Willy, We Hardly Knew Ye: Caretaking

Caretaking seems to be my nemesis.  Sometimes it’s joyful, as when I provided daycare (which I prefer to think of as “lovecare”) for my grandchildren while their parents were occupied with school or work.  Other times it was a heavy burden, when I cared for elderly parents (I wish I could say it was also joyful, but I’d be lying:  I am no saint but G-d knows I wish I was.  I came to discover I’m Just. Not. That. Person.  I tried, I really tried, but in the end, I failed the test).

That feeling of failure in myself was so overwhelming, so devastating, so depressing and guilt-provoking that I felt incapable of caring for anything or anyone, myself included, for a long time.  My children were shocked, surprised, hurt, indignant:  Whaddya mean, no more babysitting?   Whaddya mean, you’re moving to Maine, of all places?

It’s true:  I ran away. . . from my loved ones, from my grief and guilt over my mother’s and mother-in-law’s deaths, and I ran away from my own  self-disappointment.  I was never suicidal, but I sure as heck did not want to go on living like this, shrouded in sorrow, in the fog of confusion.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a hairbreadth away from a nervous breakdown.  My health was shot.  I gained 20 lbs (which have yet to come off, three years later).  The world was moving too fast for me and I couldn’t keep pace anymore, but the consequence was not just that I fell behind – – I was utterly lost.

Life in Maine is slow.  No one is in a hurry to get anywhere.  No one runs late, because there is no such thing as overscheduling:  there simply isn’t that much to do.  That’s not to say that people are lazy – – they work extremely hard, physically speaking.  But all the routine stressors of city life – – carpools, traffic, etc) simply don’t exist.

Sometimes the slow pace can be maddening:  if I am behind a car going a few miles below the speed limit; or waiting in a line while the clerk chats with the customer ahead of you; or waiting for a slow talker to finish a sentence (and having to bite my tongue lest I interrupt and finish it for him).  And then I realize that seen through their eyes, my driving is aggressive and my demeanor impatient or rude and I just need to slow down.  It’s harder than it sounds.

I have adapted to slow living (and have, in fact, adopted it), and slowly, my nurturing side is reappearing.  I think all humans need to give and get love, but sometimes we just aren’t very good at it.  I knew it wasn’t healthy for me to shut out everyone except for my spouse, but I also knew I wasn’t quite ready to commit to caring for much of anything or anyone but myself.  But I’ve noticed that lately, my outlook on life has greatly improved, and my short-term memory has gotten better (despite the freak-out I’ve felt when I founder, I also was able to realize that my short-term memory crashes when I’m under stress, but it’s normal otherwise).

One of my baby steps in re-entering the world of caretaking was the planting of my orchard.  It was really, really hard physical work digging holes in rocky earth, shlepping buckets of water (I don’t have an irrigation system), cutting hardware cloth (metal mesh) with metal snippers and then encircling each tree with wire to prevent rodent damage to the trunks, and putting in fence posts and stringing wire to keep out the deer (the latter job was just too much for me to handle and I paid a local fellow to get the job done).  If I did something wrong, or even if I didn’t but the trees still failed to thrive, I would have felt bad.  But at the end of the day, it’s a tree, not a person, and not the end of the world if I didn’t succeed with the orchard.  The orchard won’t bear apples for another 4 – 6 years, but so far, so good – – they are thriving.  I can do this!  This summer I planted 6 blueberry bushes, various herbs, and I’ve just ordered some garlic to be planted in the fall.

Okay, so I can take care of plants.  But although they are living things that require nurturing, it’s pretty low down on the food chain, as it were.  So I decided to up the ante a bit, and foster a dog.

I thought that temporarily fostering a rescue dog would be a win-win situation.  Spencer, our standard poodle, often mopes around the house when he is bored and I can’t provide him with the attention or stimulation he requires.  He loves to play with other dogs.  I’m not really in a position to own two dogs.  Besides the added responsibility and expense of a second dog, there is the practical matter of fitting two dogs in our car for the 11-hour ride between our hometown and Maine, a drive we do with some frequency.  But fostering a dog was temporary:  I could and would give it back.  Most rescue organizations reimburse you for the cost of keeping a foster dog, including food, medical care, and grooming.

