Maternal Instincts

We’d been married for a little over a year, and I had wanted to have a baby REAL bad. Anthony wasn’t ready (which I’ve come to learn, he never is, but that’s a whole other story). So I asked if we could get a puppy. NO, was his reactionary response. I worked on him and worked on him, to no avail. I saw “8 Black Labrador Puppies;Must Placeor they will be euthanized” in our local newspaper. Without thought, I drove straight to the New Haven Animal shelter and rescued what would be our first Black Labrador Puppy. I wrapped him in a blanket and drove him home. Anthony walked in, after work, and Nico (named after a character played by Maurice Bernard), was sleeping on the floor all wrapped up on a blanket. He was only six weeks old– little and shy. After Anthony’s shock wore off and he stopped ranting and raving about how much time a dog would take up and how much he would cost (so practical), we put Nico in the car, drove him to the pet store to buy all the miscellaneous items a puppy would need, and then some. Nico became our first baby. We brought him everywhere with us. Our parents even referred to him as their first grand baby and they fought over who would “puppy sit” when we went away. Nico was a precocious puppy. He was into everything. With him, we learned the meaning of puppy proofing. Once I’d left my leather bag with all my students’ papers in it. Anthony came home to my bag and its contents in pieces all over the floor (we didn’t believe in crating, then) EXCEPT my students’ work. He’d left that in tack amidst the clutter. Nine months later, I was pregnant with our first child.

When Ryan was an infant, I’d lay him on the floor to change him or play with him, and Nico, the active dog he’d become, would be running into the house full speed, then slow down before he got to where I was sitting with Ryan. I’d had Anthony bring home a baby blanket from the hospital for Nico to get a sense of Ryan’s scent. We have a picture of him walking around with it on his back before Ryan and I came home. He was so protective of Ryan from day one which was a relief because we’d heard of people having to get rid of their dogs once a baby was born. We were so relieved that wasn’t the case.

Pretty soon,Tyler was born and Nico had become our boys’ play thing. They’d yank his tail and his ears, they’d wrestle with him, and Nico just stood there with his sad sack– go on, play with me as you must, eyes and patience. He was extremely patient with our children.

He couldn’t have been more excited when we moved from our condo to our house where he had full reign of the yard. But Nico didn’t like to stay put in the yard. He was a wanderer and some of the neighbors didn’t like that. We’d had them call the dog warden on us enough times to get several fines. Each time, we’d erect a fence– having to go higher and higher because he was like a gazelle jumping over each one, no matter how high we went with them.

For the first eight years of his life, I would describe Nico as hyper, jumping and needing a lot of attention. When he got on in years, he began having health issues. His legs would go limp and he’d resort to dragging them. By this time, Alexa had arrived, too and she was a toddler. I was afraid the kids would have difficulty when it was time to put Nico to sleep, something we were having to consider with more frequency, but each time he’d rally. We used to say he had nine lives.

It was at that time, we’d decided to get another lab, though this time, we sought one from a pound. I recall a pen of baby labs and my three children (ages 5-11) peering over the pen pointing out which was cuter than which.

We came home with Bailey (who we’d visited 3 times before he was old enough to bring home); we named him after both the drink and the narrator of The Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey. A chocolately brown, English Labrador with a boxey face was just what the doctor ordered. Nico loved him and he looked up to Nico, following him around like the puppy dog he was. Bailey was a quiet, mild mannered puppy who the kids adored and Nico looked after. It seemed that Bailey as a puppy flashed before my eyes (why did it seem like Nico had been a puppy so much longer than Bailey?) From the beginning, really, Bailey was the perfect dog. He was loveable, smart, and easy to discipline– not hyper. Just an easy going dog who loved Nico. Where ever Nico was, Bailey was soon to follow.

