Unexpected Freedom

My wife, Susan, and I are childless by choice, but we are not without a compelling desire to nurture.

However, I must confess on this third day after Yom Kippur that my gut instinct was to turn tail and run when my wife first suggested that we adopt a dog three-and-a-half years ago.

I was enjoying our relatively “unencumbered” life at the time: our marriage was flourishing, our jobs were secure, our families supportive and our friends sincere. We came and went as we pleased. No squalling, bratty behavior from two- or four-legged beings to deal with.

But below my celebration lurked an untapped fear of loss, the magnitude of which I would not fully understand until today. I trace its origin to a story an old girlfriend told me more than three decades ago about a friend she had in Hebrew school. He was showering on the day of his Bar Mitzvah when he had a sudden brain aneurysm. His parents rushed in to find his lifeless body slumped in the bathtub – their one and only child was gone.

This anecdote shook my psyche and for years became my shield against making deep commitments to beings outside myself.

Under the pressure of unrelenting love from family and friends, my shield cracked just enough to commit to the one relationship that transformed my life. My union to Susan taught me the joy of commitment, the “New Math” of marriage: 1+1=3. You, plus me equals what we make together.

Still, this joy proved to be no shield against future loss. 

After completing my speech pathology clinical fellowship almost 12 years ago, my colleagues presented me with a betta fish. He wriggled irresistibly in the water and he had the softest, blackest eyes I’d ever seen – tiny portals into the universe. I immediately fell in love and so did Susan once I brought him home. He became the center of our lives and we delighted in how he would almost catapult himself out of the water to greet us each time we came home.

Several months later, our betta fell ill. He became afflicted with “dropsy,” a kind of fish pneumonia. Susan and I were so sad watching him struggle to reach the top of the bowl to catch a breath then sink like a stone to the rocky bottom. We wrestled with the thought of mercifully ending his suffering, but I couldn’t bring myself to snuff out his life. Our betta boy passed one night as I slept next to him on the couch, a sea-green night-light illuminating his way.

It took eight years before we wandered into a Best Friends adoption event at Susan’s urging. We did not leave with a dog that day, but the seeds were sown. Within a month, we adopted our Boston terrier boxer mix, Louie, the most wonderfully-maddening being I’ve ever met.

All was well during our first few months as a family. But then, Louie began to bite. He bit a stranger, my father-in-law and a repair man. Despite intensive training, and behavioral interventions, we could not get him to stop. My wife was in abject terror each time she walked him. Our world became redefined by walls of our condo. Heartsick as I was to admit it, our physical environment, material resources and love were not enough to turn him around.

I cried for months after we surrendered him back to the rescue agency from where we’d adopted him. Each day I thank God knowing that he found safe haven on a horse ranch. Still, I miss my “son” more than words can express.

Six months later, after much grieving and spiritual healing, the lovely Boston rescue, Lilly, first tickled her toes on our honey hardwood . . .

I believe that very time Susan and I dared to love with everything we had, our capacity to love grew exponentially. In the wake of our losses, we chose to love even harder. Sometimes, our love was returned in ways we did not expect. Accepting this kind of love has proved to be the most delightful and freeing gift of all.

Yes, a part of me is now sad that Susan and I did not have a human child. We will never experience what every human mom and dad knows – that being a parent is the best and bravest job in the whole world.

But we have had our own version of that experience with our pet-children. By loving them unconditionally and whole-heartedly, we have tasted the freedom of becoming more of who we really are: beings of love paying it forward.