So what are the downsides? As a result of their upbringing or relinquishment, dogs may be traumatized and have physical or behavior problems.   Some dogs are given up when their owner dies or becomes disabled; others when their owners lose a job, get a divorce, or  become homeless.  Sometimes a dog doesn’t like children or requires more exercise than the owners are wiling to provide.  Anyone considering foster care has the right to reject a dog for any reason, so I thought my chances of getting a fairly normal dog would be good.  I thought it would be fun to choose a breed different from a standard poodle, so I decided to choose a viszla, which is a dog originally from Hungary that was used for hunting.  It’s a highly energetic dog with very short red fur.  From what I could tell from some random encounters with viszlas at the dog park, its personality was similar to a standard poodle but without the extensive grooming requirements.

To find a viszla rescue organization in my area, I simply did a google search for “viszla rescue new england.”  I filled out an application with some references, and soon got a call about a 6-year-old viszla named Willy.  Willy’s main problem, I was told, was that he suffered from severe separation anxiety and a fear of thunder.  If he was left alone in the house, he would sometimes – – but not always – – become destructive.  The last time his family had been out, there had been a thunderstorm, and he had partially eaten and destroyed three couches!  Now that their children were older, the family found themselves home less and less, and Willy’s behavior was getting worse and worse.  Soon they were relegated to locking him in the basement, and as he spent more and more time alone in the basement, his behavior was getting more and more neurotic; recently he had occasionally regressed with his housebreaking, too.  The owners loved Willy and assured the rescue organization that he had never ever exhibited any aggressive behavior, but that they could no longer handle his shenanigans and their “out and about” lifestyle was not going to change anytime soon.  Hence they made the difficult decision to relinquish him.

So on a lovely sunny summer Sunday, the head of the rescue organization drove Willy up to Maine (he had been living in a wealthy Massachusetts neighborhood) and he was transferred to me.  He came with a bed, lots of toys, food, and . . . Prozac and Xanax.  The Xanax was used to treat Willy’s anxiety during thunderstorms and given only occasionally, but Willy was on a whopping daily dose of 30 mg of Prozac for his separation anxiety and to calm him down.  Yikes!  What was I getting myself into?

I didn’t think Willy’s separation anxiety would be much of a problem, because at least one of us – my husband or myself – – is always home.  Willy would not have many opportunities to be destructive; and in any case the furniture in my Maine house is all vintage Craigslist and from yard sales and dumpster diving.  Since Willy loved car rides, I’d take him on small errands to the post office or to fill the car with gas so he could experience adventure.

Willy loved going for rides in the car (click to enlarge)

It soon became apparent that Willy was not neurotic, but he did have two very strong inherent needs:  he needed to be with people, and he required extensive daily exercise and playtime.

Anytime and everytime was playtime for Willy

If he wanted to play while I was working on my computer, he would bring me his ball and then rest his snout on the keyboard.

If I said, “Go away!” or “Not now!” Willy would step away from the computer and stand there, staring at me and looking especially sad and pitiful, waiting patiently until I’d relent. Willy was masterful at giving guilt trips.

Willy could be quite persistent.

If I tried to ignore him, he made funny faces to get my attention.

He loved to go exploring and sniffing around, and fortunately, he had excellent recall (he would come back immediately when I’d call his name).  So the first thing I did was let him go off leash, since there was no fear of traffic, but with my voice I directed him and set boundaries as to where he could and couldn’t go.  Although I enjoy walking, I am not into jogging, but it was clear that Willy required a faster pace than I could provide for him.  So every morning and again at dusk, I would ride my bike at full speed to the old ski resort up the road, taking a looping trail and finally doubling back to my house.  Willy ran like the wind, easily 15 mph!  He could have gone further but 2 miles was as much as I cared to do at 7 a.m. and at the end of a long  day on a daily basis, especially when I knew that I would be keeping him busy at least three more times during the day with more walks or hikes.  In Willy’s case, a happy dog was a tired dog.  He did enjoy his naps!  He also loved playing with our dog, Spencer.  Willy also loved food, and our kitchen garbage can became a sore temptation for him (I solved this problem by sprinkling Tabasco sauce on the top of the trash).

