January 19, 2014

Love Lessons From a Foster Dog. ~ Melanie St. Ours

He jumped into our car and onto my lap without a moment of hesitation and all of a sudden, there was 45 pounds of wiggly, panting, cuddle-seeking dogginess filling up the back seat of our car.

Bruno was a young dog with attentive eyes, ears so soft they elicit cooing from everyone who touches them and floppy lips that droop down just below his lower jaw. My partner Adam and I had been talking about volunteering as foster parents for a local rescue organization for weeks and after lots of deliberation we were bringing our first charge home.

The decision hadn’t been easy. We wondered if we had enough space in our one-bedroom apartment and whether or not we had enough time to spare. How would my ornery 19-year-old parrot react to having to share the spotlight? And what would we do during the holidays?

Most of all, we kept coming back to that central question, the one that’s the first out of anyone’s mouths at the mention of fostering:

“Won’t you get attached? How will you feel when you have to give him up?”

There was no easy answer to that question. I didn’t know how it would feel.

I did know that an unthinkable number of dogs are euthanized each year for want of a home. The Humane Society estimates that 2.7 million adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year. That’s about 80,000 per week. I knew that by being foster parents, we had the chance to save dogs who otherwise would be euthanized. Adopting saves a life and that’s no small feat. Yet fostering has the potential to have an even bigger impact. By fostering, Adam and I could potentially save many dogs each year. We’re both committed to animal rights and it was this commitment that swayed us to give fostering a try.

Within the first week of Bruno’s arrival, it was clear that Adam and I had fallen in love with him. He slept on our laps, tried to lick the coconut oil off my legs after I got out of the shower, scrambled after his tennis ball with improbable speed and charmed our friends and family with his cuddly personality, soft ears and eagerness to please. Saying goodbye was the farthest thing from our minds.

I started thinking about fostering as a practice, something like yoga for my heart. It’s not uncommon for me to be halfway through a sweaty yoga session, beads of sweat tickling my nose because I can’t spare the back of my hand to wipe the sweat away without conspicuously falling to the ground with a loud thud, and finding my mind saying things like, “This is so hard!!! Stop doing it!

What makes the practice yoga and not just calisthenics is that when I have those thoughts, I’ve been taught to notice them. The way I react to difficulty, pleasure, failure and joy on my yoga mat are the ways I react in the rest of my life. Inside of my yoga practice, I have a protected little microcosm in which I can discover my patterns, work on them and create transformation.

Like my hatha practice, I knew fostering wouldn’t always be comfortable or easy, but my aspiration in life isn’t to seek comfort above all else. My aspiration is to live according to my values, to grow in my capacity to love and be loved, and to make a real difference for others to the extent that I am able. Whatever pain I might feel at saying goodbye, I knew that being a foster parent lined up with my values. I suspected that if I could just stay conscious and watch myself with the same self-reflective gaze I use in yoga class, the practice of fostering would also provide me a chance to learn more about how I bond, how I love and how I let go.

Just over a week ago, I got an email from the rescue coordinator that there was a really nice adopter who wanted to meet Bruno. “Fingers crossed!” she wrote. I put the phone down and slid into bed beside Adam.

“Bruno might have found an adopter,” I said. Somehow, even though we’d known that this was coming, it felt like a shock. A few minutes later, I laid awake staring at the ceiling hearing soft snores from both directions, Adam to my left, Bruno in his crate to my right. I listened to their breathing and felt the waves of loss start to lap at the edges of my heart.

I watched my mind start to wriggle and grasp. “Maybe we could adopt him. Maybe this person will back out. Maybe I should listen to a podcast and just stop thinking about this.” My mind ran through all of its tricks, but eventually, I fell asleep with beloved beings breathing on either side of me.

It’s easy to forget that love always entails loss. All life is fragile. Relationships are fragile, too. It comes as a shock when a relationship disintegrates, a loved one dies or moves away, or the bond seems to change irrevocably.

Letting go of Bruno was practice for me. Not in the sense that I’ll hurt any less when I experience another loss in my life, but in the sense that now I know to watch out for my mind’s tendency to grasp, to bargain, to over-intellectualize and to seek distraction from the pain.

We met his forever-family at the same place we’d first met Bruno. They’re a couple who recently lost their beloved dog Oliver, who had been 14 years old when he died. Bruno’s adoptive Dad showed me pictures of Oliver lounging in the sun on the last vacation the family had taken together before Oliver passed away. Bruno’s adoptive Mom walked him all around the yard, cooed over his soft ears and beautiful coat, and he nestled close to her body when she knelt down to the ground.

We told them about his favorite treats (kale stems, apple pieces and peanut butter), his obsessive love of cuddling, and that we’d always hoped he’d find a family that would let him sleep in the bed next to them (we wouldn’t, but Bruno never gave up hope.)

And when it was time to go, Bruno jumped right into their car without a moment of hesitation. My heart cracked open just a little more and the tears started flowing. I turned my back because I didn’t want his adoptive parents to see me crying. I knew that they were standing where I’d once stood. They were feeling the joy and anticipation of finally being with a longed-for companion.

It was a long, empty drive home. It’s empty today as I write here at my desk without Bruno sleeping on my feet. I miss him. I love him. And I know that he’s in a good place.

Adam and I plan to welcome our next foster dog right after Christmas. Now, I finally know what to say when people ask me, “Won’t it hurt to give her up?”

“Yes,” I’ll tell them, because it will hurt. I’ll also try to explain that it’s the best practice I’ve ever had in how to love wholeheartedly in an uncertain world.

Maybe I’ll tell them how loving and losing Bruno helped me gain closure over past heartbreak, helped me express my love and devotion to Adam more openly and showed me the ways that I tend to stiffen in the face of emotional pain. Maybe I’ll compare fostering to the practice to yoga or to other kinds of service they can relate to.

And maybe, if I stay true to this practice, as the sweet faces and wagging tails come and go through my life, my loved ones will watch me grow in my capacity to love and be loved and deepen in my commitment to the rights of all beings to be safe, happy and free. Perhaps, one day, some of them will join me.

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