There have been several well-meaning people who, upon hearing about my plans to make a baby, have suggested that I might want to become a foster parent first (or instead). Apparently, there are those who believe that being a foster parent is a practice session, a sort of scrimmage match for would-be moms. I’ve actually been told things like, “You could be a mother for a while, see how you like it, and eventually you could just give the child back.” While I could digress on many–MANY, I tell you–underlying points here, what I really want to focus on is why I don’t think I could, in fact, “give the child back.” Enter Harry.
(WARNING: I’m about to write about a dog. In no way do I believe that having a dog and having a child are the same. Losing a dog and losing a child are very different. I am fully aware of this. Please do not think I am one of those people to whom having a child is like adopting a new puppy. I’m simply addressing a situation that brought to light a very strong personal truth. Having brought this situation up in an actual live conversation recently, after which followed a tongue-lashing from the other party and a series of self-defense explanations on my own behalf, I felt the need to clarify before going any further.)
Harry is a Beagle. My younger sister found him last October, coughing and underweight and trembling, at the stables on the campus of her small rural all-girls college in central Virginia. She named him Bandit, kept him in her private dormitory room, and took up a collection on her hall to cover the cost of a much-needed vet visit. The vet confirmed his age (two), treated him for worms and kennel cough, and charged my sister a fraction of the bill. But it became evident after a few weeks that a dorm room was no place for a Beagle. That’s where I come in.
It’s very difficult for me to walk away once I’m involved with anything stray or abandoned. And for me, involvement = eye contact. Well, usually, anyway. I was involved with the Beagle long before our eyes met. My mom told me about him over the phone, and I agreed to “find him a home.” The plan was to keep him in the backyard kennel away from my dog and cat (both of which I acquired on purpose, by the way) and to find a suitable home for him as quickly as possible. My mother and youngest sister picked him up at the college and brought him to my house on a Sunday afternoon. Then several things happened in very rapid succession: 1) the Beagle hopped out of the car and looked at me, and I was a goner. You might say he “had me at hello.” 2) someone let him into my house where he and my other dog immediately began to play. And 3) he got a new name after breaking out of a locked chainlink kennel, chewing through a harness, and slipping a collar, all within a 24 hour period. His name from that day forward was Harry (Houdini or Potter, take your pick; both apply). At first I thought he was just being mischievous, but his escapes never took him far; he was simply looking for company, and once I allowed him to bunk in the garage with Suzanna he was happy to stay put.
Harry was a high maintenance dog. My neighbor say he had “special needs.” Indeed, he had been abused, and he chewed and peed freely. He flattened himself whenever I raised my voice, or when he heard any sound that might be confused with a gunshot. It was an exercise in patience to handle his antics without frightening him, but I was mostly successful. But it wasn’t always easy. My garage door no longer has a safety stop sensor; the wires were mutilated and likely eaten. He gnawed a total of five collars right off of Suzanna’s neck–apparently he was trying to free her and live vicariously through her, as he was no match for the no-slip Greyhound collar he wore after the aforementioned escapes–and I eventually had to make her a chew-free collar from an old chain. He ate the tops off of the wooden wall brackets that were holding my 10-foot ladder, thereby causing the ladder to crash to the garage floor. Harry also had acid reflux and a penchant for eating disgusting things off the ground, thereby causing him to barf quite often. Thanks to Harry I’m now a Stanley Steemer customer, and a firm believer in Scotch Guard and a product called Nature’s Miracle. But the skittish, frightened behavior eventually went away, and so, mostly, did the chewing and peeing.
Harry and Suzanna slept indoors at night. Harry preferred the spot on the dog bed that allowed him to spoon, to place his snout snugly across Suzanna’s neck. She tolerated him at first, but later I think she enjoyed the camaraderie. He was an early riser–6:45 on the dot, and no later or I’d be spraying the Nature’s Miracle and cursing him, and then feeling like shit for yelling when it was my own fault for not getting him out sooner. The three of us walked every morning and every evening, even in the rain, and at the end of the day when I’d let them in, Harry and Suzanna would wrestle and roll and chase each other until they collapsed in a pile at bedtime. Even the cat got involved sometimes. Chapin would hide behind furniture (or perch on top of it) and taunt Harry; Harry would charge full speed toward Chapin, and just before the attack, Suzanna would dash between them and they’d all three scatter in different directions.
Months passed. My efforts at finding a home for Harry waned; it seemed he’d found home on his own. He was undeniably charming and adorable, and fellow walkers could not resist his friendly whole-body wagging and unsolicited kisses. His small size and large personality drew the attention of all the neighborhood children; the little girl across the street visited him daily to tell him she loved him. He was hopelessly affectionate; he’d wrap his front legs around my neck or arm or knee and hold on for dear life, licking whatever exposed flesh he could reach. There’s no denying that I fell in love with him.
But reality tugged at the back of my mind, reminding me of how difficult it would be to have a child AND a dog like Harry. I imagined life with a newborn, and I saw Harry in the periphery, innocently demanding that his special needs be met. I saw the alternatives: forcing him to stay in the kennel, forgoing the daily walks, making him sleep outside to avoid unnecessary wake-ups. I remembered life before Harry, with my independent cat and Suzanna, who is old and content to walk in the evenings, who sleeps late and does not chew and refrains from eating disgusting substances, who happily sleeps at my feet and demands very little. I saw Harry’s future, and it made me sad. I knew that he needed more than I’d eventually be able to give him. I knew it was time to do what I’d brought him here to do.
And so last Wednesday, Harry went home. His new parents are older with a grown daughter who moved out and took the family dogs with her. Harry’s new dad, a volunteer fireman, told me he called his pug on the phone every night in the first few weeks after it went to live with his newly married daughter so the dog wouldn’t feel too frightened in its new home. He told me I could call Harry anytime I needed to; I fought the urge to cry in front of this kind stranger. He spoke directly to Harry in a high-pitched sappy voice, assuring him that he’d love the couch and the yard, and that they had a place at the foot of the bed saved just for him; Harry licked his face with abandon. I sent the dog bed and all the food and treats and Harry’s favorite blanket so he’d start his new life with a hint of the familiar, and when they drove away I sobbed, broken-hearted but knowing I’d done the right thing.
Later that evening I put Suzanna in the car and took her to PetSmart where we picked out a new bed and replenished the food and treats, and when we went to sleep that night it was until 8:00 the next morning. It was raining, so we didn’t go for a walk, and when I got home that afternoon I read for a while with Suzanna curled at my feet, contentedly chewing on her favorite toy. Life has very quickly regained the simplicity that existed before Harry. But I miss that little Beagle. I get a heavy feeling in my chest every time I think of him, and I cry whenever I find one of his secretly stashed rawhides or come across a chewed piece of wood or plastic in the garage. I guess for me, involvement doesn’t ever really cease.
I know–really, I do–that my experience with Harry is not the equivalent of fostering a child, but placing that little dog into someone else’s care was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. How on earth could anyone who knows me at all think that I could do the same with a kid? Practice my ass. For me, a child–any child–will be the real deal. I want to have a baby of my own, one that comes from my body, my blood, my mind. But I would willingly foster a child should having one of my own not turn into a reality. Just don’t ask me to give it back.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to make a phone call.