Life Lessons From A Litter

So, in the time that we fled Massachusetts and I was forced to make the choice between my family and my career, I have taken time to look at the list of things we all have in our head which I call my ”Ought-a”, I ought-a do this, I ought-a do that…but I never have the time. So, while I have been a dad full-time to my kids who really needed me after being sick from mold exposure, traumatized from having been moved in and out of their home repeatedly for a year or so only to finally have to leave to never return (which is not any different than the trauma they suffered as infants being removed from an unhealthy beginning) the kids are stabilizing and I am still trying to find my footing. I battle financial crisis, a constant ache to return to Massachusetts and to the practice of law as well as depression from having lost so much in such a short time. However, what I have lost in materiality, I have made up for in perspective.

So, as the only person who could stabilize my kids and help them heal, I did what any parent would do, put my kids first. However, in doing that while looking for a job that was more family friendly than my last employer, I took on my “Ought-a” list. So, I published the 4 books I had written, founded a charity, began to reach out to adoptive parents, began to advocate for children’s and adoptive parent’s rights, took a Board position with a national human rights organization and began to speak and teach about the creation of intentional families. Unbeknownst to me, while the former have been lessons unto themselves, the greatest lessons I learned came from a litter of 10 golden retriever puppies.

One of the things on my “ought-a” list was to let Copa, my three year old Golden Retriever have a litter of puppies. Perhaps one of my happiest memories as a child was having puppies and raising dogs. I got Copa when Bryce came home, so I had an infant and a puppy at the same time. However, I knew that my 2 other Goldens (Summer and Ada) were getting on in years and there would come a time they would have to be put down. I wanted a puppy to be trained by my two wonderful companions, so Copa came into the family. Now, having Golden’s is by far one of the best experiences one can have. Summer and Ada are sisters who have never been separated, they have been with me through the end of an almost decade long relationship, the adoption and raising of two children, most of law school and the bar exam, loosing our home all the while surrounding me with the gentle unconditional love only a golden can provide. Dare I say the dogs make me a better person, as they give to me so I can give to the kids….but they give to the kids as well.

Having been raised in a family and with friends who had a farming background, I had been present at calving, lambing time and at the birth of puppies. These simple events that once sustained our culture seem to have been lost on most kids these days. Given that these events held a watershed of memories and life lessons, I thought I should pass them along to my boys. It seemed to me that the cycle of life somehow was easier to envision and explain in teen years when you had been around it while younger. Also, for my two boys, who were adopted, the lesson of watching something develop, birthed, having participated in raising it and then letting it go, would help to plant seeds in them now to be able to understand their own situation later in life. Also, we would keep one puppy to ease the loss on the boys and me as my now 13 year old Summer and Ada are getting ill and will soon need to be put down. They have never been separated and there is not a way that one can survive without the other, so for me, when the time comes, they will need to be put to rest together.

So in October we embarked on the journey of life lessons with Copa getting pregnant. While I did not get into the details of the “How”, they did ask some pointed questions. During the 60 days of pregnancy, the boys got to watch Copa go through morning sickness, ride the hormone roller coaster, get a big belly, nipple development and milk coming in, labor and finally birth. The boys were amazingly sympathetic and cognizant of the changes going on with Copa and asked questions about mammals, other life and other babies and about what I would call coming into being. I answered the questions honestly and in a way that they could understand. As Copa progressed in her pregnancy, her attachment to me grew and the empathy of the boys evolved.

On the day that Copa was in labor, she needed me. She stayed by my side and asked with begging eyes for comfort in a process that is as natural as earth but to an animal who has never experienced it and can not communicate with words is as foreign as it can get. The boys were home as labor progressed and stroked and soothed Copa. They were two expectant fathers, elated, curious, yet terrified. As I saw the first puppy begin to emerge, The boys came to witness the birth and when the first puppy was free and natural instinct took over and Copa became a mother, we were there to wipe the little 16 ounce girl off and give her back to mom. As I took a moment to look at the boys, I could see tears in their eyes through my own, as they had just witnessed a miracle and as a family we grew. The remainder of the deliveries, all ten of them were hurried and fast as Copa was like a puppy Pez dispenser. The boys took charge of wiping the puppies and naming them and recording their sex, the boy’s own natural understanding of what needed to be done kicking in.

Through the first few weeks, we as a family cared for the puppies, Copa feeding 10 puppies was almost impossible so we all worked together to make sure all the pups got fed. When the pups got to big to feed in the whelping box, we would move them all onto my bed to allow Copa the room to feed them. The boys gently handling and caring for each puppy, cradling a newborn who they came to understand was not only blind and deaf but utterly helpless and dependent on their family for support. They came to see how the siblings kept each other warm, snuggled together and how they were cared for and to some degree they came to understand the bond between brothers and sisters as I would catch them talking to one another and the puppies. The puppies grew daily as did the responsibility to care for the pups. The boys along with friends and I began the process of weaning the pups away from milk as the demand was far to much on Copa. The boys took responsibility for feeding the puppies and making up the food for them in the morning and at night, leaving Copa and I to Co-Parent the litter during the day.

During my days with the puppies and Copa, I came to realize she and I were a team caring for the litter together. Now, she and I were different but, parenting is parenting. Despite the Canine world having a pack mentality and rearing style, I came to understand we were not so different after all, we were both single parents. The essence of parenting my boys has always been love, discipline and structure, Copa parented the litter the same way. I came to see the interdependency of the pack and its integration in my family, and realized we were just one big pack. Copa is an exceptional mother. Having been around dogs all my life I was constantly amazed at her devotion and love for her puppies. I know I impute these words on her behavior but it is something you can see. I began to see Summer and Ada take a roll in rearing the puppies as well acting as both playmates and disciplinarians in what was becoming the foster family for these pups. I knew in my adult mind entering this task what was ahead of me and the commitment I was making and what I hoped my boys would get from it, I just never imagined I would get a lesson as well.

So, as we approach the time that the litter is ready for their adoptive homes, I do not feel sadness. I feel gratitude for having been able to share this lesson with my boys and for the remarkable understanding I gained surrounding birth mothers, adoption and now what it is to be a Foster Parent. I have always explained to the boys they were cared for by “angels”, until they came home to me. Those “angels” were the Foster Parents who integrated them into their lives cared for them, allowed them to become part of a pack and then found the strength to let them go out in the world to be loved in a “Forever” family. I use the same terms with the boys concerning the puppies but have been touched by the reality of it deeply inside. So as we begin the process of letting go of these little beings we have cared for and loved, we know how much love and joy they will bring to the families who are taking them in. I know this may sound odd, I never felt strong enough to be able to be a Foster Parent. I was strong enough to adopt two children on my own and raise them, love them and hold them but, I was never strong enough to do all that and then let them go, until now. I learned from raising a litter of puppies that I do have the strength, but it comes from my pack, my family. So, after a year of “ought-a”, I am closing in on the end of the list and now it has become the list of “Gonna”.

While we have been in Maine I have felt exiled and alone. However, now I see the strength in my family and my boys having recuperated from all the trauma and despite the fact I am not fully recovered it is time to move forward. So, I used my only asset, my retirement account and am in the final stages of buying a home in Massachusetts. What I realized is that the greatest asset I have is in my family. I am not sure where the road will take us. However, I did make a call to The Department Of Children and Families, as our pack will do Foster Care when we return as we are strong; all thanks to ten golden retriever puppies

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