[above: Elly May, our first puppy]
I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop today, away from our house and away from most everything else (goodbye, Facebook notifications, text messages, phone calls, emails. Do Not Disturb me, thankyouverymuch).
Today is my birthday, and today is a mournful day – of which there have been many for me over the past year – but today is the toughest in a while.
One year ago today, we adopted a puppy.
At the time, that day seemed like it was a long time coming. C and I had loved dogs in our pasts, and we had talked from the beginning of ‘us’ about the day we would get to adopt one together. I’d entertained adorable daydreams about the two of us, still newlyweds, finding the perfect dog to make us a sweet little family in our sweet little house. I angled for a puppy because I thought I was ready for it all: house training, cleaning and more cleaning, walks, chewing, and endless lint-rollering. I thought of how we would work together to train her, how that would help train us to work better together, to share in something hard but joyful. I thought of how late fall would allow us the time together we would need, since C would have several weeks off over the holidays.
What I never thought of was the possibility of what happened over the course of the following two weeks… and how deeply it might break us.
One year ago today, not only was it was my birthday, but C had the day off – an incredible treat for me (as I have the unfortunate luck of having a birthday that seems to always conicide with the CMAs, as it does today). It seemed like the perfect day to search for a puppy, and that’s when we met Elly May. She and her 8 litter mates, born 7 weeks before, had been brought in to Love At First Sight just a few days prior.
Elly was the first puppy I picked up when we went inside, and she instantly charmed me. She loved C’s Duck-Dynasty-caliber beard (a huge requirement for us, as some dogs really get upset over his facial hair and his hat!), and she didn’t favor either of us over the other. She happily crawled up onto my shoulder and tucked her chin around my neck in the way that some dogs will do, like they’re hugging you, but was equally as interested in burrowing under C’s beard and checking out his moustache. I don’t know that we loved each other right away… puppies are made to be endearing, after all. But there was little doubt in my mind that she was meant to be our dog.
I only grew more certain as the week progressed. It didn’t take her long to learn that the bell hanging from the front door was meant to signal a bathroom break… but could be slyly used to finagle outdoor playtime whether we wanted it or not. She was exhausting. We set phone alarms in two-hour increments, taking shifts, to let her get up to pee over night. We laundered sheets and swiffered floors and washed ourselves off as we learned how to read her signals. We googled crate training techniques until our thumbs hurt.
For two people who are extremely committed to not having kids, a 7-week-old puppy really pushed us past where we’d ever planned to go. But as tired as we were, we were happy. We’d planned a party for that weekend, lots of friends gathered, burgers on the grill, and s’mores over a fire. For once, Elly was the exhausted one. She curled up inside my jacket, secured by a knotted scarf in a ridiculous puppy-baby-bjorn configuration, and slept against my chest. It was the happiest birthday I’d had since I was a kid… looking across the campfire at C, for once not on the road or off at a rehearsal, surrounded by our friends, the puppy close to my heart.
48 hours later, Elly started vomiting. At first, we weren’t concerned, but she kept vomiting and then started shaking. I tucked her into the puppy-bjorn and I held her as C drove to the vet, where she tested positive for parvo. She was immediately given fluids and antibiotics. We couldn’t see her for fear it would delay her recovery. For most dogs, said the vet, seeing their family who then leaves them again can make them depressed and making it harder for them to fight an illness. We told ourselves she would be fine; we’d caught it early – she was the first of her litter to present – and she was in the best of hands.
The next day, I drove C to the bus and sent him off to Nebraska, and returned to our home alone to bleach EVERYTHING. Couch cushion covers, linens, our clothing, every hard surface that could possibly have been contaminated, I laundered in bleach or wiped down on my own, while my C rode a bus with no way to help but encouraging text messages. When the vet would call with an update, I would immediately text C the details, which were a twice-daily roller coaster of “she’s improving, she’s the same, she’s depressed, she needs plasma, she’s perking up”. I cried alone in our bed late at night, missing C and missing the dog who I’d always imagined would make him feel closer and his absenses easier. During the day, we texted about how Elly and I would meet him at the bus together when he returned. But Sunday came and went, and she still wasn’t home. We spent his days off talking about how surely she would at least be home to go with me to see him depart.
As C was packing to leave again, for the last weekend out for the year, the phone lit up with the vet’s morning check-in. Elly May hadn’t made it through the night. I felt it physically, like I was ripping open, and I sank to the floor. There was no choice a few hours later but for C to leave and for me to stay. This time there was no bleach, no laundry, no phone calls. Just the empty house, creaky and getting colder, and me, so far away from the happiness, the wholeness I’d felt two weeks before, that sitting here a year later I cannot remember how I made it through that weekend.
Some days I cannot remember how I’ve made it through the past year, either. I’ve burst into tears during stretches at the gym and stared empty-eyed into the dark of insomnia more times than is appropriate to admit. The thing about the first puppy from where I stand now is that she is both less than real and more than I thought I’d ever have. She was full of a promise that the universe broke, and I’ve felt a little broken myself ever since. I do not have a happy ending for this story, except to say that I am still here, and we are still here, and I am hopeful for the day when I can both hold her close to my heart and keep it from breaking.