Sunday, October 1, 2017

Teaching a sleepless toddler and an anxious dog how to be alone.

"You're going where?"
First, some good advice:

On a flight, if an oxygen mask suddenly drops from the ceiling, and if you haven't already died of terror, remember to adjust your mask before assisting others.

You are of no help if you're gasping through your helpful efforts and then just collapse. 

When our first child Courtney was a toddler, she refused to go to sleep without us in the room. Faced with the short-term agony of letting her cry it out, or the long-term agony of letting her sleep with us, we did what any weepy, sleep-deprived parents would do: we bribed her.

I went to a dollar store and bought a bunch of cheap toys, and a stack of  brown lunch bags. Every night, I placed a toy in the bag and after we finished the goodnight ritual, we offered her the "surprise bag," told her it was her time now, and that we would see her in the morning.

She was too young for language, but she understood that she had to wait for us to leave before she could open it.

Downstairs, through the intercom we'd hear the paper crumpling and little coos of  "Ooooooh!" She rarely lasted more than five minutes. We recycled the items for a while, and eventually traded little toys for cloth books.

Almost a year ago, my husband came across Abby, a ten-month-old English Pointer who'd been found roaming alone by a rescue organization in Texas. Abby's write-up on the site mentioned the words "energetic and athletic!" several times, but her eyes got to me and my husband, who had gone years without a dog, was all in.  

At the time, he traveled Monday through Friday, while I wrote at home all day. But, I am Gumby when it comes to beings I care for and so I said to my husband, "Sure it will be different! But that's okay! I'll just switch some things around."

"You're going where?"
To be near the dog, I moved from my girl-loft upstairs to my husband's boy-office on the first floor. While I took files and tools and lamps and finally, my chair, from the space, our cat Gus, who has napped on my desk and at my elbow every day of his five years, stood watching from the corner. 

Not surprisingly, Abby came with separation issues. She didn't trust our presence, she couldn't bear our absence and she craved constant, energetic and athletic! interaction. She paced in and out of the office, barking from the hall when she couldn't see me. She barked if I went into the pantry or when I typed. She barked when I didn't make eye contact. She barked at her reflection, at the leg of the piano and the ceiling fan. I couldn't talk on the phone. I couldn't do laundry or shower without Abby losing it. 

After three weeks, I had written half an essay and I'm sure it was about dog hair on my laptop. Christmas was coming and I'd done no shopping. I moved from the office to the kitchen table, where she could see me all the time.

"Just crate her when you need to write," said everybody I know.

But this seemed harsh when I put myself in Abby's place. How would feel if, after being rescued and placed in five or six short-term foster homes, my forever family put me in a crate just for being myself?

One pre-dawn morning, while everyone slept and I kept Abby company, it became very clear that sacrificing my own place to make Abby comfortable in hers had not helped either one of us. Because, there Abby sat, looking at me,oxygen mask snugly in place while I was struggling to breathe.    

In the loft, we'd pushed the rolled up carpet against the wall, and where my chair had been was an empty file cabinet. The lamps were gone. It was getting dark but I needed some staples and so up I went, and there in the center of the empty desk, taking in what little daylight was left, sat Gus.

I sat down on the rolled up rug and looked around.

Here was where I'd finished a third novel and started a fourth. Here, was where I'd memorized the oddly bent branches of a tree while talking to our son Sam on his campus walks, or to Courtney during her morning commutes. 

Here, in this small, lamp-lit space, was where I found perfect words to express my deepest feelings and here, was where I could look anywhere and see a thing that touched my life. 

Here was my mask.

Once upon a time, we got kids to stay with babysitters and sleep on their own and venture out to school without us, by showing them that "separated from" does not mean "abandoned by." When it was time for kids to go, we'd all learned that closeness not only isn't threatened by separation, but often may depend on it. 

And so, I handled Abby's need to learn about solitude, and my need to recapture it,  the way any weepy, work-deprived writer would: I bribed her. Her "surprise bag" is a special chew that she gets only when she is to be in her crate. In the several minutes it takes for her to mangle it, she forgets about us and just curls up. We started small, and now she takes herself to the crate when she hears the bag opening.  

Like our daughter learned, our dog learned: when people love you, no period of time alone lasts forever. Parents and other people come back. 

It's been several weeks since I unrolled the carpet, brought back my chair and files and lamps and feather-capped pen that my daughter gave me and placed Gus's nap blanket near the corner of my desk. 

It seems to me that sacrifice and giving are different, in that giving enriches us and the one to whom we give, while sacrifice obligates them, in some way, to pay us back.  

I couldn't sacrifice my loft. Abby had no money. She would never be able to pay me back.

And so, we gave her time and reassurance instead. 

Today, we're all better for it.     

Especially this guy: 
Gus in his spot, wearing his mask.


  1. Love this. Gus is the smartest, isn't he? They always are, those cats!

    You're so right about the importance of taking care of yourself. Thank you for sharing this insightful reminder.

    1. Thank you for visiting, Andrea. And yes, always know where your mask it.

  2. I am glad it has all worked out. I love a happy ending to a story!

  3. What a fantastic story Susan - it's like a happily ever after tale! I'm so glad everyone came out winners - and I particularly love that last pic of Gus back in his happy place :)

  4. You and your husband are so loving and kind........lucky Abby and Gus! It is hard for most of us to remember that we need to take care of ourselves so that we can effectively take care of those that we love. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Thank you, Ellen. It was a bumpy start, but we're having some sweet times we didn't see coming back then!

  5. I need my happy place to write. So glad you have yours back!