It’s quiet today.
There’s no shuffle of little feet in the next room, or the sounds of random objects being chewed, dragged, or sniffed. I’m not on high-alert for the signs that will send me on a mad dash outside with treats in my pocket. The dog toys have been picked up and put away. Food and water bowls gone.
I brought him to his new home yesterday, amidst gut-wrenching sobs on the hour-long drive. He had never seen me cry before, and so he sat there, with his head resting on the console, staring at me with worried eyes. It was the first time in almost two weeks he actually made eye contact with me.
It’s been six years since our last dog passed, and I loved her so fiercely it was only recently that I felt ready for another one in our house. But I’ve been looking and longing for a while now. On our last trip to New York City, I could hardly focus my attention on anything other than the dozens of dogs I saw that day, walking happily alongside their people. And so we decided to take the plunge.
We wanted a rescue puppy, like our last dog was. But it’s been 20 years since we chose her from her litter at our local Humane Society, and there are so many more options out there now with the advance of digital-everything. So hard to make a decision, sight-unseen, on the right puppy for us. But we picked one, and we were accepted to adopt him. He was so freaking beautiful, we felt like we had won the lottery.
But after the first couple of days home, the fear of his new surroundings dissipated, and we found ourselves in a position we never expected. He didn’t come when you called him over, but rather gave a disinterested glance in our direction and laid down where he was. He preferred to go off in a corner (specifically, the boot tray by the door) to take his naps, rather than be near us. He didn’t ever look at me directly, unless I held a treat up in front of me. As each day passed, he only became more aloof. And aggressive. He didn’t really like to play, except to attempt to wrestle with me and bite — hard. Normal puppy behavior in a way, but there was something different going on. A few times I noticed him out of the corner of my eye, crouched low, stalking me. When I turned and began talking to him, he lunged at my face. His bites broke the skin more than once.
We were devastated.
The puppy’s behavior, along with our unsuccessful attempts to encourage affection and bonding, was triggering some pretty deep and painful stuff for my husband and me.
We’ve been parenting our five children for twenty-seven years now. Four of our kids were adopted, and two of them have Reactive Attachment Disorder. When they joined our family seven years ago, they were pre-teens from an extremely traumatic background. You can imagine the issues that arose between them and our other children, and between them and us, as parents. RAD is no joke, and parenting children with it is just about the most exhausting, soul-draining act of love you can imagine. But we did it. We stuck it out and made it through. The stony soil of our kids’ hearts has become softer and more fertile, and they’re growing and blossoming in all sorts of ways.
But we are tired. And we just didn’t have it in us to work out those same kinds of issues with a dog, so we made the decision to ‘return’ him to the rescue, and they found a home for him the very next day.
And so there I was, driving, crying my eyes out, ready to relinquish my puppy to his new owners. It had been a long, hard day. Full of thoughts and advice and interactions — some welcome, some unwelcome. Along that drive, I reflected on some things I discovered through this experience:
1. The importance of knowing yourself and your limits. It has taken me far too long in my adulthood to really know who I am and stand confident in it. I’m introspective and self-reflective, and aware of my many shortcomings. But I also know my own heart, my motivations, and how I do life. I am deeply sensitive and compassionate, have a strong drive to see justice and mercy in this world, and I am firm in what I believe. My life choices reflect all of this. But my life also reflects (more subtly) my poor choices, and I’ve finally accepted and made peace with what I am not good at and where my inner resources max out. I’ve come to learn that knowing these things and abiding by them are as critical to a healthy life as it is to get out of your comfort zone so you can grow.
2. What it means to have boundaries in difficult — even contested — situations, and to be secure in drawing them anyway. Drawing boundaries is the outworking of knowing your limits, and a real challenge especially if you’re a people pleaser or a peacemaker, because boundaries directly involve other people. I knew I’d get pushback about returning the pup. I knew my kids who are still at home (17 and 20) would be very sad about it. But I also knew how carefully my husband and I weighed this decision and all the pros and cons associated with it. And we were keenly aware that, at the end of the day, it would be the two of us who would have to live with the consequences. Therefore, it was necessary to draw a firm boundary around our decision so that we wouldn’t be manipulated by the opinions of others or by our own emotions, for that matter.
