September 23, 2012

Merlin: our fostering experience.

Two months. When you read it, it doesn’t sound like a long time. When you see it on the calendar, it doesn’t look like a long time.

But I learned that it is, in fact, a significant amount of time. Sixty days is enough time to feel a million emotions with great, almost unmanageable intensity. It’s enough time to fall in love, learn things about yourself you didn’t know and feel pain you didn’t think you were capable of suffering.
This is my story about Merlin the dog. It’s not a long one, but it’s an important one. It’s inside of me, begging to come out. This story is for me. My therapy. 

He came into my life when Mikhale, the head of the dog rescue group, sent me a photo. “He’s tiny.” she said. “You’ll love him.”

I’ve fostered dogs before. I’ve loved lots of other dogs before. I’ve had to say goodbye before too, but I had forgotten how much that hurts. So when Mikhale said she had a new foster dog lined up for me, I said yes.

Let me get something clear before I go any further. As a foster parent to a dog, it’s your responsibility to provide temporary shelter, care and love, until it finds its forever home. Temporary. (A word I would later forget, or just choose to ignore.)

The last time we fostered a dog, it was a bit of an unplanned disaster. It wasn’t Lola’s fault that things blew up—it was mine. My heart opened up when I saw her face and on some level I knew it wasn’t going to be a good fit. But I committed anyway. No one else was stepping up and her time was running out. She was a full-grown Labrador puppy. We live in a small townhouse—sans yard—and possess very little dog training skills.

Enough said.

But saving Lola was a good choice—one I’ll never regret. She went on to become a narcotics and bomb-sniffing dog, helping law enforcement in Michigan. I knew she had it in her. The ability to be a great companion and the skills to be a well-minded gal. 

The day I said goodbye to her was only a month before I met Merlin. I cried for a lot of reasons. One: the unknown. Would she be ok, or would she end up back in a shelter? Two: selfishness. Even though she was a pain in the ass, left poop stains on my bed and scuffs on all the wall, she was a love. She kissed me with such gratitude the day we pulled her out of the shelter. Just before she ran me over (giving me a black eye) and nearly popped my shoulder from its socket. 

This is what I thought every dog-fostering experience would be like. They’ll come to my house, cause havoc, beat up my dog, make a mess, give me a gratitude kiss then find a home that’s a better fit.

Oh how I was wrong.

After the Lola experience, or calamity, I made some better decisions about how I’d go about fostering in the future. The main thing: I’d only commit to smaller dogs. I just don’t have the muscle, skill or room to house a young, large pup. I told myself You can’t save them all, but you can save some, and you can try to do it with a little more grace and a lot more logic. Be effective.    

I drove downtown to meet Mikhale on a Monday. She let me know over the phone that Merlin was a tiny prince charming who minded his manners, insisted on tummy rubs and tolerated other dogs.
When I first saw him, I was stunned by his size, overall appearance and attitude. He was small, well-groomed, toenails trimmed, rolling happily in insects he’d found in the grass. He didn’t act like other shelter dogs I’d met. He had this air of confidence (or apathy?) about him.

I loved that. It meant he wasn’t as traumatized as he could have been. We don’t know much about his background or where he came from—only that his previous family gave him up because he marked their baby. Imagine that. An unaltered dog lifting his leg on new things he sees in their home.


Mikhale handed him to me and as I walked to my car, Merlin looked back at her. His sassy attitude was gone and he acted a little scared. Even though he’d only been with her for one night, he had formed a bond. Maybe it was because he knew she saved him from the shelter. Or because she had given him a cozy place to sleep the night before. All I know is that he was nervous.

I did everything I could to calm his nerves. Kissed him, pet his belly and baby-talked the hell out of him. It worked. Within minutes he’d made himself right at home in my car. He lay, belly up and eyes closed in the passenger seat, enjoying the air conditioning and massage.  That air of confidence was back.

My dog Sam hasn’t exactly been thrilled with all of these strange animals coming in and out, but he’s socialized so he tolerates it. It wasn’t any different with Merlin, at first. Sam became a little jealous with the attention Merlin received from me, Chris, neighbors and friends, but he was just fine. Sam will share his food, toys and rawhides—overall he’s a great host.

Over the weeks, though, Sam began to do more than just tolerate Merlin. He started to initiate playtime by growling and flashing toys in Merlin’s face. Merlin preferred to stay on my lap, taking full advantage of the baby talk and tummy rubs. He’s considered a senior (he’s about seven years old) so his energy level isn’t in line with Sam’s. 

But recently Merlin started surprising me by responding to Sam’s invitations to play. Over the last three weeks, the two of them acted like best buddies. Snuggles, tug-of-war, everything.

This thrilled me to no end. This foster experience was so perfect, that sometimes I forgot that Merlin was just passing through. He fit into our lives so well. He went on rides with us, slept in our bed, played with our dog. It almost felt as if we hand-picked him as our own new little companion. 

He knew how to make me feel special. I was his whole world. The one he followed like a shadow around the house, the one he reached for when someone else picked him up and the one he snuggled close to at night. I accidentally started calling myself his mom. Oops.

