Thursday, February 12, 2015

Bringing Home Bella

My eyes hurt, my sinuses hurt, my heart hurt, and I was exhausted. I had just put my distraught daughter into our bed so that she could fall asleep crying without disturbing her brother. We had assured both of our children that we would get another dog, promising our daughter that the dog would not be named "Sierra." She had found a spot on her dresser for Sierra's collar so that she could remember her forever. I came downstairs to find my husband coping with our loss the only way he knew how.

He was looking online to find puppies.

After nearly 12 years we had some serious adjustments to make. As I made mac and cheese for the kids I kept thinking "I'm going to put these on their little table downstairs because it has been a long day, but I'll have to be careful to watch out for the do..." Driving our daughter home from ballet two days later I choked up as I realized that I didn't have to hurry home to let out the dog before we headed to our daughter's dance performance at a basketball game. Our son was still purposely spilling things on the floor for the dog to pick up, only Sierra wasn't there and we had to tell him to pick it up himself. We dropped things while cooking in the kitchen and then looked for a dog getting in our way, but she wasn't there. I kept planning to take my daily walks, but discovered that walking by myself, without a dog in tow, was more than a little lonely.

The kids kept asking questions about Sierra, our three year old son still struggling with understanding that she was really gone. They asked if Sierra was in heaven. Our son asked when Sierra was coming home. And then he would repeatedly say "We don't have a dog anymore."

We said we needed time to heal. My sister and a dear friend and coworker said we needed to take the time to heal and decide what we were going to do next.

But what we all wanted (and needed) was something furry to love.

That first night when my husband was looking at puppies he found "the one." I wasn't ready to discuss it. I needed time. I felt like I owed it to Sierra to take our time. But the house felt empty. We had been talking about getting a second dog for years. Huskies are pack animals and we had discussed getting a second dog when we first brought her home. But two years later we moved to Indy and into a basementless house that was only 1200 square feet. There was no room to crate train a puppy. So we gave up on the idea. And the older Sierra got and the more set in her ways she got, the less likely she was to welcome a new puppy into her home. As she got older we talked about the inevitable and the fact that our kids were going to need to a puppy of their own when that happened. When it did happen, we discovered that there is a very big difference between knowing something is going to happen and dealing with the emotional fallout when it actually happened.

Then we started looking at pictures. I started remembering my Sierra when she was healthy and happy and I started wondering how long was long enough to wait. There was also timing to consider. When we got Sierra I was on my summer vacation. I had time to train her and develop a relationship with her before she would spend long days by herself at our house. I kept saying we needed to wait until summer, or at least until the snow was all gone.

But summer is four months away and my husband couldn't let go of the puppy nicknamed "Fuzzy." It was an animal rescue dog and he couldn't stop talking about her. And our kids kept asking about when we were going to get a puppy. They missed having a dog and they wanted a dog that was theirs.

So last night we picked up "Fuzzy." She has been renamed Bella, after Clarabelle's dog on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. I wasn't ready to fall in love again, but as she sat next to me on the couch last night I realized that we need her as much as she needs us.

The hole is still there. We still miss our Sierra, but we are hoping that Bella will help make our house feel whole again. And from the messages I'm getting from my husband who is working at home today, it sounds like she will do just that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Saying Goodbye

I didn't grow up with pets. My parents never felt the need to get us pets (minus my little sister's two Beta fish that came and went) and I don't remember ever really begging for a pet. It wasn't that I didn't like dogs and cats; I had no real feelings one way or the other. My maternal grandparents had big German Shepherds for the first 16 years of my life, and while they loved their big beautiful dogs, they were so big and I was so unused to dogs that they actually scared me and my sisters.

But I married a dog lover. My husband has had a dog since the day he was born. My in-laws have had three different dogs in the 18 years that I have known my husband. Lucky for my husband, for the eight weeks that I spent student teaching in Denver I lived with a couple who had two dogs. They had both decided to surprise each other with puppies one Christmas and so they ended up with two dogs at once: a German Shepherd and a Cocker Spaniel. Those six weeks with both of those dogs taught me the benefit of having a dog as part of our family. So when we bought our first house a year and a half after getting married, it was a given that dog would be joining us in our new home.