3. How ‘helpful advice’ from people who don’t know the full context can hurt and add extra weight to an already heavy burden. I’ll say right up front I’m guilty of this myself. I genuinely want to help people in their struggles, and so do many others who offer advice. But the truth is, unless you are doing life closely with the struggling person, you don’t know the whole story or the context, and that person doesn’t owe it to you to share everything involved. So when you speak into the situation, you’re actually assuming a lot and coming to conclusions that may not be accurate. Even if you would make a different choice in a similar situation, it isn’t really relevant. Because each of us is a completely unique person, with an equally unique set of life experiences that guide our decision-making. So if you truly want to help, listen. Encourage. Support. Ask questions. But don’t saddle the person with guilt or judgement or more information than they need while they’re already hurting.
4. That sacrificial love doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr. As a Christian, I am all about sacrificial love. I strive to live and love sacrificially every day. And again, my life choices reflect this. I have laid down my life in many ways for my children and for my husband, and have given myself to great depths for friends and for people in need. I do not live a me-centric, take care of numero-uno kind of life. But I have also learned that loving yourself and loving someone/something else can sometimes be incompatible. Doing what it would take to raise this particular little pup to be a happy, healthy dog would have meant draining a reservoir that was already running low, and forcing us to expose wounds that are not yet fully healed. This isn’t just about the dog. There are other areas in my life that I need to let go of so I can be a healthy woman, wife, friend, and mother.
5. The other side of adoption. This one was deep. And it’s not that I’ve never considered it before, because I have four adopted children. But if the tangible, heart-rending pain of surrendering a puppy was almost too much to bear, can you imagine the pain of a mother (and/or father) surrendering their child? Even knowing that I couldn’t (and did not want to) take on raising this dog, I still loved him. I kept telling him that over and over as I drove, and I meant it with every breath. I thought about being a mother, walking out the incredibly hard truth that you just can’t — whatever your reasons are — and because of that, you must do what you’re about to do. For your child and for yourself. By the grace of God, I have only been on the receiving end of this kind of sacrificial love. But I had a tiny glimpse yesterday of what that might be like. We don’t give this near as much credit and attention as we should. So birthmothers and fathers, I honor you. I honor you.
6. How deep sadness has ‘hooks’ that dredge up old pain. It’s when the cork pops out of the bottle and makes way for a fountain of grief, sadness, anger, and pain to flow forth from places it’s been hiding for some time. I think if we’re wise, we need to acknowledge and pay attention to the other thoughts and feelings that arise in the midst of whatever is going on right now. Don’t get me wrong — my grief and sadness over the puppy was enough on its own, but the experience of it was so big and deep I knew I was grieving more than just that. Even when we don’t try to stuff it down, there are inevitably leftover hurts, sadnesses, and griefs that haven’t had room to emerge until something triggers them. I can’t say I know all of what was coming up yesterday, but I will be reflecting on it for some time, hopefully with fewer tears.
When I arrived and brought our puppy into his new home, a family and their one-year-old lab mix awaited him. After a few moments of fear-based freakout, the puppy warmed up to the dog’s advances to play. He lay in the teenage girl’s lap, on his back, batting at the dog with his giant, soft paws. His mouth was hanging open, tongue lolling out in what was immediately recognizable as a big ol’ dog smile. He looked happier in 10 minutes there than he had in two weeks with us.
Turns out he needed a dog as well as a family.
Unwilling to take on two dogs in our home, we would have deprived him of what he needed to really thrive, and for that, I am so grateful we chose to give him up. I still cried all the way home.
So here I am now, sitting in a quiet, calm house — at peace, but a bit empty. There is another puppy on the horizon, though, one that promises to be a better fit. But regardless of how perfect that fit is, she’s gonna be a keeper. There was enough heartache yesterday to last us a long time, but I am thankful none of it was wasted.
Thank you, Java, for what you taught us over the past two weeks. We will never forget you and pray you live out the many years ahead of you having the time of your little doggy life. Our memories and our hearts will always remain tender for you, and for the many kind people who have given you a chance at a really good life. Be a good boy.