- The first week of December, I adopted a new puppy;
- The second week of December, after several hundred dollars and four trips to the vet, I returned said parasite/worm/bacteria-infested puppy to the rescue from whence he came, believing I lacked both the financial and emotional stability to adequately care for him;
- The third week of December, I missed my puppy, who I had named Beckett (after the writer I most admire, not the athlete everyone else knows) I maintained daily contact with the rescue, who was rehabbing him round the clock with medications and feeding and attention I couldn't provide while at work;
- The fourth week of December, I brought Beckett back home. New stool samples and blood work confirmed that he was infested even worse than before I'd brought him back to the rescue. Once again, he was put on more parasite/worm medications - which I found out he should have been given the first time around. Needless to say, I took the meds, paid my latest $135 bill, and switched vets.
- I spent the next few days bowing to the god of germophobia by Cloroxing my house, my things, and on one occasion (and accidentally, of course) my SELF (Note: Breathing straight Clorox for an hour in a poorly ventilated room can be toxic. Just FYI.)
- I maintained my 4am workouts, my 9-5 workdays, Beckett's frequent walking and feeding and medication and bathing needs. And I started and finished my Christmas shopping, baked what I could, wrote as much as possible (which wasn't much) and did my best to prepare for my upcoming 10-day January writing residency in Cambridge, MA.
In fact, by Christmas Eve, Beckett and I were both exhausted. We were weary. We were annoyed with each other as we failed to bond much beyond his need for food and my ability to provide it. Even on Christmas Eve, as I threw the last remaining Christmas gifts into my car and finally pulled out of my driveway to head to my parents' for the weekend, I cursed this little guy who had not only turned my world, my anxiety issues, and my bank account inside out and upside down, but who had (I believed at the time) made me leave for my parents' two hours later than I had planned. It was only 11am and I was already eagerly awaiting sleep. And nervous that my family would be as annoyed by Beckett as I was.
And then my cell phone rang.
I had just pulled out of the Dunkin Donuts parking lot and was getting onto the Northway for the two-hour drive to Plattsburgh when my new vet's phone number appeared on my cell phone screen. I knew why they were calling - Beckett's latest stool sample results had come in as expected. Since the three before had all tested positive in spite of the meds, I wasn't feeling very hopeful this time around. I was anticipating another few days of anxiety and Clorox and worrying about everyone "catching" something from Beckett -- and I was ready for it. I am always on standby for such things, even when such things don't exist.
I hesitated as I pressed 'answer' on my cell phone. My reluctant "hello" was met by a cheerful vet tech "just wondering how the sweet little guy was doing." What a lovely person, I thought, wishing I could see this little bundle in my back seat in the same loving way.
"He's fine," I said, still angry every time I glanced at the clock and wondered why I had assigned myself an arbitrary ETA, anyway. There was nothing planned at my parents' that morning, no reason I needed to be there before 6:00 mass that evening. Even so, I had made a plan and then lost control of it. Next to germs, losing control (whether perceived or not) of my own pointless rigidity was the thing I most feared. And most resented.
"He ate better this morning," I informed the waiting vet tech, hoping the increase in appetite meant Beckett's belly was healing even a little, and that his hunger was adapting to a workable schedule that would suit my needs regardless of whether it met his.
"That's wonderful," the tech responded. She seemed genuinely happy. Happier than I. I was simply annoyed. And I realized there hadn't been a single moment of "happy" since I had met Beckett. Sure, I had missed him while he was gone, but I think, even now, that that was more about my failure. Or my perception of failure over my inability (or unwillingness) to rehab him myself. What if he had been a child in need of extra care? I can barely force myself to ask such questions, mostly because the best answer I can come up with, if I am being honest, is my standard "I don't know." And honestly, I don't.
As I sat thinking about this vet tech and fearing what felt like a terrifying inability to love this dog I had committed to for the next 16 to 18 years of my life, I remembered the parasites. The worms. The stool sample. The test results. I almost yelled into the phone, fearing the tech would hang up before I had a chance to ask. My ability to simply redial her number failed to register at that moment.
