puppy in lap“Make a list. Go in knowing what you want. Don´t stray!¨ my friend Holly advised me before going to the animal shelter.  I swung through the shelter for my 5th visit in 2 months. It was Valentine´s Day Eve—two days after my 37th birthday and 4 days after a man had left me in a puddle of tears for the nth time.

I remarked to the volunteer how few dogs remained.  ¨Yeah, we adopted out a lot today.” The only dogs left were a handful of panting pit mixes, disenchanted Chihuahuas, and scruffy middle-aged muts. I knew them and they knew me. There we stood eye to eye Valentine´s Eve waiting to be wanted, cared for, and loved.  After all, who really needed the rescuing?

The chipper pitbull named Chomps, I thought, had been done a disservice by the shelter.  He might as well have been named “Eats small children for breakfast.” It would be equivalent to being at a singles event and meeting a fat, hairy, unemployed man named, “Dick”. He would have no chance of ever even being “taken for a walk”.

I had challenged Holly´s advice: “But lists don´t work. Dogs change like people. Your sweet ´fits in the crook of my arm´ (supposed) collie mix puppy turns into a very large lab who doesn´t know its own strength. Similarly, you think you are marrying a handsome fit man and 15 years later his testosterone levels drop and he grows unmotivated, depressed and fat.”

She countered, “But you also don´t want to go looking for a relationship with a man with a sense of humor and think he´ll develop it later. Or look for a dog good with other dogs and convince yourself the one you fell in love with will develop those skills later.”

The overlap between dating in your 30´s and looking for a companion at the pound is remarkable. We want a young moldable dog–one without a history of biting or disease. One who plays well with others and likes small children. One that is emotionally available not guarded. One without a previous owner (or at least one that wasn´t abusive).  We look at the American pit bull-golden retriever mix and we see nothing but a pit. We see the “divorced-with-kids” and immediately label him/her with baggage, not resilience.  We ask ourselves, “What´s wrong with these animals if they were left at the shelter at their age?” instead of turning the question on ourselves and asking, “How do I need to work on myself? Why am I still single and searching for a companion on Valentine´s Eve?”

My recently divorced 53 year old friend, Nancy, discussed what it was like starting over dating after a 25 year marriage and 2 kids.  “I don´t want to date a man too much older than me.  Then it´s like getting an 11 year old cat…pretty soon he´ll be old and I will have invested in someone to take care of!”

But in a way, that´s what we do right? Or maybe that´s what I´ve been doing. For the past 10 years I have found myself pursuing men I could rescue. In the end, however, I´m the one left behind in need of rescuing. I can smell an open wound seeping testosterone a mile away.  And something about me must be attractive for these men to get involved long enough to get their feet wet and then seek help elsewhere. This past week, I did the rescuing but also the surrendering.

Three days after Valentine´s Day, I returned to the shelter and fell in love with two two-month-old puppies—precisely what I´d been advised not to do.  “Puppies consume your life!” I´d been told by many friends advising me to either get a cat or at least an older dog.

puppy pile

This advice triggered a distinct memory of my grandma sobbing the night my grandfather passed away. “Don´t marry an older man. They´ll just leave you lonely.”  That was 14 years ago. Today, at 89, she is trapped in her loneliness as macular degeneration steals away the rest of her sight. I was 23 that night she instilled a certain fear of loneliness.

An hour after I left the shelter, I called to put holds on the two irresistible pups but learned that I would have to wait in “2nd place” with a $10 second hold; two individuals had swooped in and placed $20 first holds on both puppies. I had next “dibs”.

The lab, Tinker, hadn´t leapt into my arms like Flame, the collie, had. So naturally I told myself the collie was meant to be “mine”. Come to think of it, though, I hadn´t reached out to Tinker either.  Sometimes we do that–we forget that one isn´t affectionate until we first open our arms.

When I called at the end of the day to see if Flame was still available, I was informed she had indeed been adopted out.  I broke down crying with the volunteer on the phone, “I hope Tinker isn´t also taken tonight, then.”   My mom responded to my disappointment with an attempt of encouragement, “But that means Flame will get a good home, right?” I was raw. I was pms´ing. I was angry with myself for having procrastinated in calling to place a first hold. “Just like all the good men got a good home when I didn´t make up my mind?” I responded.

Later that night I got a call from the shelter.  Tinker´s first hold hadn´t held. She was mine if I wanted her, but my hold would expire in 24 hours. I had “won”. Now it was time to decide.

My father, an analytical chemist and low-risk taker, reviewed all the obstacles and the cost-benefit analysis. I replayed my friends´ broken record of, “You don´t have the lifestyle to take care of a dog,” which I translated to mean, “You are too selfish to care for and commit to another being.” More complicated travel arrangements. Fewer happy hours after work. Money invested in vet bills, dog food, and chewed up replacements. Time invested in walking the pup and cleaning up potty accidents.

