To Foster [essay] by Brenda Miller

When I tell people I foster dogs, they often say, “I could never do that.” Meaning not that they couldn’t open their homes to dogs in need, and feed them and walk them and make sure they’re safe. They mean they couldn’t bear to let the dog go. “I would just fall in love,” they say.

I started fostering almost immediately after my cat, Madrona, died. I’d adopted Madrona from the local shelter 13 years earlier, when I had just moved to Bellingham and was scared for no reason at all. I was 40 years old, single, a new teacher at the university, starting over at an age when most women had been settled into family for a long time. I sat on my couch for hours, staring out at my view of the working harbor—afraid to move and afraid of my own fear. My home—little more than a shack really, painted bright blue—felt claustrophobic, even with the balcony open to the bay. When I did go out, I often got lost, which seemed unlikely for such a small city.

On the day I moved in, a small explosion at the paper mill shook the windows, and the house wobbled on its tenuous supports. Three weeks earlier, Whatcom Creek had exploded, sending up a mushroom cloud of black smoke, killing three children.

I needed a dog. I thought about the dog I’d had as a child, Sheba, and could picture her so clearly: a Great Dane with long slim legs and fur that felt coarse and substantial as a welcome mat. My father bought her as a guard dog because my mother was afraid to be at home alone with her two children, living in a suburb 3000 miles from her New York home. There were too many windows, too many entry points, too much space and silence.

My landlord wouldn’t consent to a dog, but he grudgingly allowed a cat. I went to the local shelter where they led me to the ramshackle cat room. I spotted one young cat, about six months old, with gray and orange calico markings and a long swishing tail. I kept returning to her, and she allowed me to turn her upside down, a sign, I decided, that she was mine. I named her Madrona, after my favorite northwest tree.

The first time I left her, I watched through the small glass window on my kitchen door as she patrolled the house, peering into every corner, gazing up into the rafters. She balanced on the back window rail, swishing her long tail, observing the busy street below. This would be her perch for a year—before I bought a house where I could have any animal I wanted. She sat for hours on that ledge, silhouetted against the bay, a silent guardian.

*

After several years in my new house, I brought home a puppy—Abbe. Madrona and Abbe lived together in an uneasy truce for years, but Madrona always asserted her primacy in the animal hierarchy of my home, staring at me and the dog in quiet, haughty  watchfulness.

In her later years, I noticed that Madrona was gradually becoming quite thin. She transformed from a cat that one vet had termed “borderline obese” into a cat whose ribs could be felt during the requisite five minutes of daily petting she allowed me. She also became, by increments, a friendlier cat; she’d slink by the couch, and instead of the usual cursory presentation of her rear end, she jumped up on the cushions and settled in beside me, her purr echoing through her ribs.

At night she settled onto my chest, her eyes half-closed. She stayed there for 10, 15, 30 minutes, sometimes going so far as to turn her head to the side as she laid it right above my heart. The weight of this head was both light and substantial—I could feel the line of her small jaw, the slight swell of a cheek. Her face became soft and untroubled as a kitten’s.

I’d fall asleep to Madrona’s rhythmic purr, but sometime in the early morning I’d wake to find her gone. Little mounds of cat vomit led to the back bedroom that served as my office. I had my old green leather recliner in there, a chair I’d bought decades ago; over the years that chair had suffered the abuse of Madrona’s claws, with fine, white scratch lines all across the seat and back, cat fur embedded in the crack between cushions. Madrona had adopted this chair for her decline, curled in its seat for most of each day.

In her last days, Madrona would occasionally leave the comfort of her recliner and stalk out onto the deck to lay her body in the swathes of weak sunlight that reached her. Once, she even trotted back inside with a mouse in her jaws, her eyes as startled as mine, then ran back out again to deposit the prey in a hidden cache.

Those mornings of early fall: the Beech tree in my front yard—always a show off—turned its most brilliant copper, and I took my sweaters out of their summer wrappings. I made autumn stews with butternut squash, yam, and pinto beans, seasoned with just a dash of chipotle for heat.