The discussion was short. I wanted a Siberian Husky. I wanted a beautiful, furry, blue-eyed beast. And so we looked for a breeder and found one that was only a couple hours away. We were the last family to get on the list and because there were more girls than had been requested, we got the last puppy in the litter. Our little furball was the runt of the litter, but because she was so fluffy, she actually looked bigger than her brothers. I spent my summer vacation training her, taking her outside on a regular basis, walking her in our downtown park, and falling in love with our dogter.

To even begin telling the life story of our Sierra would take days. She was in many ways the anti-Husky. She never tried to run away, she was terrified of house guests (especially when we weren't around), and in later years she had no desire to stay outside in the cold snow. She endured many life changes. She lost her best friend when she was one (and my in-laws dog suddenly died), she experienced an unfortunate grooming incident that led to her enter back end being shaved (let's just say I now have a very difficult time visiting a certain pet store), she was joined by a human sister and brother (in that order), and she survived two moves and three houses.

We loved her, but she had struggled the last several years. Shortly before our son was born I heard a horrible cry of pain from our dog while she was in the backyard. An eventual trip to the vet confirmed that she had blown out her knee. The day before I was set to be induced, we had to sit down and discuss what we were going to do about our dog. The vet hadn't indicated that this would be a "put down" situation, but we also knew that we couldn't afford the surgery, especially since at her age there was little chance that she would have a full recovery. We decided to wait it out and over the past three and a half years she has regained mobility, but it was never the same as before. We spent almost three years trying to convince ourselves that she had recovered from the injury. In the last six months, as we watched her struggle to climb stairs and get up and down from the floor, it became clear that she was in a lot more pain than she was letting on.

Adjusting to the births of her human siblings was also difficult, although she fell in love with her little "brother" as soon as we brought our son home. When our daughter was born her passive aggressive behavior led her to suddenly having "accidents" on the carpet in the hallway and in our daughter's bedroom. When we brought our son home she wanted to be near him at all times, protecting him from any threat, including his big sister. Perhaps that is why it is painfully ironic that it was her biting the little boy that she had worked so hard to protect when he was born that led to the most painful decision of my life.

Sierra looking out for our son when he was a baby.
Last Tuesday night my daughter was dutifully doing her homework while my son ran in circles waiting for his sister to finish so they could go to bed. The kids had always been good about not getting too close to Sierra when they were energetically playing. We always told them that she was a grouchy old lady and she needed her space. They would pet her and occasionally try to get her to play with them, but she was rarely interested. On my son's last round of running he got too close. No growl, no bark, just my son in hysterical tears in the kitchen. Sierra had bitten him hard enough to break the skin through his flannel PJs. I carried him upstairs to check on him and comfort him and from there we got ready for bed. I sent my husband a picture of the bite so that he would know what had happened while he was gone.

When my husband got home, we had a decision to make. I didn't want to talk about it. I wanted to believe it was a one time thing, but in my heart and head I knew that what had happened was fulfillment of some of my worst fears. Sierra, through her physical pain and discomfort (and I am convinced her growing dementia), had finally lashed out at the kids. We needed to protect our kids. We needed to protect our nieces and nephews. We needed to protect our kids' friends. But she was our first baby. How could we decide that she needed to die? We didn't want to punish her. We wanted to protect everyone, including her, from further potential harm.

And yes, I felt like a failure. I hadn't done enough to take care of her. I hadn't done enough to make sure she was comfortable. And I hadn't done enough to make her feel like she was still an important member of our family.

Last Wednesday was hell. As my student teacher took over three class periods and my other three class periods worked on things I had already planned for them to do, I remained in a sea of indecision. Knowing what people will tell you that you should do and actually doing it are two different things. I called the vet's office and made an appointment for later in the afternoon. After picking up my daughter from school I met my husband at home. As I walked into the kitchen to drop off the things I had taken out of the car I saw my dog eating peanut butter out of Kong. I don't know when we had last given her peanut butter in her Kong. I had been holding back tears all day. I turned and left the room, unable to watch her have a treat. I couldn't do it. How could we even consider it? How could we take her to the vet and never bring her home again? She belonged on our living room floor. She belonged with her Kong. And we needed to make sure that she got peanut butter on a regular basis from that point on.

