Sometimes rain falls from the sky; sometimes snow; sometimes stars. In my family’s case, it was a dog.
And no, the dog didn’t literally fall from the sky, but I woke up on a Tuesday with absolutely no intention of adopting a dog, and by 11:30 that morning, we had a new member of our family. That Tuesday also happened to be my daughter’s tenth birthday. I’m picking up my crown for Mother of the Year at my local Amazon Locker shortly.
As with all stories, this one has a history. A little over a year ago we lost our beloved Cali, a certifiably insane, chocolate lab we had rescued a number of years earlier. But as crazy as Cali was, she and my daughter had an undeniable and cemented bond. She was Maggie’s dog; I just fed her. They were “twins, you know.” Maggie considered herself so lucky to have a brother and a sister.
And then one day, one sad and horrible day, Cali was gone. We took her to the vet for a limp to only find out that she was riddled with bone cancer. There was only one choice. And I had to make it. And in the process, I broke my sweet, darling, loving Maggie’s heart.
As a mother, I have never felt more helpless. How do you explain this horrible choice that you have to make? To prolong a life that is painful and terrible? Or to sweetly and peacefully end life for the betterment of the one you love knowing it will crush the others that you love? These are questions for theologians and people with a zillion letters after their name. Not for me. And so my little family stumbled forward as best we could.
To say the least, as time went on, Maggie began begging for a new puppy. She knew that Cali could never be replaced, but there was a hole in her heart. A void. Maggie wrote letters to God and Santa and the Tooth Fairy and everyone in between asking for a new dog (I saved them all). It broke my heart every time, and so after a year or so, I put out some feelers. And our star fell from the sky…
My mom’s groomer had just met a dog from South Korea who was looking to be adopted. This sweet pup had been rescued off the streets of Seoul and entered the U.S. just the week before. I popped over to meet her, and when I sat down on the floor, she walked right over to me, curled up in my lap, and put her head on my hand. And that was it. We had a new dog.
Maggie was literally overcome. She couldn’t speak, cry, move, or make a sound (it was kind of a nice change, actually!), but it soon wore off. She embraced Roxy as her new best friend and constant companion with the gusto that only a ten year-old redhead can! But to her absolute shock, Roxy wasn’t as keen on this idea as she was. Poor Roxy was scared and overwhelmed and as a result, she wanted nothing to do with my sweet girl. And once again, Maggie was crushed.
But this was something that I knew I could handle. I had been through and seen enough change in my life to understand exactly what I thought Roxy was going through. And through this experience, I knew that she needed – simply some space and some time and some loving patience.
I sat down with Maggie, and we started to talk through what Roxy was experiencing. She had been abruptly removed from the only place she had ever known and flown half way around the world, only to enter a community that looked and smelled and sounded like nothing she had EVER experienced. She was used to eating handouts and leftovers from kind people and restaurants, not strange brown pellets of “food.” She was used to sleeping outside on the hard ground, not in the ergonomic, organic dog bed we had rushed out to buy. And then we talked about how all that change might make Maggie feel, and she understood how disoriented Roxy must be.
And so Maggie adjusted her approach. We started adding rice to her food (and maybe a little bacon), and Roxy started eating. We went outside and quietly sat in the yard with some treats, and Roxy slowly started to walk in the grass – something she had avoided completely previously. At bedtime, instead of reading in her chair as we have done since she was born, Maggie and I built a nest on the carpet and read stories there. And Roxy eventually came and snuggled with us.
We tried our best to listen to Roxy, to try and empathize and understand what she needed; not to force on her what we thought she would want. And through this experience, our family learned a really powerful lesson.
Change and trauma is going to happen to those we love and care for; this is an absolute certainty. So often we hear of a devastating diagnosis, an unexpected death or the loss of a job or, conversely, the happy news of the birth of a new baby or a promotion or a marriage. We – with nothing but the best of intentions – rush to support that person or family with what we think they would want. We don’t take the time to recognize that maybe they don’t even know what they need. And as a result, our sincere efforts may not be met with the response that we had hoped for.
Sometimes what is needed most is simply to be there and still and present and to let those that we want to help come to us; to tell us what they discover they need as they move through the massive changes in their life. It might not be your Great-Aunt-Somebody’s favorite tuna casserole. It might be a carpool schedule or a Friday night mani-pedi (with cocktails) or a grocery delivery. What may matter most is your calm and gentle presence; the understanding that those you care for can ask anything of you (no matter how big or small or bizarre the request). The knowledge that you will do your best to deliver- because your unwavering support of them depends on what they actually need, and not what you think they do.
And this move from action to waiting is hard. Our society views success through movement, forward progress. If we aren’t checking items off a To Do list, our time is being wasted. But remember – deliberate inaction is also action. Stillness and patience and thoughtfulness are hard work, often the hardest work – as Maggie will absolutely attest.
But these efforts are worth it. Roxy and Maggie are building their relationship. Their trust in each other and love for each other is growing. Roxy is acclimating to her new home, and we are learning each other’s needs. We are actively managing change and supporting each other every step of the way. Roxy now sleeps at the end of Maggie’s bed with a protective paw on her foot…all night long. And our family’s heart is full.