I am a childless woman of a certain age and, based on my lifestyle choice, I will never have children. This thought has been tumbling in my head for months now—often like a tennis shoe in the dryer. It wasn’t until recently that I came to fully understand and accept that motherhood takes different forms and, in my case, is not reserved for those who suffer the pains of pregnancy and childbirth.
Harley drew another short straw and developed an abscess in his throat. If I tried to spell out exactly what they found pinching off his esophagus and displacing his trachea, I’m not sure it would fit on a single line. The cells are weird, shouldn’t be there—and they’re similar to some we found in his nose two and half years ago when he had explosive nosebleeds. Poor Dr. Ireland, he can’t get an easy one with Harley. Always a conundrum.
The day after his surgery, Harley was pathetic. He had a dish towel wrapped around his neck and secured with duct tape. This high-tech bandage covered a three-inch incision and the one-inch tip of a drainage tube that looked like it came straight from a kid’s juice box, flimsy and moist. His eyes were tired and confused, his face sagging under the effort of trying to make sense of the pain and side effects of the anesthesia.
Harley’s delicate constitution was in a tizzy from his antis: antibiotics, anti-fungals and anti-inflammatories. His normal breakfast held no appeal, so I decided to spoon-feed him straight from the can. I gathered a small, manageable bite on the spoon and lifted it to his mouth. He licked it gingerly, taking the smelly, moist mush with his tongue and gently licking the back of the spoon for the remaining portion. Then I saw my reflection on the back of the spoon. That’s when I saw motherhood, when I completely and absolutely understood how I would fulfill my dream to raise a child.
As with all great revelations, this one was simple, stark and unforgiving. I could embrace it or be enveloped by it, enclosed in a life of bitterness for what could never be. The feeling that followed, however, was weightless and calm, like an early spring day on an Oregon beach, cool but with the promise of warmth to come. It just felt right, comfortable. I am already a mother. The more I considered it, the more I accepted it. I change Travis’ diapers at least four or five times a day. Because he’s blind, he needs help walking safely through the house and yard so I hold his collar as I would a toddler’s hand. When we take the boys on a car ride or on an adventure, we have a diaper bag with extra wraps and pads, and their own bottles, snacks and toys to keep them busy. Harley is the independent middle schooler with his own activities and schedule—and medical issues. I’m there to hot-pack abscesses, apply salve to cuts and scrapes, soothe upset tummies, and when necessary, spoon feed him when eating from a bowl just won’t work.
But it’s not just about what my boys need from me. My guys give back, both to me and to the community. They are both registered therapy dogs. Harley visits with troubled teens for Gabriel’s Angels at the Pima County Juvenile Court facility every other week. Those kids communicate more fully with him than they do with some of the officers in their living units. He’s their connection to love, trust and confidence. Even if it’s only for an hour. Travis, although retired due to health issues, helped nearly 25 teams either prepare for the Delta Society examination or qualify, through his work as a neutral dog during the exam. He made a few visits during his tenure and preferred senior men. He was always happy to greet them with a look that said, “I’ve got a few miles on me, too. Let’s just sit and relax together.”
I realize there are some folks who believe equating a dog with a child is wrong—even sad—but I’d respectfully like to point out that once again, it’s not about the dog. It’s about the caring, the nurturing, the loving and all that’s involved in supporting and maintaining a relationship with a being who is dependent on you.
Harley and Travis give love and receive it. They have bodies, hearts, minds and souls. And I will protect and nurture their entire beings as long as they wish to remain with me. Two legs or four, it no longer matters to me.