But as I told our vet what had happened, and as I showed her the picture of our son's leg, I knew that she wasn't coming home. We had made that unspoken decision as we talked late into the night, watching Tuesday become Wednesday. Our vet gave us options. She said we could quarantine Sierra. We could try to keep her away from family. We could try to give her medicine that would make her more comfortable and perhaps less grouchy. But it didn't matter. It wasn't going to change the fact that she bit one of the kids without provocation. And it wasn't going to change the fact that I had been worrying about that possibility for the last year as she got increasingly irritable and her behavior more erratic.

We told the kids to say goodbye. They didn't get it. They thought she was still coming home. We told them Sierra was never coming home again. So they hugged her and played a couple games while we went into the operating room to be with Sierra until the end. I couldn't have them in the room with us. I couldn't let them watch as their dog slipped away and I couldn't deal with the questions that were going to accompany them being there. We needed to grieve together, just the three of us. We needed to say goodbye. I needed to face my failures as a mother and caretaker of the beautiful animal who had entered our life 12 years before. And I couldn't do any of that with my children present.

When we got back to the examination room my daughter asked me if the doctor had given Sierra the medicine yet.

Me: Yes.
Lydia: But I wanted to see the doctor give her the medicine.
Me: No you didn't, honey.
Lydia: Is Sierra asleep?
Me: Yes.
Lydia: Is she breathing?
Me: No.
Lydia: But you have to breathe to be alive.

I watched the light go out of my little girl's beautiful, blue eyes as she realized that Sierra wasn't just not coming home. She would never be able to come home again. It has been one of my most painful moments as a parent, watching her experience death for the first time. She immediately insisted on seeing her dog. I couldn't say no. Sierra was gone. Nothing was going to change that. The least we could do, for our children, was to let them say a final goodbye.

Our daughter and dogter had lived an uneasy coexistence for nearly six years, but Sierra was all that she knew. She collapsed into a ball and sobbed. We weren't prepared. We thought she would be sad, but her emotions were raw and they were real. I held her as she cried. And then my husband picked her up and held her as she cried some more. That night I had to let my little girl crawl into our bed, snuggled up with my stuffed rhino, so that she could fall asleep. She was still crying when I finally closed the door to our bedroom and went downstairs.

The next morning, as she was putting on her boots, she said "When Sierra was here it was just perfect. Why did we have to kill our dog?" It was one more knife into my heart. I felt guilty enough about having Sierra put to sleep. To have our daughter voice it so clearly without euphemism was  more than I could handle. I was glad that I had a snow day and my kids still had school. I could work in my classroom and hide from the world. I could just be Sarah. I didn't have to wear my teacher mask. It allowed me to grieve in peace.

I hope that someday our daughter will understand. I hope that someday I will be able to forgive myself for not being a better parent to Sierra when our human children arrived. That I will be able to look at the good years we had together as a family and remember that she was once a very happy, healthy girl. Right now that is difficult. As we add new canine children to our family I will probably work very hard to do penance for the mistakes I made with my first canine child. But I hope that she knew how much she was loved by her parents and siblings, because she is certainly missed.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Memories of Dog Walking

I feel the tug at the end of the leash as Sierra and I start out for a rare, long walk in our neighborhood. With a husband, nearly two-year-old, and another one on the way, “me” time is virtually non-existent. My lone walks with Sierra are a rare treat, often made more rare by the changing seasons. Spring and fall are the ideal times for us to walk for long distances, unless we are hit by rain that leaves her thick fur drenched. I love those spring walks, once the ground has thawed and I’m no longer afraid of falling on the black ice. We can go out after dinner without being afraid of bugs, and we both love the cool nights that Midwestern springs offer. I’ve always loved the change in seasons, and the new smells of spring help reinvigorate me. But then the warmth of spring turns into the heat and humidity of summer, and there is never a right time to walk our dog during the hottest summer nights. Sierra is a full blooded Siberian Husky, and no, we do not shave her in the summer. We get asked that every summer when people see us out with her, but shaving snow dogs is one of the worst things you can do. Their thick fur keeps them cool, and once the skin is exposed, they are more susceptible to bugs, particularly fleas. We discovered that two years ago when we had her groomed; instead of working through her thick, matted winter fur, the groomers decided to take the easy way out by shaving her. We had never seen more fleas on our dog than we did in the months that followed, as early spring turned to a hot summer. It is an experience she never fully recovered from, and we haven’t been able to get her professionally groomed since. I’m sure that she saw it as the beginning of the end of her being the favorite “child,” as our daughter Lydia was born two months after the incident, changing all of our lives forever. Walks are the only time she gets my sole attention, and the only time she gets to escape her little “sister”.