When friends came over to partake of my voluminous stews (so much food, as if I were an animal myself, hoarding for the winter), they came upon Madrona, who might come forth to rub against a leg or two. Then there’d be a quick intake of breath, a fleeting look of pity they covered up as quick as they could before leaning way down to run a hand along my cat’s knobby spine. And Madrona submitted to their petting as she never had before, allowing their hands to acknowledge her place.

On the day when I could feel the tumors myself through her belly, and she weighed less than five pounds, I knew. Madrona stayed in her chair all that day, and I invited friends over to say goodbye. She did not open her eyes for any of them.

At 4:00, I took her in her carrier into the vet’s exam room. She perked up then, became alert, that same vigilant face I’d known all these years. And I almost reneged—almost packed her up and took her home, but then the vet was there, saying it’s time. So he gave her the first shot that would sedate her and left the room.

I did not hold Madrona in my arms, but I stroked her head, thanked her for being my cat. She did not drift off as the vet promised, but resisted the impact of the drug and rose up in one final struggle, her eyes confused. It’s that face I remember: the refusal to succumb, the struggle to be vigilant. But within a minute she lay down, her head turned to the side the way it had been on my chest the night before. And the vet returned, performed his final injection—so quickly, it seemed. He held his stethoscope to her heart until she was gone.

*

The first dog I fostered was a small, black Pekingese named Gizmo. He had big black bug-eyes and soft curly fur. He arrived just a day after Madrona died, and he sat frozen in the middle of the living room until I picked him up and brought him outside, but then he settled down—learning quickly that I didn’t mind if he kept my feet warm on the couch. Caring for him took my mind off Madrona for a little while. He got adopted out just a few days later, to an elderly couple who wanted nothing more than a lap dog to keep them company in their assisted living home.

When Gizmo left, the hole in my home opened wide. I found myself crying in grocery stores. I wept quietly in Shivasana pose in yoga class. I went to see some rescue kittens at a pet store; they were cute, but none of them were my cat, which subdued me into grief’s twilight.

So I took in a small King Cavalier Spaniel mix named Tiny who had been rescued from a pet hoarder. On intake, Tiny had needed to be shaved down because her hair was so matted she couldn’t move her back legs, but her ears sprang curls that gave her a wild halo. She had never been outside, and had had little contact with humans, so she skittered under the couch at any opportunity to hide. If I carried her outdoors, she stood there at a loss, afraid to move, her eyes glancing off mine to stare at nothing. Her stiff, scared posture broke my heart. She was what’s called, in rescue circles, a “project dog.”

She quickly acquired a more appropriate name, Chloe (though one friend insisted Bette Davis was perfect, since she had Bette Davis eyes surrounded by those crazy curls). She started wagging her skinny tail and taking treats from my hand. She asked nicely to be let up on the couch, and we sat together a long time, my hand stroking her belly, telling her everything would be all right. I took her out in a doggie stroller because she refused to walk on a leash, and she sat up on her hind legs, her eyes wide, as we passed tall cedars, wild honeysuckle, and children who pointed at this strange baby.  Eventually she walked a few steps on the leash, and then a few more.

Our walks were studies in slowness; if we made it a dozen feet, I rejoiced. If she stayed in the room when friends walked in, I praised her. After several weeks, she came running when people showed up at the door. She slept on the bed with Abbe and me, her head right next to my own. I showed her picture to my students, sometimes calling up her online profile onto the computer projection screen so that her sweet face could look down on us as we worked.

After three months, I despaired that she would ever get adopted. She didn’t show well at PetSmart, where the rescue brought available dogs every Saturday. She would sit in my lap trembling, doing her oblique stare into space, refusing to meet anyone’s eye. We’d sit like wallflowers, while the big happy labs got petted and the puppies got cooed over. I’d come home from these excursions cranky, as if I’d been the one rejected.

But she did find her person on the one Saturday I stayed home to take care of  another foster dog. The rescue coordinator, Vicki, called to say Chloe wouldn’t be coming home. She found the perfect person, she told me. I called the perfect person the next day to see how it was going. She’s wonderful, the woman said. Her own dog had died a few weeks earlier. She hadn’t been looking for a new dog when she stopped into PetSmart that day, but when she saw Chloe something clicked. She went outside to pray, intending to go home and think it over, but within a half hour had returned. I need her, she told me, as much as she needs me.

