I dreamt we owned a donkey. We kept it in our backyard, fenced into a home-made pen. But I kept forgetting to buy hay to feed it (is that even what you feed donkeys?) and so it would bust through its rickety fence and eat our grass, braying mournfully.
I the dream, I kept looking out the window and seeing the donkey. Then I would suddenly remember that I needed to find a new home for the donkey before we moved to Brazil. That would lead me back to remembering that I needed to feed the donkey, and I’d yet again forgotten to buy hay.
The feeling of shame and guilt was palpable. The feeling that I had taken on the responsibility of a living thing and now I was shirking it. Worse, the dream donkey was suffering because of me.
This dream is really about my dog. I adopted Django the week after finishing my first year of teaching. It was my first full-time job and I had some disposable income and an apartment in Brooklyn that allowed pets. I didn’t have a boyfriend, and I’d wanted a dog for a long time. In the first week in July, I had two months of limitless free time ahead of me.
I rode the Long Island Rail Road out to the North Shore Animal League. I walked through the grown dog room and the puppy room, but didn’t find a dog that felt right for me. Finally I wandered into the recovering puppy room. I saw a little black and white dog barking and rolling around happily on his back. I took this as a good sign. Other puppies cowered, shivering in the back of their cages.
A volunteer stepped forward and asked if I had any questions.
“What’s on that tag around his neck?”
“Let me see,” the volunteer said as she opened the cage and pulled him out. “Vomiting, diarrhea, upper respiratory infection, heart murmur,” my eyes were wide at this point, “and anorexia.”
“Dogs can have anorexia?”
“But he’s recovering from all of these things!” she said quickly. “He’s taking medication and is expected to make a full recovery.”
The volunteer had put the puppy in my arms, and I’m sure my face was going through that car wash of love and hesitation.
“Do you want me to bring out a vet tech to talk to you?” she asked.
I nodded. The vet tech emerged to reassure me that the head cold and puking were treated with medication that they would give me to take home so I could finish the course. The heart murmur wasn’t uncommon and would probably clear up on its own.
“And the anorexia?”
It turned out he had been brought from a kill shelter in Virginia to this no-kill shelter on Long Island. He’d been through quite a bit, and it made sense that he was not interested in eating. If he was adopted and loved on—the theory went—he would start eating again.
I adopted that fixer-upper puppy. You may have read the story in my “Agridoce” post about carrying him home in a cat box only to drop the box on the subway platform. I thought I’d paralyzed him, but he was just stretching. His legs are fully functional.
6 months later, I met the man who would become my husband. A few months after that, we moved in together. 2 years later we moved to Nashville pregnant with our first child, and we bought a house with a fenced-in backyard for Django.
Calvin was born that December. The daily walks with Django ground to a halt. The belly rubs and couch snuggles were replaced by baby bouncing and rocking marathons. In a haze of sleep deprivation, I lost my temper and snapped at Django when he shook and the clang of his tags woke the baby up after I’d spent an hour bouncing him to sleep.
Django tucked tail and slinked out of the room, and henceforth decamped to the opposite end of the house.
The baby became a toddler and a baby sister joined him. The sister became a toddler and another baby came home from the hospital.
Django looked at me with mild surprise and a little disdain. Another one?
I will admit that I’d grown weary of being a dog owner. No one prepared me for this. I thoughts babies and dogs were soulmates (mine were not) and I wasn’t warned about how I’d feel about my dog after having a bunch of tiny humans to care for.
When my sister-in-law, Amanda, got pregnant, I confessed that I was struggling with balancing the kids and Django. I warned her she might feel that way about her dog, Sadie.
“I’ve always had dogs,” she said. “We’re dog people and we’ll always have dogs.”
But when her twins turned two, she had arrived to a similar place. I felt a sense of relief in the camaraderie. Maybe I wasn’t just a jerk dog owner and flunky mom.
“I’m not a good dog mom anymore,” Amanda said. She just didn’t have time for all the things she used to do with Sadie. Yes, Sadie was still loved and had food and vet care, but, like Django, she didn’t have the life she used to.
That’s exactly it. I knew I wasn’t a great dog owner anymore. I didn’t have much more to give after my kids went to sleep. I was touched out. I wanted time for myself, rather than time caring for the needs of another living thing.
Django is 10 now. Over the past few years, when we talked about international teaching jobs, Django had been a factor holding us back.
Last fall, when we started really looking at jobs, David again asked me about Django.
“We’ll find him a new home,” I said. “It happens. Sometimes you have to find your dog a new place to live.”
He was too old for 15 hours in the belly of a plane. Add in apartment life and we really couldn’t take him. It’s hard to confess this, but I felt relief that we wouldn’t be dog owners anymore. I can say all of those reasons, but this just feels like the right thing for us and him. I need a break from the mournful braying in my mental backyard.
I took pictures of Django and posted them on social media, asking if anyone wanted to adopt a very smart, very calm dog. Within the hour, I got a call from Amanda in Minnesota. Sadie had died the year before, and as she heard we were moving and not going to take Django, she’d talked with her husband and agreed that they would take him.
But this is the dream I’m having about the donkey. I am so worried about Django. I’m exhausted by caring for him, but it weighs on me. He’s my responsibility. I’m looking forward to not being a dog owner, not because I don’t love my dog, but because it’s hard to look my crappy dog parenting in the face every day. I’m ready to release that guilt.
And yet, my third child who is still just a toddler loved Django (Dado was one of his first words) and he hollers “Dog!” with joy when people walk their dogs in front of our house. Hello again, guilt.
Another layer of worry is that my sister-in-law has a cat and Django is terrified of cats. Back in New York, a little bodega cat on W. 106th street named Dinghy used to pop out of milk crates on the sidewalk and charge Django, spitting and hissing. I’m worried about Django living in fear of the very sweet cat. The donkey of guilt is braying in the backyard.
I forgot to take Amanda Django’s records when we dropped him off with her on Easter weekend. I got out a big manila envelope and went through all the paperwork I had in a filebox. The things on top were the most recent. Shot records, a teeth cleaning. Behind the Tennessee records were the ones from Manhattan, and Brooklyn before that. At the very bottom of the stack I found Django’s original adoption papers. I sat on the floor of the dining room and cried.
It’s June now, and I get regular texts from Amanda with photos of Django. My nieces dress him up in bows and draw his portrait in chalk on the sidewalk. He’s slipped out of their backyard a few times (he loves a jaunt about the neighborhood) but the neighbors found him and brought him back. Django is even warming to the cat.
I don’t know what the resolution is. Am I a bad person for adopting a dog and then having three kids and moving away? Or, have I given my two nieces fun memories with a sweet dog? Does Django even remember me or understand distance or time or guilt? Maybe this one doesn’t resolve, it just ends, but at least the dog doesn’t die.