Just a month ago I had been sipping a porter telling the commitment fearing man I was dating that I too grew anxious thinking of settling down with one man.  “I still want to be the forbidden desire of a devout Saudi Arabian Muslim and make love to a young passionate Brazilian.” This he knew, he told me.  Perhaps he didn´t want to commit because he knew I wasn´t all in.

In considering the puppy, I thought of the three week trip to Europe I´d planned for the summer and the dreams I still had of traveling to the Middle East for a two month research stint. Maybe I wasn´t ready for the responsibility of a puppy. Maybe I was too “selfish” as my mother had called me when I told her in my early 20´s I wasn´t sure I wanted to have children.

That morning I had left the shelter after placing the 2nd holds, I ran into my friend Kristen wrangling her labradoodle pup for puppy kindergarten.  “Are you really considering a puppy? I can´t imagine how you´ll do it on your own. Steve is gone this week and I can barely manage on my own!” On my own. It rang in my ears like a dirty challenge.

leaning puppyI pushed it all to the back of my mind and decided since I had “won” her I should adopt her.  Besides, there was a 30 day money back guarantee. And so, at 6:30 that night, 30 minutes before the hold expired, I went to the shelter to rescue my Tinker-belle. “Do you have a name you want to call her?” the woman asked at the front desk as she entered my information. “Not yet,” I reluctantly replied, cradling the warm clingy Tinker in my arms. And I never did.

I took care of the little girl like she was my baby that night. I gave her a sponge bath with the Johnson and Johnson shampoo I had bought for her puppy sensitive skin. I cradled her 15 pounds.  When I wasn´t holding her she wandered over to the new area rug and left a brown puddle of diarrhea.  I put her in her kennel long enough to clean up the mess and then retrieved her to hold her some more. I felt my heart grow heavy for something I knew I couldn´t possibly care for as I should.

That night the thoughts I´d pushed to the back of my mind attacked my subconscious in the form of a nightmare and a mild panic attack. I dreamt that her water soluble sutures from her recent neuter surgery dissolved, her guts started seeping out, her eyes turned a ghastly green and she slowly began to die. There was nothing I could do. I was traveling from one place to another in the dream and I couldn´t save her. “I must surrender her,” I told myself in my periodic awake states. Tinker was quiet the entire night. I set my alarm and took her out every 2 hours so she wouldn´t have to sleep in her own diarrhea and urine.

When I awoke in the morning, I made an appointment with the shelter´s vet for Tinker´s three bouts of liquid diarrhea.  Maybe it wasn´t just nerves. Maybe she was sick with worms, I told myself.  But really I knew that it was a round-about way of getting us both back to the shelter.

On the short drive back to the shelter, I lost it. You´d think that I was putting down a dog or returning a fostered baby to the birth mother. I was merely surrendering a puppy. I felt like a failure—with my friends, with my family, with the shelter. I couldn´t commit to caring for this needy loving creature.

As I sat whimpering in the exam room, I could hear the vet techs whispering in the room next door, “I can´t believe she´s thinking of surrendering her. The puppy is so cute!”

A young very pregnant vet entered and kindly explained how the immediate test results revealed a healthy Tinker.  She handed me a tissue as I sobbed.  She could read my heart, “It´s ok if you want to surrender her.  She´ll find a good home.” It broke my heart to have a woman help me talk myself out of a situation, who had what I really wanted—a blossoming family.

The vet guided me out to the front desk where the woman sat who´d entered my information for the adoption the night before.  I felt her eyes rolling in her head as she pulled up my information, “Another failed adoption. Another human too selfish to care for another,” I heard her thinking.

“I´m so sorry. I just couldn´t do it,” I muttered.

“She´ll have no problem finding a loving family. I´ll put her right back on the adoption floor,” she said confidently.

“But the vet is still checking her tests…”

“I´m sure she´s just fine,” she interrupted me, and took Tinker from my arms.

As I drove away, I have never felt my heart so equally full of both relief and grief.

Of course, it was never about the dog.

It was about filling a void– one I could never fill with the world´s cutest cuddliest puppy.  It was about surrendering what I couldn´t love and learning to accept and love what I could—myself. It was about surrendering my grip on perfection and independence. It was about seeing my need to be loved as a strength not a weakness. I realized I no longer need to be the rescuer but the rescued. I craved a relationship where both were loving and “all in”. Where both were willing and even wanting to help clean up each other´s shit.

That night of surrender a friend told me about how he´d had to end it with a girl who couldn´t accept his wish to slow down.  She wanted all or nothing. He needed space. “I guess in some way it´s easier to surrender the puppy,” I told him.

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