This weekend, our puppy puked poop under the bed. My bed. At first, it was uncertain whose poop puppy ate, her own or Josey’s, our 11-year-old Lab; it is certain that I woke up on Saturday morning with a child whining about a slightly sore throat and another asking for chocolate chip pancakes and the unmistakable odor of an accident mixed with … vomit. Definitely vomit, directly under my head.
Solo parenting with a puppy is an undertaking most people would resist. After surviving my now ex-husband leaving me with a newborn, a toddler and a growing career several years ago, throwing in a puppy almost feels like I’m showing off.
Solo parenting is something I have learned to make look easy, even though I didn’t choose it. I constantly care for my children except for the handful of weekends a year their dad visits. When he first left, I begged and pleaded to get him to co-parent: my insistence did nothing and that first year he went seven months without seeing our children.
Technically, this weekend of shit was not even mine, but after not seeing the boys for two months, my ex was a no show, not even bothering to acknowledge during his scheduled call that he’d promised to come this month, not even attempting to bear any of the disappointment most children would have felt, and ours do not, not after all this time, not after all these misses.
We chose to add the puppy to our family after my almost 15-year-old Lab, Nora, died last October. When we found her lungs were filled with cancer during an x-ray to check out a lame leg, the vet seemed surprised she was alive at all, and told me I would have to put her down. “This type of cancer, we just don’t see dogs pass on without some help,” he gently told me as I shook my head no.
Nora was my dog. She guarded my door every night, laid her head against my sons as they kicked in my belly, and even climbed into the bathtub when waves of postpartum depression threatened to sweep me away. Nora would always show up, stretching around my body, anchoring a paw or her head on my shoulder, making certain I wasn’t going anywhere without her.
Her last night, I slept on the living room floor curled around her as she sprawled on the dog bed they would burn when she was cremated. Her last day, the smell of death permeated the whole house, so I worked from the floor with her head in my lap, occasionally trying to squirt eye droppers of water into her mouth. She had refused her medicine for days. Her last meal was cookie dough two nights before she laid down for the last time, which was almost a week after she wolfed down pounds of bacon. After a lifetime of eating anything resembling food, including once opening the refrigerator for the Christmas ham, those were the two things she wouldn’t turn her nose at, there at the end.
You don’t leave. You never leave, she seemed to tell me as she spent a lifetime following me around, always underfoot, making sure I knew she was there if I needed her, and then watching to make sure I did the same with my own children, banging her head on the bathroom door when she’d had enough of the baby’s crying, poking her nose into the shower to wet her face and bark at me that someone was awake. Get back in there, she seemed to say. We’ve got a job to do, and hiding in here isn’t going to get it done.
Right before Nora passed on the living room floor, she pushed away from me, though her eyes still held mine. When she started to shake just a little as her last breaths left her body, I told her how much I loved her and that I was so grateful to have had her in my life. All of the food she had tried to steal, toothbrushes and favorite shoes she had chewed up, the times she got out, running through the neighborhood like she was out of jail only to come back to the front door panting for water after I was sure she was dead, didn’t come to mind, not once.
When she transitioned, I didn’t cry until the death smell was gone and the house finally silent, freed from the sounds of her labored breathing, save the howling of her “sister,” Josey, from the opposite side of the house. Josey never sounded like that before, and I don’t think she ever will again. I sobbed so hard my stomach ached for days.
I had never been with anyone as they died, and I certainly didn’t know how to handle death with my children. So I did as you do in parenting and guessed, creating the story I hoped they would want to later tell as their first encounter with losing someone who was a constant.
The alternative was that they attach that narrative of loss to their father, who’s inconsistency both of my children have struggled with during his three-five visits each year. This is what they have always known of him: between the two of them he has watched one birthday candle extinguish with slobbery puffs and help from me.
Once I stopped sobbing, I called my significant other and asked him to pick up my almost 5-year-old from daycare. I managed to make it to school to pick up my 6-year-old from his after school art class, and together, we laid down by Nora’s stiffening body and told her goodbye before we dropped her off at the same vet who was sure a shot would be the end of her life, not a day of letting go in my lap.