"OH!" I interrupted the silence. ‘His stool. What's happening with the worms and the Giardia?!" I waited for her to tell me it was, once again, worse than ever. That there would be more medication. That everyone around him "should exercise caution" (which for most people means thorough hand washing in warm, soapy water, but for me consisted of an exhausting, OCD-laced decontamination ritual that had me dreading myself at the moment).
"All negative!" She cheerily replied. "No worms. The parasite is gone. He's all clear! Well done - you finally knocked it out of him."
And just like that -- literally, just like that -- life changed. I won't be so dramatic as to say that everything turned a lovely shade of pink while singing angels handed me unlimited amounts of cotton candy. But instantly, I loved us - Beckett and myself. I was proud of us. I was in awe of us. And, quite frankly, I was surprised and inspired by us.
Beckett had an illness.
I had a fear.
Beckett had a need.
I had an obligation.
Even in the absence of putting his emotional needs before my irrational fears, I did what I had to do - and I had to do it because he would likely have died otherwise, both from the infections and from the reality that no one else would knowingly adopt such a sick, costly, absolutely beautiful little boy. Wasn't it possible that I had faced one of my greatest fears - I knowingly brought infectious germs into my home -- because deep down, I was already attached to him? Because I knew, if I just stuck by him, and stuck by myself, I could get him over his condition and I could certainly make some progress with my own? I think yes, on both counts.
Yet on some disturbing level, my euphoric reaction to the vet tech's news felt like conditional love. It felt like arrogant, narcissistic, self-serving love. It felt like I could finally bond with Beckett because he was "clean" now. And I invested in how awful such a realization felt for about ten minutes before I decided that it didn't matter what emotions were behind the reality: We were going to be ok. And I was going to make sure we were ok. Because I could. And because "ok" was clearly within reach for both of us.
By the time we pulled into my parents' driveway, I had transformed from the pissed off woman two hours behind schedule to the elated woman who had done something potentially lifesaving for Beckett and at one time impossible for me. I believed (and still do) that I had done something necessary.
I gave Beckett his first real hug that day. Sure, I had been playing with him and petting him and treating him well up to that point, but my tone and my approach had been that of an owner. A master. A ... dare I say it ... parent (and not one who believed in compassionate parenting or unconditional love). But when I finally pulled Beckett from his travel carrier in my parents' driveway, I embraced him. I didn't have to try to love him, I already loved him. It was as simple as that. And it had been there all along. Whether I had feared loving him because I feared losing him, or because I simply feared loving at all, I realized I could no longer avoid the truth - in spite of myself, I had connected with this strong, resilient, incredibly affectionate little guy for a reason. His needs had usurped my own for awhile, forcing me to acknowledge that my needs were really just the neurotic dysfunctions and self-deprecating habits of a woman who never had to put anyone or anything else first. Not until Beckett arrived.
Since Christmas, life has continued pretty much the same, minus the parasites and the worms. Beckett is still on antibiotics for a cough that seems resistant to all meds - he may have to be put under anesthesia so the vet can collect a sample of the infection. Since the cough is making vaccinations impossible right now, we can't yet enroll in obedience classes or doggy day care, as contact with other animals could compromise his health and the health of the other animals. So it's just the two of us, for now, figuring out each other's cues, navigating the chewing and the house training and the various barks that all mean something different. He often shifts his head from side to side while staring at me, as if to say "Yeah, you're kinda weird and annoying, too, lady" and reminds me that I am just as foreign to him as he is to me. My house is a mess. My washer and dryer seem to run constantly. My lips and hands are chapped from the 2am walks in bitter cold weather (with a dog whose "shy bladder" works when it feels like it - sometimes right away, sometimes 20 minutes later). And yes, I am still exhausted.
But today, as I walked out the door and looked back at his little face watching me leave, I actually said "Bye, buddy. See you soon," as if he could understand me. As if I expected him to respond with an "Ok, then." He did whine a little, but I assume he settled quickly, since by the time I reached my car, no barks erupted from my apartment.