*

It’s true, you do fall in love, and fall hard. I’ve loved, deeply, every dog I’ve taken in, even the challenging ones. Since Chloe there’s been more than a dozen: Jasper, the beagle/cattle dog mix who gave the impression of being Mister Mellow inside, but became a complete maniac outside; Bella, the brindled pit bull mix who bonded so hard she escaped from her adoptive family’s yard to run after me. Two purebred Shetland Sheep Dogs, Lola and Dancer, who stayed only a few days during a snowstorm. A Boston Terrier. A Chiweenie. Two young brothers—Gus and Wally—Australian shepherd mixes who were saved from being shot by the farmer who owned them.

To foster means, literally, “to help grow and develop.” So it’s more than simply providing room and board; with these dogs, you invest yourself—you’re there to help them create a new story out of their difficult pasts.

Wally, for instance, stayed with me a long time because he had a birth defect: paws misshapen from birth, bones that grew at crooked angles. He had golden yellow eyes, and a slim torso that curved into a perfect comma when he greeted you. His legs splayed in every direction when he rolled onto his back, tongue lolling out the side of the mouth. His brother Gus got adopted quickly; he was a big goofy guy with long auburn fur and green eyes. Afraid of doorways (neither one had ever been indoors), he followed Wally everywhere, learned from him that there’s no danger in crossing simple thresholds.

Wally seemed to be made of spare parts leftover after the other dogs in the litter had been assembled: with his stumpy tail, twisted toes, swollen footpads, collapsed ankles and wrists. But he adapted his gait into a rolling, shuffling run that looked like joy rather than suffering. Wally was always the first one to run headlong into the wide open field where we took our daily walk, Gus galumphing after him.

I took Wally to my own orthopedic vet for evaluation. When the vet showed me Wally’s x-rays against those of a typical dog, I could see the gaps between his bones, the lack of support in the crucial joints. The vet said it would be a “wait and see” kind of proposition. He might adapt just fine, as he seemed to be doing already. Still, I searched the internet for dog booties and braces that might help him. He was frightened of other dogs, most likely because of his vulnerability, so I took him to the local doggie day care for lessons, where they donated their time to help Wally feel more confident, less vigilant.

I brought Wally to PetSmart one day—where he growled and barked continually at the other dogs—to meet a family that had driven up from Everett to see him. My stomach was in knots, and when I met the family I had such a bad feeling that I had to go to Wally’s case manager, Nikki, and ask her to tell them no. She did so without hesitation; they trust their foster parents to know whether the fit is right, no matter how long it takes.

I thought I might need to keep Wally, but so far, I haven’t been a “foster failure,” as it’s jokingly called. He found his perfect person: an older, German woman with the time, space, money, and patience to work with him. I felt as if I’d found a friend too; she sat with me at her kitchen table, fed me tea and cookies, and told me stories while Wally explored her yard, so happy as he came bounding in to check in with us, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

So far I’ve been able to trust in that feeling, to know when to allow the dogs out of my care, even when it hurts. The hurt, I admit, actually feels good—a way of feeling more keenly alive. I let myself be unguarded with these dogs, dismantling all the mundane barriers that keep me separate from the world.

*

Today my latest foster dog arrives—Becky, and she is very pregnant. Her swollen belly hangs down from a thin ribcage, and bits of tar stick to her feet and shins, probably from running wild. She’d been dumped at a shelter in Idaho before our rescue swooped in to claim her. I don’t know anything else about her, and I resist the urge to make up a story full of imagined hardship.

As soon as she arrives, we begin the vigil of waiting. It reminds me of the contemplative ambiance the house took on as we waited for Madrona to depart, though this time we’re on an opposite trajectory. Yet, the space in-between feels the same, perhaps is the same: that wide field of transition.

