We brought Cindy home for the first time a few hours after she was spayed. The vibrant, bouncy puppy we fell in love with at the shelter the day before now lay at our feet, worn out and unresponsive. She wore a large plastic cone on her head to prevent her from biting the stitches. I remembered Ethan as a toddler, laughing the first time he saw a dog outfitted like that.
“Look!” He’d pointed excitedly from his stroller. “A flashlight doggie!”
Now as Ethan studied our new little Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, he wore a worried frown.
“What if she never gets better?” he asked me.
“She will,” I promised, stroking her head. “By tomorrow she’ll be playing like crazy.”
The next morning Ethan and Cindy both bounced into my room a full hour before the 7 a.m. alarm.
“She’s okay,” Ethan announced happily.
“So I see.” Cindy weighs seven pounds and has brown fur with an auburn tinge. With her delicate legs, long neck, and pointed ears she resembles a small deer. At the moment, she was attempting to uncover me by yanking on a corner of my quilt with her teeth. “You’d better take her out.”
Ethan returned a few minutes later with flip-flops on his feet and a sweatshirt pulled over his pajamas.
“Come on, Little Love,” he cooed as he put on her leash. I smiled, hearing a perfect echo of the way I sweet-talk to him.
They returned from their walk as I was pulling breakfast together.
“Two pees and a poop,” Ethan reported dutifully. He filled Cindy’s food bowl. She came over to sniff it but then took a few steps backward.
“I thought she’d be really hungry after yesterday,” Ethan said, referring to the fact that she hadn’t eaten due to her surgery.
“She has a lot to get used to,” I told him. “Give her time.”
He took some kibble out of the bowl and offered it to her in his cupped hand. Cindy walked away from him and plopped down by my feet.
“She doesn’t like me,” he said sadly.
“Oh, honey, she will. She really doesn’t know either of us yet.”
He picked up her Nylabone and brought it over to her. “Here you go, girl,” he said, crouching down.
She gave him what did seem to be a rather cool look.
“She hates me,” he announced.
For the next hour, Ethan fussed over Cindy. He offered her toy after toy, none of which she showed any interest in. He picked her up only to have her squirm out of his arms. He tried various ways to get her to eat but she remained suspicious of her food bowl.
I could tell that his anxious attention was making Cindy anxious too. As soon as he left for school, she picked up the Nylabone she’d rejected earlier and began chewing industriously.
“He means well,” I told her when she came over a few minutes later and curled up in my lap.
I thought about how much Ethan reminded me of myself as a nervous new parent. I’d hovered over him in his first weeks in just the same way, picking him up and putting him down again, shaking rattles at him, singing song after song as I fed and changed him. Because of my cerebral palsy, I’d felt especially unsure of myself. Was I holding him securely enough? Maybe I was holding him too tightly. Could he tell how awkward I felt when I transferred him to my weak right arm to answer the phone?
It touched me to remember how I’d tried to do everything so perfectly. Now I saw that same earnestness in Ethan, as well as a new gentleness. He handled Cindy so lovingly it was hard to recognize him as the same kid I watched roughhouse with his friends every day. Maybe all twelve-year-old boys should be given puppies on their birthdays.
When I got home from work that afternoon, Ethan and Cindy were engaged in a game of tug-of-war with a squeaky toy shaped like a bird. Cindy pulled with her whole body, growling ferociously. This struck Ethan and me as incredibly funny given how small and dainty she was. Afterwards, she followed Ethan as he moved from room to room.
“She loves me,” he boasted as though he’d known it all along.
It’s been wonderful to watch Ethan gain confidence in himself as he settles into his new role.
“I really have a dog,” he says periodically in amazement.
Cindy has turned out to be the ideal pet for us. She’s playful, cuddly, eager to please and, of course, portable. Still, it hasn’t been easy to adjust to the demands of caring for our newest family member. It took us a number of weeks to find our rhythm and work out her routine. We’ve had to figure out how to get her to settle down at bedtime and how to teach her not to nip or steal socks or chew homework. Most challenging of all, we’ve had to housebreak her. She pretty much has it down, but once in awhile we mistime a walk and she leaks. Ethan takes every one of her accidents as a personal failure.
One night we sat on the couch reading with Cindy curled like a cinnamon bun between us.
“I think I’m getting sick,” Ethan said.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, reaching over to feel his forehead.
“I don’t usually get this tired at night. It’s like I can barely hold my head up.”
I bit back a smile. “You’re not sick, hon.”
“What’s so funny?” he asked, his heavy head lolling to my shoulder.
“Welcome to parenthood,” I answered, running my fingers through his shaggy hair. “Always on duty. Always exhausted.”