When Bailey was about two, Nico decided to close his eyes for good. When we were out, he’d decided to go down to the basement (a place the dogs were never allowed to go– it was their safe place where they could play with friends who were afraid of dogs); he went to the far end of the house in the laundry room, curled up on a pile of dirty laundry and died. We’d been to Costco to shop, and when we arrived home, I’d asked Ryan to go down to the basement to put some items away. Ryan calls from the basement, “Mom, you need to come down here.” So, I found Ryan standing over Nico. “I think he’s dead, Mom.” So I knelt down to feel his chest to confirm Ryan’s suspicions. We hugged each other and cried. I called Anthony. We all took turns going downstairs to say our goodbyes. I was taken aback, actually, by how much grief I really felt. I cried for days. Ryan’s grief came in the way of anger which he took out on the hockey pucks, shooting them into the net in the driveway. Tyler was such a little man. He cried, but he tried to be strong. I’m sure Alexa didn’t really understand what was going on; instead she processed by asking a lot of questions. We had Nico cremated and keep his ashes in a box. Outside by the pond he “helped” Anthony build, by remaining by Anthony’s side through the process and laying in the ditch while he was digging it before the liner went in, we placed a commemorative stone with Nico’s name and planted a tree.

It gives me comfort to see it every day and remember our first baby.

For two weeks, Bailey sat at the top of the stairs to the basement and whined for a good part of the day. We understood Bailey was mourning too. He’d lost the leader of his pack, his best friend. We knew we’d need to get a new companion for Bailey, so soon thereafter, we added Layla (named, by Tyler, for the song), a Yellow American Labrador Retriever. They became immediate brother and sister. While Bailey and Nico had a relationship that was clearly older and younger brother, Bailey and Layla were more equal, being only two years apart. Layla looked like the little Cottonelle puppy in the commercial. She was such a joy, and our first female. She was cuddly and spunky from the start. She’d be the trouble maker and Bailey wasn’t hard to convince to go along with her. And at the end of a long day, we’d find them spooning on the same dog bed. There was not a time when they did not get along, though Layla was definitely a nudge to Bailey– he’d just stand there and take it. Bailey’s favorite thing in the world is laying on the first step of the pool; early on we’d learned what a water dog he is. Layla wanted nothing to do with the water, on the other hand, but she’d lay alongside the pool while Bailey was in it.

Last summer, Anthony came home from the vet after seeing Labsforrescue, and he immediately looked up the website. “Donna, come in here,” he called from the office. When I did, I found him looking at all the puppies/ and adult dogs posted on the site. He was fixed on one puppy, a little baby black lab, looking all adorable and perky. He said, “Look at this. These dogs need to be rescued.” I asked, “What are you saying?” He protested that he was saying nothing other than “look at this dog” and “isn’t it sad?”

Ryan had gone off to college– something that wasn’t an easy adjustment for me. It had been a long year, full of change and unrest for me. I responded, “Anthony, you can’t show me that picture and not expect me to want to save that dog!” By this time, Lexy was by my side with a huge smile that read Can we? I nodded. My maternal instincts had once again kicked in. Anthony protested. I made the phone call. The dog was unavailable. Lexy was devastated. So I promised we would try one more, just one more.

And two weeks later, we were in route to New Hampshire to fetch our new rescue Black Labrador Retriever. I panicked that I’d reacted too quickly. The whole way there, I was praying I hadn’t made a mistake. I was afraid Bailey and Layla wouldn’t like her or worse she wouldn’t be a good dog; afterall, I’d met the other three. I was taking a leap of faith. And I fell in love with her on just the ride home where she went back and forth from Lexy’s arms to mine. When she came home, we sat on the floor to introduce her to Bailey and Layla– at first, they weren’t sold. They were not so accepting of this new puppy in their pack. They weren’t mean, but they were stand-offish– unlike both of them. For months, she was a lap dog, always cuddled on a lap or in someone’s arms. Loveable and sweet, we’d named her Sadie Brooklyn (a name Ryan had chosen– the home she had been in had named her Anya, a name my family rejected, but I thought it was cute). Bailey was the first to soften, in more of a paternal way. Layla, through her jealousy– embraced the role of middle child, always nudging and needing attention because Sadie had taken some from her. Whenever one of the dogs is being petted, Layla comes running to get her share of love. But Layla tolerates her new little sister; she also lets her know her place. Sadie was virtually trained by the time we’d gotten her at twelve weeks old. She loved her new home and didn’t take long at all to become one of the family. We call her Queen because while the other dogs are only allowed on the leather couch in the family room, we never weaned Sadie off of sitting on the living room couch (which we’d done w/ Bailey and Layla  once they were big enough to jump on it on their own). Sadie is spoiled, but so darn cute. She has such a playful, sweet personality. Everyone loves her.