As we wait, I study Becky from every angle, try to take pictures that capture how her huge belly balloons beneath her skinny frame. Her legs are so thin, and her feet so tiny, that she reminds me of a goat. Her nipples are dark and huge; her teats full of milk. She trots into the backyard, sniffs every inch of the perimeter, and then trots back inside, eyes alert on my face. She sits for a treat after just a minute of training, eager to please. Her tail vigorously windshield-wipes the floor every time I look at her.

I stroke her soft ears and the wrinkled forehead that gives her an aspect of worry. I scratch the coarse fur of her mane, brindled white, black, and gold—like a woven shawl draped on her shoulders. She turns on her side so I can pet that lumpy belly: I place my hand there to feel the puppies moving inside, while Becky and I gaze at one another. I don’t know what she’s thinking; perhaps she doesn’t understand she’s pregnant and has no idea of the story that’s about to unfold.

I let her sleep with me on the bed, though Abbe activates her death-ray stare, and my hand naturally rests on that active belly while Becky hiccups and sighs. I set up the whelping box in my office: a child’s plastic wading pool lined with towels, and try to interest Becky in it, but she seems to be gravitating toward the dirt under my back deck instead. I keep a close eye on her so she doesn’t ensconce herself where I can’t reach her.

*

And now Becky is giving birth on my living room chair. While I sat in my office, looking up signs of imminent labor on the Internet, Becky jumped up on my favorite chair and started delivering the first puppy. She obviously didn’t think much of all the careful preparations I’d been doing the last few days—the whelping box, the sterilized hand towels. Instead she gravitates to this nice chair, with its wide protective arms, its plush cushion.

I rush out to find the first pup emerging, nestled in its amniotic sac, and Becky gazing at it with puzzled focus. At first I try to get her to move to the whelping box, and she tries to comply; she stands up and turns in a circle, whimpering, half a puppy dangling from her backside. No, no, no, I say, and urge her back down again.

Then her instinct kicks in, and she begins lapping with deep moist strokes to free the puppy from the sac and chew off its umbilical cord. I watch, paralyzed, not sure what to do, or if there is anything for me to do beside try to get a towel under her before my chair is ruined. The puppy—wet and slick and free of her mother—begins to chirp, and Becky curls her front paw and pulls the baby deep into the cave she’s made of her abdomen. In that quick glimpse, I see gray and black patches on the puppy’s rump; she looks to be part Australian Shepherd or Catahoula Cattle dog. Good girl, Becky, I say, and only then does she look at me again, panting.

Three more puppies are born fairly quickly, two of them arriving at the same time: puppies #2 and #3, one large and one very small, with identical brown/black coloring. Becky handles it expertly, as if she were a seasoned mother rather than a puppy herself, licking the sacs clear, chewing off both umbilical cords within seconds, swallowing the placentas. She herds these puppies next to the first one, and we wait for puppy #4, who arrives within the hour: a pudgy guy with freckles on his face and the same spotted rump as his older sister.

Then we wait. I’ve been doing a play-by-play on Facebook, announcing each pup’s arrival, and I’ve gathered quite a crowd who is urging us on, sending cheers and encouragement. Abbe is holed up in the bedroom, wisely staying out of the way. I text a few friends. The mailman brings the mail. My cell-phone beeps. Cars whoosh by outside. The workaday world carries on around me, but here Becky and I have entered a space both separate from and connected to that world.

Puppy #5 emerges, his brown-and-white fur distinct in the sac. He looks completely different from his siblings, with a wide flat face and bright pink nose and forehead. He, too, disappears into the cave of Becky’s abdomen. It takes a long time for puppy # 6 to arrive, and even longer for puppy #7. I keep my eyes trained on her vulva, watch as it leaks blood from the force of contractions, but no pup emerges. I begin to worry, remember the horror stories I’d unwisely read online about retained pups and placentas.

The six pups already in this world nestle up against Becky’s belly, and she licks and licks them into place. And then another contraction and the sac emerges, puppy #7, another large, sable brown puppy, and I move the other puppies out of the way while she laps this one into life.

