Puppy therapy

Seems like a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders and physical separation is an ideal time for some puppy therapy.

So I brought you a tiny puppy to hold awhile. In your heart, anyway, if not in your hands.

You’ll want to know the story, I suspect …

Last December, my son and I went to pick up his new puppy.

We wanted a mini dachshund, as we had one for sixteen years, from the time my boy was four until he was almost twenty-one. Dachshunds love to snuggle. They’re full of affection and whimsy. And mischief … and stubbornness … but their devotion outweighs all else.

When we got to the breeders, as paperwork was being completed, I noticed a movement under some blankets in one of the kennels.

“Oh, something’s in there!” I remarked. “It looked empty except for the blankets.”

“Yes,” said the breeder-lady. “A mother and her baby. She only had one, born yesterday.”

And then the lady did the unthinkable.

She reached under the blankets, scooped the newborn out, and placed it in my hands.

I could hardly breathe.

Tiny. So fragile. So beautifully formed, utterly perfect in every way. The sheen of its gorgeous coat, solid chocolate. Teeny little ears. Nails so miniscule they could barely be seen … awe isn’t adequate for the suspended moment of wonder at this bit of life in my hands.

The puppy’s mother, a long-haired red dapple, hovered at my feet, her big brown eyes fixed on me as I held her baby.

“Here, ” I said to my son, “hold it for just a second and we’ll give it back to its mother. She’s anxious.”

I placed the puppy in my son’s hands and took took a picture with my phone. With a fingertip, I stroked its satiny head, just once.

“It’s so beautiful,” whispered my son. Very carefully, he slid the tiny creature back into the breeder-lady’s hands and she deftly returned it to its blanketed kennel.

The mother darted in. She went right to work on her baby, licking away all of our human smell from its fur.

I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then.

Maybe it was the mother’s impeccable care of her one baby. We’d worried her, made extra work for her. The puppy squirmed against its bath but quickly settled back to blissful neonate-sleep.

Perhaps it was the fragility of new life that twisted my heart, its precariousness and preciousness, the struggle of being alive and helpless and dependent. Or the convicting knowledge that the human touch is not always a kind or good thing. Or maybe the pang was simply because life is beautiful and because I love dogs.

“Okay, you’re set,” smiled the breeder-lady, handing us the paperwork. “He’s all yours.”

No, of course not the tiny day-old chocolate puppy. That was just a gift of the moment. The breeders hadn’t yet determined if it was a boy or a girl. I did fantasize about returning in two months to get it, however, and what I’d name it … right now, as I write this post while watching Citizen Kane, I am considering “Rosebud” …

No.

I just felt you might need a moment with the tiniest puppy I ever held.

THIS is what we went for, and what we carried home:

Our Dennis.

He’s like a furry worry stone … while holding him and rubbing him (he now rolls over for belly rubs, his favorite) it’s impossible to feel sad or worried or anything but peace and gladness to be alive.

So I give him to you for a minute, to hold with your eyes. And maybe with your heart. He’ll steal it—trust me.

Just a little puppy therapy for your day.

The unplanned baby

Banjo 8 weeks

Banjo, 8 weeks old

He was born on a Sunday in early November, during the first freeze. For some reason, his mother didn’t seek shelter. She delivered nine puppies out in the open on that bitter night; before they were discovered, five of them died.

Getting a puppy was not even a thought when my husband and I stayed with his sister on her Virginia farm near the turn of the year. Our minds were consumed by the purpose of our trip: consulting with a surgeon on my husband’s rare form of eye disease. Following the appointment, burdened with the confirmation that my husband would soon lose his eye, my sister-in-law drove us by the old hay barn where her son was working:

“Let me know if you hear of anyone who wants a puppy. They’re pure Labs but this litter was unplanned, the second this year. I just want them to go to good homes.”

I was halfway paying attention from the back seat of the Suburban when she rolled the window down and called out: “Go get the big one.”

My nephew slipped into the barn. He returned momentarily with a fuzzy yellow ball, walked around to the passenger side, and placed it in my husband’s arms.

Two sky-blue, baby eyes looked round at me from a face that seemed a hundred years old.

He came home with us, of course, this unplanned baby that cried at the top of his surprisingly powerful lungs the entire three-hour journey back to North Carolina. We’re insane, I thought. We have a surgery to contend with and the surgeon said recuperation would be rough. We don’t even know what the long-term prognosis will be. There’s no puppy stuff at home, he’s going to shed like crazy, a big dog in the house, there’s the whole ordeal of housebreaking, we already HAVE a dog, that’s really enough, dear Lord, listen to this crying, we will never sleep another night…

Our college student/musician son was waiting at the door when we pulled up. He nestled the puppy against his heart and named him Banjo, not after the instrument, but the video game he loved as a child, Banjo Kazooie.  Baby Banjo slept in the bed with him and, incredibly, never made a peep that night or any night thereafter.

It was our darkest winter. Through snow, ice storms, surgery to remove my husband’s eye and his painful recovery, Banjo was the bright spot, an endearing and comical diversion, exactly what we needed. He radiated life, healing, and joy; he drove the bleakness away. His very presence represented survival. Turns out that instead of coming at the worst possible time, the unplanned baby came at the best time of all.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, the characters sail into a darkness where nightmares come true, with no obvious means of escape. Just as the nightmares begin, Lucy whispers, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” An albatross appears in the darkness, circles Lucy, and whispers to her in Aslan’s voice: “Courage, dear heart.” Within minutes, the darkness begins to lift; the characters find their way out.

For the record, Banjo looked so like a lion cub that we briefly thought about renaming him Aslan, until we decided that it would be utterly impossible ever to reprimand a creature with that name.

Reflect: When has your life or work been interrupted by something unplanned? Where in that experience might there be an unexpected gift? What chances are you willing to take to find it?

If you’d like to read more about Banjo: Making adjustments.

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Update: A condensed version of “The Unplanned Baby” is published in the 2017-2018 North Carolina Reading Association’s Young Authors Project anthology, on the theme of “Show Your Strength!”