The change in family dynamics has not changed my love of the shift to fall, when I can smell the fires, the trees changing colors, and Sierra gets to run through the leaves that our neighbors have piled up for city pick-up. Sierra loves the change to fall as well. It’s finally cool enough that she is not finished walking after ten to fifteen minutes, and she doesn’t fight me when I want to walk further. Instead, she turns into a puppy again, acting like she did eight years ago when we brought her home and took her walking in the Hobart park. These first walks took us around the small lake that bordered downtown Hobart, IN, giving her the chance to be admired by everyone enjoying the seasonal activities the park offered, as well as instilling in her a love for popcorn due to the trail of popcorn dropped by the humans milling around the lake. The years drop off of Sierra when the weather turns cold. Her tail is up in the air and she bounds from side to side, stopping to smell everything and rolling in leaves that litter front yards. During these times, she often breaks into my solitude, forcing me to wake up from whatever thoughts I have lost myself in because I have to keep reminding her that we have more walking and exploring to do. I am also happy for the escape from home and the enjoyment of fall after a hot, humid summer.

Solitude is really a funny word to me. As a busy wife and mom, my alone time comes in spurts: shopping trips, the days I take Lydia to daycare so that I can get homework and grading done, painting yet another room in our slowly changing house. It is something I know that I need, but I admit to feeling guilty when I take that time alone. Before we had Lydia, I didn’t mind that occasional night that Jeff would have to be away for work. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be around him, or that I didn’t miss him once I was in bed and his side of the bed stayed cold, but because I could have that alone time guilt free. Now one of the only times I can claim legitimate alone time is when I am walking Sierra. We both need the exercise and it’s easier to have one person take her as opposed to the whole family. That doesn’t erase the guilt of not spending time with my husband and daughter, or not working on homework, grading, or the chores at home. But it is something that I need to do, for our whole family’s sake. It’s my constant struggle, and I often wonder how my mother dealt with the need for solitude as a stay-at-home mom with four daughters and a busy husband.

I first discovered the solitude in walking Sierra while walking in our neighborhood in Indianapolis. We lived on the southside of Indianapolis in a neighborhood that was established in the 1970s and 1980s. Modest middle class families occupied the homes that lined the streets, but when the recession started to hit, I increasingly saw empty houses as we journeyed down the sidewalk. Houses that appeared to have a stable family living in them were suddenly empty, with no sign of it being on the market, and often weeks later, small signs were placed in the windows, indicating that the house was now bank property. It was sad to see homes that had so much potential falling apart as they waited for someone to occupy them. Jeff and I had put so much time and energy into fixing and updating our 35 year old house, including remodeling the kitchen, that it was difficult to see other houses in the neighborhood not being taken care of. It wasn’t just the decrease in our home value, it was the knowledge we were working so hard to make our home better, and others weren’t doing their part. In some ways I hope that the stability of our new neighborhood is symbolic of a stability that will eventually greet our family. We went from a neighborhood with several houses for sale and empty to a neighborhood with no houses for sale, all of them occupied by older couples and families with the occasional younger family (including us) adding to the neighborhood flavor. It had also become increasingly important to me that we eventually escape the culture of our neighborhood before our kids were old enough to be aware of what was being said and done around them. It was never dangerous, just not the environment I wanted my children to be in. While I didn’t want to leave Indianapolis, the transfer forced our hand in relocating.
I have always hated venturing out on moonless nights, and this was especially true in our last neighborhood. If I left our home after the sun had set, I was guaranteed little light on the sidewalks unless every family was home on the block and had their front porch lights on. This was usually not a problem during the summer months, as people were often out and about. Teens, and preteens pretending to be teens, would walk up and down the street, ignoring the sidewalk that neighborhood planners had put there long before they were born to give residents a place to walk safely. Depending on the day of the week, we would see our “red-neck” neighbors from across the street riding their four-wheelers up and down the street. It was a busy neighborhood, but I was still able to find peace in knowing that I was out on my own, with only my dog to interrupt my thoughts. During these warm months, as I walked Sierra around the block, I could smell the remainders of grilled dinners or the start of small fires being lit in the privacy of backyard firepits. Usually, the only thing I feared on those nights were the unexpected encounter with neighborhood dogs that were allowed to roam free, their owners not appearing to care where they were or whether they were safe. I hated these encounters. I would be lost in thought, completely shut out from the world with earbuds in, enjoying whatever was playing on my MP3 player, and suddenly I would have to reign in Sierra and make a quick decision about where or what my next course of action was going to be. I knew that most of these dogs were not behind electric fences, and I didn’t know who to call on if we really did have a problem. I am not normally afraid of dogs, but those moments terrified me, and in my head I would run through all the possible scenarios, making sure that I had my cell phone in my pocket in case I needed to make a quick call to Jeff. This was yet another example of people in our neighborhood not taking care of their belongings, which never stopped being frustrating. I also didn’t want to cut the walks short, but often felt like I needed to. The irresponsibility of others led to my inability to return home to my family mentally, physically, and emotionally refreshed. And I needed to return home refreshed. Otherwise, why was I spending time out in the neighborhood when I could instead be at home snuggled up with my husband and daughter?

