m still saying thank you. I’m grateful that Donut is safe and grateful to be part of a caring neighborhood that will unite to save a dog with a stupid name and an urge to run.

Tom is no doubt working on his fence and cussing out the dog that almost broke his heart.

When you don’t have kids around, your dogs mean everything.

I told you last week I’d offer a dog story to counter the recent heavy posts about abortion and religion. I didn’t know the Donut story would happen.

I welcome your dog stories. I know dogs are not children and it’s tragic when a child disappears, but we love our dogs and consider them family. I did not bake a cake or throw a party for Annie’s birthday last week, but I did sing to her and give her lots of Milk-Bones. Her vet sent an e-card which I shared with her.

Keep the comments coming on the other posts, too. Take a minute to look back at what other readers are saying. We have a great community here, and I’m grateful for all of you.

 

No, I am not my dog’s mother

annie-9314Back in 2008, I published one post after another about my puppies Annie and Chico. This was my motherhood experience, I believed. The pups were exactly the size of human newborns when my late husband Fred and I picked them up from a nearby breeder. For that first year, I was obsessed with those furry critters. There was an element of mothering, the feeding, the cleaning, the shots, the classes. I even had a puppy shower, hosted by my church choir. I was a raggedy mess as I neglected my poor husband because it was all about the puppies.

Reality woke me up. Fred’s Alzheimer’s became so advanced in 2009 that I had to put him in a nursing home. Now the dogs were big enough to knock me down. Chico started jumping the fence and fighting with neighbor dogs. After months of chasing him and threats from the neighbors, I gave him up to a shelter. So it was just me and Annie. Did I think of myself as her mom? Yes, but I don’t anymore, even though I devoted a whole chapter to dog-motherhood in my Childless by Marriage book.

Annie, now eight and a half years old, is my friend, my companion, and my responsibility, but she is not my child. I continue to live in a home that is much too big for one person with a yard that I can’t quite keep up because of Annie. I hesitate to travel because she doesn’t travel well and I hate to leave her. She is a constant responsibility, but no, she’s not my baby. She’s just Annie, an aging yellow dog with arthritis.

Does she help fill the gap where children would be? Some. Get a dog or a cat. It helps. A cat or a little dog stays baby-sized forever. But it does not take away the sting when I get to hold someone’s infant for five minutes then have to give her back because she’s not mine and I will never have one of my own. Last week I had that chance and it felt good until reality kicked in again like a punch in the stomach. No children, no grandchildren. Ever. I hate it.

But a dog does help. When I got home from my travels, Annie leaped in joy. We collapsed together on the loveseat as she wiggled all over, licked my face and let me know that I had just made her the happiest dog in the world. I probably wouldn’t have gotten that kind of greeting from my kids.

No, my dog is not my child. But she is a precious gift, and I’d glad she’s here.

What about you? Do you have pets? Do you think of yourself as their mother or father? Do you know people who do? Let’s talk about it.

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Want to read some of those old puppy posts?

“Sounds Like Motherhood to Me”

“Sometimes Even Puppies are Too Much”

“Puppy Love is the Best”