Wednesday, November 18, 2015

To a Good Dog

"Mama, can you hold me?" 

"No, dear, not right now." 

"Why not?" 

"Because there's a great sadness inside me, and I have to write it down." 

I took my dog, Blackacre, to be put down this past Monday, while in Orlando visiting my parents. He was sick and pain medication wasn't able to give him enough relief to walk. X-rays revealed advanced degenerative arthritis and a mass surrounding an enlarged spleen and liver. The vet and I figured his indignities would only get worse, so I put him down before it got too bad.

It was a decision I made with my brain, and clung to with robotic clarity after having made the appropriate moral calculations. Yet in the moment the wonderfully kind vet asked me if I was ready, a sudden great loneliness seized me and I wanted to knock the syringe out of her hand. This dog - this good dog - had been my dog since I was a much younger woman, and suddenly I could not fathom my dear black shadow passing out of this world. I let that moment pass, because I couldn't make a choice based on my comfort at the expense of his.

Since that moment, I have been mourning that big black dog. Oh I know - he was a dog, not a person, and I don't attribute to him any qualities that he didn't have. And it's true, there are far greater sorrows in this world than mine and I have no corner market on grief right now. But it is good, and right, to mourn a creature whose care was mine for over six years, that God gave to me and I returned. Animals are part of Creation, and they reflect something of their Creator, and I'm grateful for that.

I bought him because he was too big and cheerful and out of control for anyone else. I changed his name from Lenny to Blackacre, and learned to run with him by my side. We went all over in my silver Honda Accord, to state parks, on road trips to Florida, to wherever we wanted to go. My last year in law school, I sent him to live with Tom since my new place didn't allow dogs. He bore this separation patiently and thrilled to see me on my breaks. Tom let him lay on the furniture, so I guess he didn't have it too bad.

But Blacks' true nature didn't really shine until after Tom and I were married. After my first miscarriage, I was distraught - I laid in bed and sobbed all day. He laid right by my bed, staring up at me with his deep black eyes, and knitting his eyebrows into a funny face of concern. Then, when we got pregnant with Zuzu, he was even more worried - because all I did was sleep. I'd wake to his face, resting on the bed, staring at me with that same concerned intensity. He was always worried about me.

Now that we're home in Naples, his absence is even more marked. Last night, I rose to nurse David and there was no click of nails following behind me. After nursing, I did my rounds of the house - checking on all the sleeping occupants, double-checking locked doors, peering out windows to make sure all is well on my sleepy street. As I did all this, I had no shadow to double-check my eyes, no alert ears to hear what I missed. There was not the familiar dark shape laying in the door while I nursed the baby, as there always has been, every day since I became a mother. I went into the bathroom and the mats in the bathroom were cold, which was odd because they're always warm since he liked to lay in there instead of on his bed. My floor has more food on it than before, since my floor cleaner is likewise retired. No dog to let out in the morning, no one to hush when UPS drives up, no letting the dog out as the last chore of the night. It's Wednesday, but I don't get to check "wash dog" off my chore chart list. There's no dog to wash, no sweet face pushed into the towel to get dried off.  The last time I saw him, he was still and heavy, laying on the floor with his soft head in my lap. That picture comes back to me again and again throughout the day, and I want to break in two because it seems wrong that something so beautiful should end.

My Blackacre Valentine was a good dog and that's why I mourn him. Good things deserve to be marveled at, loved, and then missed - and a good dog no less than any other thing, far greater than some things in fact. In a world where so much seems to shift and move, it is grounding to know - there are still good dogs, and they are true to their nature to the very end.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

Postpartum Thoughts

"When her mother reproached her for caring for the poor and sick at home, St. Rose of Lima said to her 'When we serve the poor and sick, we serve Jesus. We must now fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus.' " 
- Quoted in the Catechism, at number 2449 

Teeny tiny David, relaxing while I frantically guilt-sew a doll blanket for Zuzu, which she then promptly threw on the floor sobbing "it's not a dress! I wanted a DRESS for my dolly!" 