The dark nights were primarily a problem on those winter nights when I decided to brave the cold. I often got home from teaching or play rehearsal too late, which meant that if either of us were going to get exercise, it had to happen late. People on our block often did not shovel their sidewalks in addition to their driveway, and when we did have snow on the ground, I either had to trudge through the snow, which I’ve decided is worse than walking in sand, or be careful of the ice that would pop up at the most unfortunate times. There was the one afternoon that I was at home for a day off of school and slipped and fell, sending me back to the chiropractor. Sierra noticed that I wasn’t following her anymore when she hit the end of her leash and did her best to help me by returning to me to make sure I was ok, but the rest of the walk home was slow. Since then I have been cautious to go out in the snow, which Sierra fails to understand. It is frustrating for both of us, but I know she thinks that I’m just keeping her a prisoner inside. The reality is, the winter months are difficult for me as well, as I feel the need to stay inside where it is warm and safe and I rarely get the walks that I need for exercise and alone time. Cabin fever becomes a real problem for both of us, and I repeatedly have to remind myself that she is more anxious to get outside than I am, which is why she is driving us all crazy by the time the snow has all melted.

Darkness is also a problem in our new neighborhood. With few streetlights, and houses set off of the street, it is a struggle to see the path in front of us as we walk at night. While there are dogs in our neighborhood, there are fewer dogs roaming free, and I’m less concerned about an unfortunate run-in. There is the one house with the dog the size of a bear that bounces and barks behind an electric fence, but even he does not pose a threat. But we still do not really know the neighborhood, and it not only makes those winter walks spooky, but often lonely. It is those times that solitude can turn to isolation, a feeling I loathe, but it is a feeling that is inevitable in a new town. A part of me hopes that we will develop relationships with some people once the weather turns warm and are outside again. Thankfully, the house we bought has been plenty of an icebreaker with neighbors. Our house was empty for so long, that most people in our neighborhood are curious about the people who were not only “stupid” enough to buy it, but I know they want to know what we have done with the property. At least I know that is how we felt about the houses around us in Indianapolis as they were bought up and given, at the very least, facelifts.

Now as we adjust to a new neighborhood, we are even less in the city than we were before. Our neighborhood is even older, with houses, including ours, built starting in the 1950s. We have no sidewalks, so I have to walk Sierra on the road. We have learned to appreciate our new neighborhood, and I like walking her around quiet streets with no fear of being run over by a rogue four-wheeler. We have our “short” route and “long” route, and while family walks often entail us taking the short route, Sierra and I get to enjoy the long route whenever time, daylight,  and energy allow. The houses in our immediate neighborhood have large yards, which gives Sierra even more space to explore as we walk up the slow incline which takes us further from our neighborhood and closer to the newer subdivision that sits behind our subdivision. We often jokingly refer to the neighborhood as “fancy-pants land”, but while the houses are nice, they are not ostentatious. 

