I finally understand parenthood - sort of

The scenario could have wrung maternal feelings out of a turnip. In my case, it unleashed an ocean.

I truly thought my friends had gone mad.

Two by two I watched them drift off to parenthood. And once they went, it was as though they had removed themselves to some distant corner of the universe.

I could see them standing on their far-away planet and still wave to them there, but we could no longer talk. Their conversation had become utterly incomprehensible to me.

It seemed largely to revolve around topics as esoteric as Italian strollers, the virtues of organic baby food, and whether or not 18 months was the right age to begin swimming lessons. There were also frequent, passionate declarations of love for the baby, combined with statements like, "Nothing else matters to me anymore."

Nothing else matters? I marveled. What form of insanity is this? I spent most of my time feeling completely baffled.

Until, that is, the day I met Sheba.

Sheba is not a baby. Sheba is a small black dog. I walked into an animal shelter in East Harlem one day and saw her huddled in the back of a cage - trembling and forlorn, seemingly without a friend in the world.

It was a scenario that would have wrung maternal feelings out of a turnip. In my case, it unleashed an ocean.

For one sudden transforming moment, the whole rest of the world ceased to exist. I wanted nothing except the right to take this abandoned little dog home and make her safe, warm, and happy.

In short, at that exact moment, a parent was born. I had become the mother of a dog. And as I did, I found I had landed perhaps not exactly on the same planet as my friends, but at least in a remarkably parallel universe.

An entirely new set of questions suddenly filled my days and nights: Which deluxe fiber-fill dog bed would best suit Sheba? Would dry food be better for her than wet? Did she need a raincoat? How often should I bathe her?

An unusual set of books also began stacking up on my bedside table. The Italian literature and travel sagas that I used to fancy suddenly gave place to titles like, "Become Your Dog's Best Friend," and "Understanding the Mind of Your Dog." No matter how many such volumes I consumed, I hungered for yet another.

At the same time, photography exercised a brand-new fascination for me. I began amassing stacks of pictures of Sheba: Sheba running, Sheba sitting, Sheba sleeping, Sheba simply looking at me, perplexed.

For conversation, I needed to go to the dog run. Only the other canine-obsessed folks I met there could bear to discuss with me at length the pros and cons of using a choke collar for training.

But it wasn't until doggie day care that I realized how entirely parenthood had gripped me.

A number of Sheba's buddies from the dog run frolicked together during the work day in an establishment set up in the basement and back yard of a local pet shop. They all seemed to enjoy it immensely.

So one morning I brought Sheba. She sniffed all over, greeted everyone, and wagged her tail happily. Great, I thought, as I prepared to leave for the office. This will be wonderful.

In no way was I prepared for what followed. Suddenly my little dog was prostrate on the ground, stiff and flat as a piece of cardboard. Her ears were tucked tight against her head, and her yelps were desperate.

There was no crueler act I could possibly commit, she seemed to be telling me, than walking out the door without her.

Fortunately Jimmy, the pet-store owner, had both strong arms and a kind heart. In one quick motion he swept Sheba up to his chest like a baby, rocking her gently and crooning softly that all would be well.

For me he had just one word. "Go," he said, pointing firmly to the door.

I barely made it out to the street before the tears started. I knew how ridiculous I was being, but there wasn't much I could do about it. I cried all the way along 86th Street and at least half the way down Fifth Avenue.

Of course I knew that by then Sheba was already playing happily with her pals Morty the dachshund and McDuff the feisty black Scottie. Her fear and pain had undoubtedly been wiped out in moments, and mine needed to be as well.

But I had never understood before how terribly difficult it is to invest so much of your heart in a tiny creature that you must at times part from and entrust to others.

And so I thought with wonder of my friends and their parenthood. It seemed remarkable now, not that they had spilled so many words on the topic, but rather, that they had been so restrained. How had they managed to feel these things, and yet ever speak of anything else?

But they had somehow, I realized, and so must I. So I dried my tears, made it to the office, and somehow got through the day without calling the pet shop even once.

Of course, when I arrived that night I couldn't wait to get my arms around the happy, bouncing bundle of black fur that rushed to greet me.

This "parenthood" stuff is insanity indeed, I thought, as a wild pink dog-tongue swept joyously across my face. But really, who would want it any other way?

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