Spencer and Willy playing

I was sending daily reports about Willy to the rescue organization, and told them that I thought that since Willy had not exhibited any neurosis – he was a gentle, loving dog, and provided his needs for companionship and exercise could be met, he would make a new owner very happy – – I wondered if he could stop taking his meds.  After consulting with a vet, the rescue organization representative told me that he could not go off Prozac cold turkey, but that I’d have to wean him off the medication.  So the first week he went from 30 mg. to 20 mg., the second week from 20 mg. to 10 mg., and the third week from 10 mg. to 5 mg.  He was doing great.  The first time there was a thunderstorm, Willy expressed alarm at the initial sound of a thunder-clap, so I went over to him (he was on his dog bed) and pet him and said gently, “It’s okay.”  He immediately calmed down and went straight to sleep.  So much for his thunder phobia.

There were two things I really hated about Willy, and neither thing was his fault:  he was a copious shedder, and I detested the constant sweeping and vacuuming; and even worse, I found out, much to my surprise, that I was allergic to him!  I have always had non-shedding dogs, so I wasn’t prepared to deal with my watery, itchy eyes, my constantly running nose, and my closed-up throat which was always sore when he was around.  I contacted the rescue organization and suggested that they might want to find a permanent home for him sooner than later, because my mind was in a constant fog from taking antihistamines.

The rescue organization representative assured me that they had three solid candidates who wanted to adopt Willy, but that she would have to do home visits to make sure that they looked as good in person as they sounded on their applications.

Candidate #1 was a stay-at-home mom with 2 small children, who already owned a viszla and was looking for a second one.  But when the representative visited her home, she knew immediately that it wouldn’t work out:  they lived across the street from a shooting range, and the sound of loud gunfire would have spooked Willy; the kids were wild and out of control and rough-handled their long-suffering dog; and the house was filthy and smelled like cat urine, though no cat was in sight.  “But don’t worry,” she assured me, “Candidate #2 sounds just perfect.”

The second family lived a privileged life on Nantucket Island.  Willy would get long walks on the beach every day.  The children were calm and loving.  They already owned two viszlas, and their reason for getting a third dog was that one of their viszlas was getting up in years, and their younger viszla needed a companion dog that could keep up with its energy level, which their senior dog could not.  “I’m so excited about this,” the rescue representative emailed me. “Willy really will be getting the best possible home!”

I met the rescue representative about an hour from my house, and somewhat wistfully I transferred Willy and  his bed, leash, food and toys from my car to hers.  She would be driving Willy to the ferry where he would continue to Nantucket Island to start his new doggy life.  The new family would have to wean him off his final 5 mg of Prozac, but I didn’t anticipate any problems.  The rescue representative assured me she would send me email updates and let me know how Willy was doing.  He really was a great dog, and even my husband (a reluctant dog owner at best) was a bit sorry to see him go.

Spencer, however, did not seem sorry at all.  In fact he was relieved, I think, to see Willy go.  Besides Spencer’s  dismay at having to share my personal attention with another dog, he was just plumb tired out from Willy’s constant need to play, play, play and run, run, run.

Within hours of Willy’s departure my allergies cleared up completely, and life went on . . . for about two weeks.  “Bad news!” was the subject header from the rescue organization lady’s email.  “It looks like it’s not going to work out with Willy’s new home,” she wrote.  “Apparently the younger of the two dogs is feeling very threatened by Willy in terms of pack order.  The younger dog has been acting out, and growling at family members.  He even tried to bite the UPS man.  Meanwhile Willy had to go back on the Prozac because he started peeing in the house.  The kids now prefer Willy to the younger dog, and the mom is feeling totally overwhelmed by the entire situation.  I am picking Willy up from the ferry this coming weekend, and we will have to find another home for him.”

I felt terrible.  In the three short weeks that Willy had been under my care, he had done great.  And now this – back on drugs and homeless!  I felt so guilty!  And I felt so bad for Willy, a victim of circumstances that were no fault of his own.