The long road leading from our subdivision to the back entrance of the newer subdivision feels more like a country road, even though we are still in the city limits of Fort Wayne. This time of year, Sierra’s presence sends the Canadian geese occupying the field adjacent to the new subdivision flying, their annoying honking irritating us both as we walk past them. Sierra rarely tries to chase them, preferring to stay safely by me, which makes Jeff and me wonder if we got the least adventurous Siberian Husky on the planet. The houses in the new subdivision are newer, slightly larger, and more decorative, which I guess makes them nicer than the houses in our more established neighborhood, but they are no longer brand new. I’ve always loved houses and architecture, and as I look at the houses I catch myself dreaming that we will someday own a similar house, even though our fixer-upper is the largest house in the neighborhood, and by the time we are finished with the hundreds of projects facing us, will also be the nicest. Still, it is nice to dream of moving into a house that does not have to be completely redone, a house that just needs painting and unpacking for us to be happy with it. But these ventures into “fancy-pants land” are really just an escape from the responsibilities and problems facing me when I return home. Since moving into our house, we have not only torn out carpeting and painted several rooms, but we also had a surprise replacement of our HVAC system and well pump. And then there is the bathroom that we feel we need to renovate before the baby arrives in four short months. When I’m home I’m reminded of what still needs to be done, and that the money has completely run out. But the dream to “fix” is still there, probably instilled by watching This Old House with my dad when I was younger, and Jeff watching his parents completely renovate their old farmhouse over the last 25 years they have lived there.

When Sierra and I get those lone walks together, I finally have a chance to experience the quiet and think, without someone invading my thoughts or asking me questions. Even when I have my earbuds in, it is just the two of us, and Sierra is more interested in sniffing out the trail of the last dog to walk our path than she is in my thoughts. During these walks I have pondered the various decisions that have faced us over the last eight years she has been a member of our family, or come up with new lesson plans and strategies to use in my classroom. I sometimes wonder if I should start taking a recording device so that I can record all the thoughts that I have while walking, as often they prove very helpful to either me or others.

It was during a walk with Sierra that I devised my initial plan for returning to graduate school. I had been working as the theatre director for our high school, and the increasing pressure of not having studied theatre in college convinced me that my new life goal should be to get my MAT in Theatre at IU. Little did I know that my rejection would become a blessing when in the year following our daughter’s birth, I discovered that I really just wanted to teach English and work on improving myself as an English teacher. I wanted my career focus to be on the students in my classroom, not the smaller number of students that I saw after school for several hours. This change of heart was also brought about by the change in our family dynamics as I realized that I really wanted to spend my time focusing on being a wife, mother, and teacher. Everything else had to be put to the side, something that became even more apparent shortly after our daughter was born. 

When Jeff came home the day after we had friends over to celebrate my thirtieth birthday and asked me how I felt about moving to Fort Wayne, walking Sierra, with Lydia strapped into a front carrier, became the only way for me to deal with the questions that had my head spinning. Sierra knew our walking routine, and I let her lead me as I cried and repeatedly asked God why he could possibly want us to move to another city, away from a job and friends that I loved. There didn’t seem to be an easy answer, but because I had a difficult time doing anything but acting like a sulky sixteen-year-old when Jeff would want to talk about it, I needed those times to myself. Lydia was still young enough that she wasn’t aware of what was going on, and was often rocked to sleep by the motions of the front carrier. Even my crying didn’t awake her during the first couple weeks of me trying to come to terms with a potential decision that would change our family forever.

Once we moved to Fort Wayne, walking the dog in our neighborhood was often the only time that I could really be honest with how difficult life had become for me. In the last seven months, walks in our neighborhood have calmed me and allowed me to return to my husband and daughter refreshed and ready to deal with the issues that face us as a family, instead of ignoring their needs and wallowing in my own depression and loneliness. And those walks have helped me figure out how I really feel about being here, and have given me the space to accept that this might be the best place for us right now as a family. I am looking forward to the spring, and seeing what our neighborhood looks like as it wakes up from a winter slumber. We first saw our house in late March, when we felt like our home search was coming to a frustrating end, but we were so focused on the dreams we had for the house, that we never really paid attention to the changes that were occurring around it. And still, as I walk with Sierra and prepare for the birth of our new baby, those walks will continue to be those rare moments when I get to be alone and refocus so I can turn my attention to my growing family.