On Puppies and Babies: a “Communion with Terror”

4 min read

Book rec

AVAILABLE ON PODCAST AT THIS LINK

I have a Kong chew toy but I prefer to eat my bed.

Three dog beds, seven stuffed toys, multiple socks, countless tissues and trash, the corner of my coffee table, a small remote, a pair of Hoka running shoes. I’ve lost count. My puppy Simba just dropped his half-mauled rawhide as I left the room. We’ve taken to shutting doors. Like previous pets, he finds the long thick bedroom carpet a kind of indoor grass for doing his thing.

The gnawing and crunching sound is not unlike an errant jackhammer on the street, interspersed with moments of panting, paws positioning it just so. If I can provide the right chews, our stuff may survive his benders. His right ear remains up when he is chewing and biting with intensity. His eyes close into narrow slits as if he’s departed reality. Drool glistens on the bone, bits dotting his paws.

The chew rampages for a seven-month old pup are natural. I learned somewhere that dogs understand up to 100 words. That likely crosses into our tones, movements, actions—more than we are aware of with canine senses of smell and hearing, orders of magnitude beyond human.

Friends had a baby shower yesterday, or a baby party as I was corrected, since men and women attended. I had just read an essay by Ross Gay, how he never had children but loves them, often observing the communion with terror which he feels exists immediately beside what he calls delight. The gist of the passage hit at the polarity in parenting and the richness it brings to daily life, as well as what was in between the lines, his relief at not being a parent in the recounting. Gay mentions a fatal accident of a girl which kept me from including the otherwise short and rollicking read with my card to the soon-to-be-parents. Birth and weddings seem to signify joyous moments and I didn’t want to darken the occasion with ominous references.

I appreciated Gay’s idea about the coexistence of terror and delight; isn’t that in some measure what it means to care, to care about something so much, as to care more for it than for yourself? My nephew wanders away on a crowded beach. My teen calls from the road to tell me he’s been in an accident. The terror runs into the bowels so fast and hard you stop breathing. The body goes rigid. And then. The overwhelming sensation of relief to learn from a lifeguard that my nephew is found, to hear from my son in his broken voice that he is OK. This collapse in tension, this release, letting you breathe now because you had stopped. It’s a kind of euphoria to regard what you’ve had anew, to see it squarely in the raw.

Terror and delight sit side by side. Simba’s rawhide has gone from forearm length to a size he can turn in his mouth. I took it and set it on a shelf. He has stretched out below my desk, his back against the base molding, tired from chewing, deep in canine reverie. His coat is filling in with dark streaks, his four paws stretched out from the wall are fox-colored. When he’s outside, he lopes about like a wolf, all legs and lean, black in the muzzle. There’s a bit of the wild about him.

Exhausted after his chew fest.

The identification tag arrived with name and phone number, hanging from his pale blue shelter collar, the shape of a dog tag, which is fitting; my dog wears a dog tag. I brush my lips on his head and it’s softer than any plush toy, his ears softer still. I’ve a vaguely distant memory of a baby’s peach fuzz. It is pure delight, irresistible to all who meet him. My mother who sees dogs on par with vermin, has taken to him, leaning over, arms extended and calling him Jim Beam, her transmutation of Sim-bah.

I set my alarm to watch the full lunar eclipse and the clouds were breaking up at the start, the one blocking the moon glowing along the edge. When I woke later, the sky had darkened with the earth’s shadow blocking most of the moon. I hardly slept, waking off and on the rest of the night, looking at the window for signs of the moon. In ancient times, surely they knew when the moon disappeared, it would return. But maybe they hadn’t.

The Vet remarked on Simba’s beautiful teeth, white and sharp. He weighed in at 49 pounds. It’s been a week so that’s 50 something pounds now behind those pearly canines which will average 159 pounds per square inch in bite force. Holy terror.

My friends who are expecting did not find out the sex of the child, so the party theme had animals and lots of greens and yellows. I admire the forbearance because there’s enough of a surprise in everything else: will the baby cry at night, look like the father, have the mother’s temperament, be this or that, will they be a terror or a delight? I could tell them the answer to the last, but why spoil the fun. 

The child will mar the heirloom coffee table, will steal your Hoka shoes, and will wrench your heart apart and bring it back to you.

FOOTNOTES

* The Book of Delights by Ross Gay (published 2019) is a collection of daily, or mostly daily, essays on what delights him. It is a singular practice in seeing closely from a poet and essayist. His short entries will at times crush you and lift you up.

*My expectant friend’s mother Rita told me stories about her as a child. Both parents worked and the father had picked her up when she first started preschool. When Rita had the chance to pick her up she asked the teacher how it was going, pressing for details. The teacher relented, “Well, today was the first day she wasn’t hitting the other kids.” Rita was stunned. Her little girl was a terror when she started preschool and became an even greater terror on the court. She played for UCLA in the Final Four and went on to play volleyball professionally. As Rita recounted these tales, I could see the delight in her eyes.

*Social media skews unhealthily towards delight. I like delight. I love delight, but accolades and platitudes dominate the FB wall, Insta, Snap or whatever. The outsized glamour, undersized bodies of yesterday’s glossies and grandma’s brag book have grown into ubiquitous all-about-me achievement with little if any of the in-between and the dare-I-say-it: terror, pain, and the mundane. It’s this slant, this spin, this perversion in society that I wanted to warn my friends about, not just the coexistence of extremes but of all of it in between. I have albums–the actual physical books you can hold–with photos of my children. They’re smiling, doing, achieving. I wish I had photos of the full on wail of my first, her mouth an O-shape, my hearing nearly lost along with my sanity, for no short period of time, some six weeks of exhaustion and feelings of inadequacies. Or a photo of the sweet round signature, a forgery of my name on a bad test. I do have photos of the flipped Jeep on the shoulder of Davenport Road, the stone wall knocked down. That is in my phone album, because I don’t want to forget about the coexistence of terror and delight. The way that works for me is to see clearly, to speak truthfully, and to act with kindness. I fall short often because that is a tall order, but I am learning. I have three children, the last is 18 and ready to leave the nest.

May 16, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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