Fortunately, there was still Candidate #3 willing to adopt Willy.  “At first I was reluctant to consider them,” the rescue representative confessed, “because they are a retired couple living in Montauk, and I was worried that their lifestyle would be too quiet for Willy.  But they do have another, older viszla, so they certainly understand the requirements for owning this breed.  And they do go for daily walks on the beach, so Willy would get plenty of exercise.  I originally thought that due to his activity level, Willy would do best in a home with children, but maybe he needs calm rather than chaos.  Anyway, they are going to give it a try with Willy for two weeks and see how it goes.”

One thing I was sure of:  Willy could not afford to be tossed from home to home.  He needed a feeling of stability and security and love to be the great, fun dog he was meant to be.

I really, really tried not to think about Willy over the next two weeks.

“WILLY” said the subject line from the rescue representative.  I was afraid to open the latest email, and finally  did so with great apprehension.

The rescue representative forwarded me a report from Willy’s newest owners:

Willy is doing wonderful. He has been off prozac for a couple of weeks and has calmed down a lot. We can leave the dogs alone for a couple of hours at the house and they seem fine. They are getting along well and Guin, our other viszla, is starting to play with Willy out on the trails and in the backyard but he has so much more energy than she has but they have fun. Willy has discovered our large fish in the tank so when we leave we make sure that the door is shut to that room. He gets excited when we get home but he calms down much faster than he did before. Guin is getting more used to him every day and sometimes they sleep together. Willy is a wonderful dog and we love him so much.

To say I felt happy and relieved is an understatement.  I don’t know if I could foster another dog, though.  It’s rewarding when it works out, but when it doesn’t . . . even knowing you’re not keeping the dog permanently, you still develop a connection.  When you nurture something – – even a plant or a dog – –  you’re invested.

I returned to my home town a month later.  Even before I got there, my children had “booked” me for babysitting while they went to PTA meetings and doctor appointments.  More caretaking.  More nurturing.  But these weren’t plants or dogs – they were my grandchildren.  Did I have the patience and the energy?  More importantly, did I have enough confidence in my abilities to take on this responsibility?

The first few times were very stressful for me, mostly because of my own insecurities.  I forced myself to slow down, relax, and just savor the moment.  I thought about how appreciative I was that I had grandchildren, and that my children had enough confidence in me to care for their children.  I thanked HaShem that I had the health to be able to do this.  I concentrated on the opportunity to further develop a unique relationship with my grandchildren, and through small, simple acts of love, to make enduring memories with them.

I surprised myself.  “I can do this,” I thought.

And I loved it.

That’s when I learned something that was life-altering:  there is a huge difference between “caretaking” and “caregiving.”  I found the following explanation, written by Elizabeth Kupferman, while surfing the Web:

  • Caretaking feels stressful, exhausting and frustrating.  Caregiving feels right and feels like love.  It re-energizes and inspires you.
  • Caretaking crosses boundaries.  Caregiving honors them.
  • Caretaking takes from the recepient or gives with strings attached; caregiving gives freely.
  • Caretakers don’t practice self-care because they mistakenly believe it is a selfish act.
  • Caregivers practice self-care unabashedly because they know that keeping themselves happy enables them to be of service to others.
  • Caretakers worry; caregivers take action and solve problems.
  • Caretakers think they know what’s best for others; caregivers only know what’s best for themselves.
  • Caretakers don’t trust others’ abilities to care for themselves, caregivers trust others enough to allow them to activate their own inner guidance and problem solving capabilities.
  • Caretaking creates anxiety and/or depression in the caretaker.  Caregiving decreases anxiety and/or depression in the caregiver.
  • Caretakers tend to attract needy people.  Caregivers tend to attract healthy people.  (Hint:  We tend to attract people who are slightly above or below our own level of mental health).
  • Caretakers tend to be judgmental; caregivers don’t see the logic in judging others and practice a “live and let live attitude.”
  • Caretakers start fixing when a problem arises for someone else; caregivers empathize fully, letting the other person know they are not alone and lovingly asks, “What are you going to do about that.”
  • Caretakers  start fixing when a problem arises; caregivers respectfully wait to be asked to help.
  • Caretakers tend to be dramatic in their caretaking and focus on the problem; caregivers can create dramatic results by focusing on the solutions.
  • Caretakers use the word “You” a lot and Caregivers say “I” more.
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