Consensus has it that something is majorly wrong with the West's postpartum practices. On various parenting or breastfeeding forums that I'm a part of, I regularly see women asking about getting back down to pre-pregnancy weights or fitting back in old clothes at a month - or a week! - postpartum. Blythe Fike wrote a much hailed post about how to do the postpartum period differently, and it's also been written about notably here and here.

My postpartum experiences have been so incredibly different from others that it's hard to relate, but honestly, my time after David was so much harder. Jen wasn't living with us, so I didn't have on-going help; my mom had to go back home relatively soon, and David was born during Holy Week, so Tom was basically gone for those first tender, difficult moments. And of course, we had Zuzu. I forgot how very emotional I am postpartum - how sensitive and frightened I become. I need more emotional support than I realize - I need people to force me to relax and to speak truth to me that will calm my heart. But this time, I sprung back physically very quickly, and I think this gave many people false reassurances of my well-being.

Zuzu had a lovely Easter this year, which I'm sure she would've had anyway, even if I had stayed in bed and let other people cook. Instead, I cooked a leg of lamb and arranged an egg hunt, less than a week postpartum, because I am dumb.

So the problem is well documented. What is the solution? What can we, as people who value women, children, and birth, supposed to do to create a better culture of postpartum care?

First of all, care for the pregnant women in your life. If you have a friend who is pregnant, inquire about her postpartum plans and needs, who will help her, what her fears are. Then offer to help where you can: organize her meal train, collect money to hire her a housekeeper, or a postpartum doula. Maybe find her a mother's helper, a teenager or older child to come over and play with her other children, or do light house keeping.

As Kendra Tierney says, few things make having a baby easier than also having a ten year old girl. My nieces come to visit and more than earn their keep by entertaining Zuzu in all her toddler shenanigans.

Affirm keeping the postpartum time sacred. It is so easy to see what we value by what we compliment. "You look great - so skinny!" or "She's wonder woman, just had a baby and she's out here coaching the soccer team." Compliment women differently, and honestly - "we haven't seen you much since you had the baby - good for you for making time to adjust." Text these things to your new postpartum friend, write them in an email or better yet, a lovely hand written card she can tuck in the new one's baby book (that maybe you can buy for her, if she forgot!).

Fight the isolation with visits - and don't be a guest that makes work! So often I think women get out so quickly afterwards because they are lonely. They are at home with at least one small child, their husbands or other help must get back to work, their neighborhoods may be empty of any other mothers. After the flurry of activity that surrounds the new arrival, ask if she would like a visit. Yes, this can be hard - maybe you have to arrange childcare for your kids because they're sick or she's not comfortable with them around yet; your own life is busy with many demands. But make the sacrifice, show how important this new little soul is to the community, let this be a corporal work of mercy. Bring food, drink, and little comforts for her and baby. While you talk, be mindful of her - does she seem comfortable? does she have a drink? when did she last eat? does she need a shower? The visit will not do as much good if you do not use it to gauge her needs and either attend to them, or make arrangements for them to be tended to. You will not be a helpful guest if you are making her take care of you!

Jen's strategy when I was postpartum with Zuzu was just to always hold the baby so I could shower, sleep, eat, and cry unassisted. It was amazing.

Lastly, if you are a woman of child-bearing age, make room to allow care for yourself. That is, unlike what I did with David, ask for help and accept it graciously. It is good to make freezer meals, lovingly craft quiet books for the toddler to play with while you nurse, and all the rest. But let your community take care of you as well. It is a blessing to others, as well as for you.

When David's godmother had her third baby this past June, it was such a great blessing for me to care for her. The first few weeks she was well attended by her parents and in-laws, but after that calmed down, I arranged her meal train. In the interim period, I made her new daughter a name blanket and texted her at regular intervals (not too much!) to keep in touch. When we got the green light to visit, I made sure Zuzu knew not to touch the new baby, and brought them several dinners over a few weeks. I would come earlier in the day, and sit and talk with her, watching our babies stretch on their blankets, while the older kids played in another room or outside. I hope it was good for her, because it did such a great deal for me - to see her adjust to life with three kids, to hear her incredible birth story, to revel again in the gift of new life.

I truly believe that respect for the postpartum period will help women be the mothers that God is calling them to be. And that could not be more vital for our society since, as the old adage says, "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world."

At least this little world. 

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