Chocolate, Yellow, Black Labradors; a set. Our canine family is complete. We are more complete with all of them than without them.

Last week, we noticed a lump on Bailey’s shoulder/neck, he could not lift his head, and would wince and yelp when his neck hurt. We took him to the vet who put him on steroids. After a couple of days, he began to show signs of improvement– signs that he was himself again. Until Wednesday night, when I returned home from a meeting at work, Anthony told me he’d been pacing for three hours, he’d given Bailey a pain pill (something we’d weaned him off of because he didn’t seem to need it). It wasn’t working. Bailey’s head was down again, he was panting and his legs shaking. Anthony called the Vet to be sure he could give him an additional pain killer safely. The Vet told him to wait about and hour and half after giving it to him and if he didn’t respond, to bring him to the 24- hour hospital in town. Bailey paced. He tried and tried to lay down and get comfortable, but each time, he’d yelp out in pain, then return to pacing and circling his dog bed.

We were at the first Vet hospital from10:30 p.m.–me, Anthony and Alexa– until midnight. The minute the doctor saw him, she said Bailey looked much worse than he had last week, and if  it was in fact a muscle or inflammation issue, it should have resolved itself; her advice was to take him to a neurologist at a Vet hospital an hour away immediately. We found ourselves driving in the middle of the night, to the hospital, just like when we delivered each of our babies, I’d reminded my husband– but this would prove quite a different end. Bailey stood on the floor of the car for the whole ride; he just could not get comfortable. He was a mess, and it was difficult to see him in that kind of pain. So they admitted him, putting him on a morphine drip for the pain and to do some tests. We left there at2 am, sad, but relief he was being put out of his pain. The next morning the Vet called and said they’d be weaning him off the drip, replacing it with a pain patch and a host more of meds. They’d said he could have spinal meningitis which the steroids would fix, but they feared it may be a tumor pressing on his spine. We were asked to pick him up by5 p.m., so the Vet could discuss our options with us.

At 4, just as we were about to leave, the Vet called, telling us that as the day went on, Bailey was getting increasingly worse and in as much pain, as well as demonstrating the same symptoms, as he was the night before. She was wondering what we wanted to do. A kind and sweet, caring doctor, dissected all of the possibilities with us in a conference call. She feared that if we did all the tests we could, it was likely, based on his age and symptoms, that Bailey would be no better off than he was right now. I decided to just ask, the question that had been swirling around in my head for some 12 plus hours now, “Are you saying it might be time to talk about putting him to sleep.” “Yes, ” was her reply. Though I knew it, in my gut, it was hard to hear. I broke down in tears. Anthony fought back his, but I know he was on the verge. We decided to pick him up, take him home, try to make him as comfortable as possible for the last night of his life, so we could all say goodbye. I called Ryan who is off at school to let him know in case he wanted us to wait until he could get home.

When we got to the hospital, after a long silent journey, he had shown some improvement. He seemed a little more comfortable, a little less panting. He was happy to see us. He wanted to come home.

He’s been sleeping since he came home, waking up briefly to eat his meds, drink some water, go outside to pee– the simple necessities at the beginning and the end.

Layla and Sadie circled around him, welcoming and gentle. They had been sad all day that Bailey had been gone. Now, he was home and we needed to keep them separate– to give Bailey a chance for the medicine to work and, God willing, heal him. We set up his cage inside, his safe place, with his pillows where he has been resting comfortably. Layla doesn’t move far from his cage, often looking in on him; she’s still a little mopey. Sadie slept next to his cage last night; I can tell she’s looking after him.

A person who has never loved an animal, I’m sure would not understand the way a dog imprints his paws on your heart. He/she is a perpetual baby, in need of attention and care; in return, he/she will love you and unconditionally be a best friend. Each of my dogs are my babies, I love them all the same but differently because they each have personalities of his/her own.

Nico: firstborn, spoiled, hyper, loyal, playful, loving, buddy, gentle

Bailey: kind, gentle, handsome, caring, smart, calm, leader, loyal

Layla: sweet, loveable, loyal, affectionate, entitled, protective, lazy

Sadie: cuddly, spoiled, baby, active, smart, attentive, caring, buddy


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