While I’m in the kitchen for a minute, #8 is born. But Becky’s tired and distracted, and she isn’t doing her job. The puppy hasn’t started breathing, and I rub its back and belly, tell Becky to focus, do your job. I run for the suction bulb I bought during the nesting phase, tear the package open, and try to angle the tip into the puppy’s mouth. But Becky finally figures it out, and #8 gasps for breath, starts nursing.

Eight puppies at the teats, and Becky’s body relaxes, the force of expulsion softening into the energy of settling in. The puppies nose into her engorged nipples. Becky gathers them all into her belly, and I look at the clock—12 noon—just five hours since it all began.

*

Now Becky and her pups lie in my back room, settled finally into that plastic wading pool, doing their necessary work: sleeping and eating. Becky knows what to do. She noses their behinds until they pee, then licks it up. She keeps track of all of them, and herds stray puppies back into the pile. She gets up abruptly to go outside, shaking puppies off her, and comes rushing back in when she’s done. She allows the smallest ones—Blake and Tessa (they all have names now)—to crawl up on her head. There’s always one puppy nuzzling right under her chin. Their eyes are glued shut, and so are their ears; they swim around the wading pool, seeking each other out, always ending up in a tightly packed row, like a can of puppy sardines.

I can sit there, literally, for hours and watch them, in a puppy trance. I can’t get anything done; it takes me two hours to make a cup of coffee. I keep drifting back into the room, mesmerized by these wormy creatures. I invite friends over who immediately fall under the spell too; I’ll leave the room and an hour later come back to find them still with the same goofy smiles on their faces, murmuring nonsense.

I kiss the cheeks of the puppies, as they grow each day, their faces changing: some spotted with freckles, some with dark masks circling their eyes. Their ears are little more than waxy nubbins I feel compelled to rub. In the night, I hear them squeaking behind the office door, and I get up to tiptoe in and watch Becky nursing. There’s really no containing them; I feel the puppies—sense them—everywhere in house.

When I close my eyes in yoga class, my body seems to take on a puppy pose, my hands bent like paws, my belly exposed. Tears spring to my eyes in Shivasana, the way they did when Madrona died, and I can’t really explain it; I can only say to my teacher, I’m sorry, I’ve been in the presence of puppies. All my doorways are, once again, open.

In the meantime, Madrona’s ashes sit on my bookshelf: a dark gray urn flanked by a picture of Quan Yin, the Buddhist image of compassion. I pass them both several times a day and nod hello, ask them what they think of the puppies. I know Madrona would not approve, but she’d look the other way, forgive me my foolishness. Quan Yin would simply keep smiling.

I take a walk with Abbe down to the harbor, my first time away from Becky and the puppies. It’s a beautiful early summer afternoon, and the asters bloom yellow against the shore. I see the flower we call “bleeding heart”: a spray of eight pink-and-white blooms that bob on a slender stalk. “That’s how it feels,” I tell Abbe: as if my heart’s been multiplied.

*

The puppies will be gone soon enough. In seven weeks they’ll grow from the sleek nubs they were at birth, to small models of dogs, with their puppy eyes and floppy ears. Their ears will grow the fastest and change color, as will their eyes and finally their coats, the markings either becoming more distinct or disappearing altogether. They’ll all quickly be adopted into new homes, where I won’t be able to know the dogs they will become.

After the puppies leave, it will be Becky’s turn. In a few weeks, I’ll watch a prospective family from Seattle play with her in my yard, and Becky will be her usual eager self: she’ll lay her head on the little girl’s knee; she’ll roll onto her back, offering her belly. I’ll watch them take her for a walk in the park, and Becky will look back to catch my eye: aren’t you coming? But quick enough she’ll turn to the walk at hand, journeying out to the field beyond my line of sight, sniffing out whatever she might find on the trail without me.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: this essay put the editors in mind of the poem “While Walking to the Beach the Crazy Dog Lady Meets a Pit Bull Named Betty Marion White,” by Renée Ashley.]

Image by Brenda Miller

Brenda Miller teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and the MA in English Studies at Western Washington University. She is the author of four essay collections, including Listening Against the Stone, Blessing of the Animals, and Season of the Body. She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. Her website is www.brendamillerwriter.com.