Are you behind? Click on Part I to read Part I
It’s barely 6 am on a Sunday morning, and I’m well into my first cup of coffee. I’m in bed writing, and sweet Ethel is curled against my legs. Cookie snuggles against my hip, and eyes Ethel warily; she’s scared of Ethel, who emits a low growl if she thinks anyone’s too close to her brood.
The house is quiet and still; sometimes, I use moments like these to grade papers or read, or plan out my day. Today I’m writing, and I’m miring myself in the present in order to enjoy the messy, unpredictable life we’ve chosen. We are off the highway, cruising the back roads, encountering potholes and vistas in equal measure.
A week ago, after Ethel gave birth to her first puppy, we woke up the kids and the five of us quietly circled the whelping box. The pup had arrived in a large mucous ball, and Ethel immediately began licking furiously to free it. I set the timer for six minutes – I had read that’s how long she has to get it breathing. By minute five, she had cleaned the little guy from head to toe, chewed through the umbilical cord, and slurped down the afterbirth. Ew. I know. Nature can be gross. She nosed the pup toward her belly, where he/she started nursing, and she grunted slightly. Another pup sort of rolled into view. Again I set the timer; again she went to work cleaning him, and within five minutes, #2 was nursing at her belly as well.
I also had read that sometimes it helps to get the first puppies out of the way so the mama can focus on her labor, so I had set up a heated blanket right next to the box. As Ethel groaned and seemed to be having more contractions, I gently moved the wet slippery pups to the blanket, making sure they were within Ethel’s sight. Ethel looked at me balefully, then reached her head over to her babies and took one of them by the neck with her teeth to move it back, It squealed a high pitched protest, and I said aloud, “Okay, you win!” before gently moving them back into the box.
Number three took a while to come out, but four and five came in quick succession. I worried she wouldn’t get to them all, but I knew I was supposed to just stay out of the way and let her do her job. Also, Bob kept saying, “Leave her alone! She’s fine!” to remind me.
The kids watched with wide eyes and bated breath; we all did. It was the most profound moment I’ve had in a long time. To watch this animal be imbued with a maternal instinct so akin to my own felt so organic, so spiritual. Ethel accepted our ear scratches and cooing words of support; she loved us all already, but it was clear she had a greater purpose at the moment, and to witness her determination, her metamorphosis from friendly dog to protective mother – it was an irreplaceable gift.
After pup number five, Ethel lay down while all five babies nursed. She panted heavily, but looked at us contentedly. Five puppies! It was a good number. I told the kids to go back to sleep for a couple of hours before school. Bob had already returned to bed with ear plugs shortly after pup four. I gave Ethel some water and dressed to go teach my 5;45 am fitness class. What? I was already up and caffeinated. When I arrived home an hour and a half later, the household was awake and getting ready for school and work. I checked on Ethel, and found her busily cleaning off another pup. I counted – now there were six nursing, and one being cleaned. SEVEN PUPPIES. They looked like gerbils squirming against each other, already learning to push their siblings out of the way in the quest for milk. Surely, I thought, she’s done.
Around 7:45 am, I walked Neale to the bus stop, and upon returning home, decided to change the towels and sheets from the bloody whelping box. Can I just say: the smells of birth. Oh, my. Anyway – under Ethel’s careful watch, I gently moved each puppy to a clean towel warmed up by the heated blanket, counting as I went. After I had moved seven, there was a small, wet, dark, sliver of a pup left in the box, and my heart skipped a beat. I picked it up and softly, slowly rolled it between my hands, using my thumbs to clear any mucus left in its mouth. A few seconds later, it started moving, and that might be among the happiest moments of my life. I placed it next to its siblings, and Ethel curled her body around them while I quickly changed the linens and moved everyone back into place. EIGHT LIVING BREATHING PUPPIES.
With a sigh of both relief and disbelief, I left Ethel and the pups to rest while I cleaned up the kitchen and started sending around pictures. I had been up all night, but I felt celebratory, like it was Christmas. About an hour later, my neighbor came to visit, and as she took in the scene, she counted puppies, and made her way up to nine. “No,” I said. “Count again.” This time I counted with her. Holy St. Francis of Assisi … NINE PUPPIES. “But she only has eight nipples,” I whimpered, sad on Ethel’s behalf. And finally, she was done. She ate two scrambled eggs, a cheese sandwich, and slept like the dead while her babies sucked milky life out of her.
It’s been a week since the birth day. We moved Ethel and the newly named puppy box into my closet, and that’s the puppies’ official domicile. But Ethel feels safe enough to wander the house, go for walks, and obviously, hang out on my bed while I write. She’s also growling a little less at the other dogs, and she even let Buddy look at the pups this morning. Days lapse into nights while babies grow, mamas fret, and all is both wrong and right in the world. Many of you see a giant question mark looming over my head, and I do have an answer for you. But it’s not what you think. Maybe it’s partially what you think. I love animals, of course, and have a soft spot for dogs. OBVI. But I started fostering by accident when I met poor sweet Bernie at a rescue event, so smelly and sad and looking for a forever home.
I’m a writer, and most writers are gifted/cursed with imaginations that vex them on and off the page. It’s awesome when I’m trying to put one word behind the other, but sort of inconvenient in everyday life. When I saw Bernie, missing half his hair and looking like a rodent, I didn’t just see a pathetic little pup; I saw him sitting in a concrete kennel, literally scratching his skin off, hopeless and cold, trying valiantly to sleep through a night marked by lonely barks and yips echoing across walls holding in an empty expanse. How could I leave without him? It was the same with sweet Ethel. Could I let her give birth alone in the night? The rescue would care for her, of course, but it has dozens and dozens of dogs in its care. Would she be able to wake someone up when she was scared? Would someone coo in her ear and make her scrambled eggs? I couldn’t bear it. If we love our pet dogs, and believe them to have emotions and fears, we must logically despair for the hundreds of thousands of dogs living in lonely, painful hopelessness.
But we also foster dogs because it’s something we can do for our children. We can’t afford to take them on elaborate vacations, or send them to swank summer camps. But we can design these worthwhile adventures for them – the ability to see a dog turn into a mother and a mother literally kiss her pups to life. They watched with wonder as one single life turned into 10 lives, and they have babied Mama Ethel with love and attention, knowing how hard she’s working to keep her babies healthy. On the way to the bus stop that first morning, Neale said to me, “Mom, I just feel so happy we saw that. It was just so life-changing. So questioning.” And I think by “questioning” she meant it was a moment filled with a wonder she couldn’t explain, and perhaps didn’t want to explain. She just loved having it in her heart.
NOTE: Upon further examination, Ethel appears to actually have 10 nipples. Whew.
So the many dogs in our life are teaching our kids about compassion, and love, and letting go. They’re learning that their loss can be someone else’s life-affirming gain. They’re learning that the underdog, given a chance, can turn out to be a hero. And one day, or perhaps it has already happened, they will understand that these lessons about dogs apply to people, too, and in this way, they’re on their way to changing the world. I just know it.