I couldn’t help it though. It was like a white, fluffy Merlin cloud moved in and blurred my vision, and I lost sight of what this relationship was supposed to be.      

“Lost” is a good word, actually. I knew I was getting in deep, falling in love with this little furball that learned to trust me and forgot about his crappy past. I was lost about what to do. Keep him for myself? Or continue with adoption efforts? Stay close to him, keeping up the baby talk and constant loves, or start to detach a little?

It’s a good lost to be, though. Like, when you get lost in the back roads of a charming, unfamiliar town full of big trees, or lost in the eyes of a person you love.

I was confused, and lost, but I was set on one thing: keeping Merlin and avoiding negative thoughts about the future.  I went with the let whatever happens, happen adage. 

Well, Thursday something did happen. Mikhale received an email of interest on Merlin. We did a meet and greet and everything went well. After a short trial period, we’ll know for sure if he’s found his forever home. So far, he’s fitting in well and I have a strong feeling that this is his forever home.
But wait. I haven’t told you the cool part. His new home is a senior living center chock full of folks with nothing to do but love on him all day.

Can you imagine a better scenario for a mister prissy pants? 

This senior center has a policy that incorporates one dog per 20 residents. They usually adopt from shelters or rescue groups. I DID NOT KNOW PLACES LIKE THIS EXISTED.

“Can I live here, too?” I asked the Allie, the director (who, by the way, was super pleasant and dressed in tie-dye, which earned her instant cool points with me). 

This place is amazing. It’s not smelly like you’d expect an animal-friendly old folks home to be. It’s kept sparkling clean. The overall aura was unbelievably upbeat. I wouldn’t have left Merlin there otherwise.

Mikhale and I chatted about Merlin for a while and Allie gave us a tour of the facilities. There was dogs running around everywhere. I absolutely loved it.

A sweet wheelchair-bound woman with Alzheimer’s politely asked me to put Merlin in her purse—a purse she’d later forget about and deny belonged to her. 

It was easy to see Merlin would be popular there, and very well taken care of.

I walked to my car to grab his vet records and his bag of belongings (which included a tiny teddy bear squeaker, Sam’s elephant toy, bacon treats and a tiny rawhide). 

I left Allie with specific details about Merlin’s routine. Every time I talked I choked a little, trying not to burst into uncontrollable tears.

Hold them back till you leave. Just wait till you’re at your car. Don’t let him see you sad. It’ll scare him.

I grabbed mister prissy pants from Allie one more time, removed his harness and leash and puckered up. He licked me with his mini tongue and tried to stay close to my chest. He was acting nervous, the way he did the day I took him from Mikhale. 

“You’ll be alright here, I promise. They all love you already. Please don’t make this harder on mommy.” I talked to him like no one else was around. Some might not believe it, but they understand us. Words help ease their nerves and they’re experts at reading our faces.

So I smiled and comforted him and assured him he’d be ok. Then I left him.

People ask me “Why didn’t you just keep him?” and the answer to that is long and complicated. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think seriously about how we could keep him. We talked about it often. But if we had chosen to adopt Merlin, we wouldn’t be able to foster any other dogs—at least not while we’re living in this house. The other deciding factor was that in our community, there are strict covenants, codes and restrictions concerning dogs: only one pet per household is allowed. We received special permission to foster dogs, but technically we can’t own two dogs while we live here.

I hate that rule, and probably wouldn’t have moved in here had I known about it before we started to build.   

The main reason Merlin’s not in my lap right at this moment is because I am sure he will have a better life at Silverado (the senior living center). Yes, I gave him a lot of love and everyone could clearly see our attachment to one another, but at Silverado he won’t be locked in a crate for 10 hours a day. In fact, he’ll never be locked in a crate. His little paws won’t ever hit the floor. He’ll be gracing the laps of old folks as they pet him all day long. This is what he deserves. He’s social and now he’ll have a chance to polish those skills while he makes new friends and forms new attachments to the members of that community. 

I received an update from Allie yesterday:
                Merlin update: he’s covered with lipstick from all the kisses. 

So here I am now, with Sam snuggling at my feet, feeling much better now that I’ve documented some of Merlin’s story. I’m filled with warm fuzzies at the thought of his tale. He went from a family that didn’t deserve him to a home brimming with people who will endlessly appreciate his company. Now his real life is just beginning. It may be morbid to think of it this way, but it’s the truth: Merlin will keep those residents company in their last years, and vice versa. 

Aside from the warm fuzzies, though, I’m suffering from my personal loss of a friend. His presence, his affection and all of his quirks: the way he chased flies and growled like he was tough during playtime. There’s a certain emptiness here now.

He came into my life for a reason, and he’s leaving it for a reason. I know this. But it still hurts to wash his blanket and to see his short white hairs in the car. The good news is I’ll get to visit. It’ll be best for both of us if I wait, I think. But some day, I will go see him basking in the glory of his brand new life.   

1 comment:

{amy k.} said...

what a great story! little merlin was so lucky to have time in your home and sounds like you were equally as lucky to have time with him. i can imagine how happy he must be making that senior home and love the image of his fur covered with pink lipstick! haha