The con of this approach was that my first grader started to draw pictures of Nora’s dead body, talking often of how much he missed her, writing stories about how much he loved her, and penning letters to Santa asking for three things: help for his mom, a trip to the North Pole and a puppy “because we miss Nora.” But, the pro was that he stopped asking if he could get a new dad, one who would stick around, for Christmas.
Josey, in her own way, also let us know of her grief, barely rising from her dog bed and for the first time ever, expressing little interest in anything that rolled. She suddenly had accidents all over the house and I worried we might lose her too. “Josey is sad,” one of my sons told me. “Can’t we get her a puppy?”
Just like when I was pregnant with my second son, I wondered if I had room to love someone else as completely as I already loved Nora. It’s easy to forget our hearts expand like deep breaths, giving out as much as we allow ourselves to take in.
The Friday night before Christmas, about ten weeks after Nora transitioned, I decided if we could find the right puppy we would get one. We’d leave it up to God, Nora up above, and my mom, who lived in rural Texas and knew all sorts of people.
Less than 24 hours after texting my mom to make my request, she had a litter identified, raised by a family in their home, who were ready to be chosen. The next day, after ice-skating and breakfast with Santa, we were receiving photos of Emmy, our new puppy, while we settled into seats at the Nutcracker. As we watched Clara and the children get their presents on stage, I felt like we were in our own ballet: we would have a new member of the family after the New Year.
“Mom, what’s that smell?” Jack, my now five-year-old, asks as he snuggles closer to me.
“I’m pretty sure something bad happened with Emmy. It smells like poop, but it has to be puke because I think it’s under the bed and she can only scoot around on her belly under there.”
“So gross,” my older son, Miles, says as he darts out of the bed, ensuring he won’t be asked to help clean up.
I get out of bed and grab a big wad of toilet paper, wiping up a few smears close to the nightstand, grateful we put in hardwood floors before the puppy, and certain there’s something resembling a monster under the bed. I start to push the frame away from where I see slimy puddles with my iPhone flashlight. I start to gag.
“Mom! Are you ok?” Miles yells from the master bathroom where he turns on the shower and gets in before I can answer, his little brother not far behind.
“All good. Stay there, I’ve got this. It just smells. Really bad,” I holler back as I wipe up the poop vomit, dry heaving as I flush each pile down the toilet.
By the time the boys get out, I have sprinkled tea tree oil over the floor, lit two candles after washing my hands three times, and Emmy is in my lap. Despite bad backyard choices, her wagging tail and attempts to give me puke smelling kisses indicate she’s fine.
The boys come out wrapped in towels and sit down next to me to pat her too. Josey lays behind me, and our family of five is quiet for a moment before the boys get back up to go get dressed.
“That was really gross, Mom. Thanks for taking care of it. You do a lot of things for us, and I love you. When are you making pancakes for us?” Miles pats my shoulder and puckers his lips for a kiss.
They are gone before I can reply, and what I want to say is this: That’s what you do for those you love. You choose them, and then you love them even when it’s hard. Showing up when things are full of shit seems to be where love starts, or maybe how we realize we have it: waking up in the middle of the night for the tenth time when you want to pretend you can’t hear the crying, coming out of the bathroom to parent alone instead of sobbing in the tub, pulling out the bed to look for mounds of poop and puke when you had hoped to sleep in because your kids are finally old enough to allow that.
We answer the call to love even when we’d rather not, because we made that choice long before we gave up sleep, and long before we roll up our sleeves to do the really hard work of simply showing up.
At the end of the day, isn't that what we are here for? To take care of each other, and in turn, take care of ourselves, weaving magic and love through all that we touch: could that be our universal purpose?
You don’t leave. You never leave. We’ve got a job to do.
Already, I look at my children and wonder how they will choose to love and I marvel at the choices they are already making. Sometimes, I even marvel at my own.
All of these things, I want to say to my boys, and maybe someday, I will. Instead, Emmy, Josey, and I go downstairs to make those pancakes.
Guest post written by Lacey Schmidt. “My mom does everything,” is how her then three-year-old once described Lacey. Most days, it feels true. Solo parent to Miles and Jack, Lacey is an HR leader by career, Mom always, and all else in the cracks she can find.