It’s a burden to be in charge, writes Nadine Anne Hura. But it means you can do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. The hardest thing.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.
Original illustrations by Lily Emo.
I miss her most in the mornings. Inky blue sky, no wind in the cul de sac. The estuary where she liked to launch herself, feet first as if she believed she could fly, waits glumly at the bottom of the hill. She would paw my chest, lick my face, yawn so wide I could see the black and purple swirls of her lower jowls. She was foul of breath and irresistible, forbidden on beds and furniture but shrewd and gorgeous enough to get away with it, which is probably half the reason it didn’t work out in a single anecdote.
I wish someone had told me that adopting a dog is like committing to raising a toddler that will never grow up to not need you. Perhaps they did tell me and I just didn’t listen. This is probably closer to the truth. A dog is always reckless and life-changing, but if you’re a solo parent it makes you some kind of gangsta hero in my mind.
At the age of two, Piiata was more work than all three of my children combined at the same age. I would wake in the morning groggy and disoriented, and open my phone to discover I had been hellishly scrolling the internet at 4am with search terms like “how long does the average labrador live?”
The problem wasn’t her. The problem was me. I got a dog believing she could fix our broken family. I had not factored in what she would turn around and break in exchange. Not just hundreds of dollars in damage to property, but emotionally.
It takes a lot to recognise you’re not enough for someone. Sometimes love on its own just isn’t enough. It takes even more courage to face that knowledge square-on, taking action unilaterally, on behalf of everyone, like a responsible parent, like a woman who understands she journeys alone not just by choice, but by right.
It’s a burden to be in charge. It’s also empowering. It means you can do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. The hardest thing.
Right now, you can get online and scroll a thousand ads for dogs needing forever homes because their original owners misjudged themselves. Dog shelters everywhere are beyond breaking point, closed to new surrenders. Dreamers hold on to the past and the future instead of being clear-eyed and realistic about the present:
We are looking to rehome Jericho simply down to the fact we cannot give him the time and love he so deserves. As a family we made a hasty decision when we got him and it’s just not fair on him. He deserves better.
Although rehoming is hardly an uncommon experience, these ads are a site for medieval-style public shaming. I sometimes scroll them just to feel better.
Joanie has always been an outside dog but would love to be inside. However obviously being a farm dog she stinks.
People can be such assholes. Not the ones trying their best to rehome their dogs, the ones who judge the people trying to rehome their dogs. It’s never more lonely to be solo than when you’re making decisions that are right for your family while strangers on the internet vehemently judge and berate you on the basis of no information whatsoever.
In the end, the deciding factor came down to Piiata’s stubborn lack of road awareness and escapist tendencies. I’d started having nightmares she was going to meet her demise under the wheels of a car while running away from me, and I couldn’t reconcile which guilt would be worse: the one in which she lived a long life with people who weren’t us, or the one where I failed to protect her from herself because I never managed to establish any form of control or authority over her.
I needed help to write the ad. The one I composed sounded like a confession mixed with a job description that no one could ever sufficiently fulfil to meet my demands. A friend helped me edit out all but the essential information: Piiata’s needs, Piiata’s temperament, Piiata’s requirements to thrive. Everything else formed the basis of this essay.
When I was six, I came home from school and Puppy was gone. She was a little black and white foxy cross, small enough to wear my dolls’ clothes and sit in my toy pushchair. She looked grand in a bonnet. At the beach, she let us bury her in the sand up to her neck. Puppy never showed me her teeth, but I was always careful with her scars: one for each Alsatian that got her on separate occasions.
Puppy was tough but gentle, tiny but solid. She was ageless and fearless. She was already there when I was born. We shared the playpen until I was old enough to walk. Perhaps she raised me.
I asked Mum where Puppy was but she hid her face behind the overlocking machine and didn’t reply. My stepfather said she got hit by a car.
Alone in my bedroom, my brother told me the truth: they put her down.
“Put her down where?” I surely whispered.
What can I possibly remember about it now with any certainty? Only two things: I loved Puppy. I never got a chance to say goodbye.
I am the cliche. I got a dog wanting to make good on a promise I made to my daughter. Her first word was “puppy”, after the shaggy toy I named for Puppy and put in her crib two days after she was born. At 16, Puppy still sits on her bed. They’ve never had a night apart.
Memories of pets have a way of living on and on and on.
When the news filtered out to my son in his flat in Roseneath he got in his car and drove directly over. He stood at the end of my bed ranting and reasoning. You can’t do this. It’s wrong. You’re heartless.
My middle son was more pragmatic. He suggested we create a roster and invest in another round of training.
The boys’ reactions I could handle. Their self-righteous indignation was easy to deflect. They didn’t walk the dog, they didn’t feed her or contribute to the bills she racked up. They regarded her disobedience and Houdini-like feats as a joke; equal parts impressive and hilarious.
My daughter was the one who worried me. She lay on the bed spooning the dog, eyes hidden from view, stroking her velvet ears the same way she did when Uncle Dazza died. Piiata, normally rambunctious and disobedient, slept all through his tangi. She seemed to understand the shift that came over the household while grieving and let herself be cradled in my daughter’s arms for days, as mild as if drugged with tranquilisers.
My son warned me with all the authority of his 20 years that I was committing the worst mistake of my parenting career and my daughter would never forgive me for it.
She, on the other hand, contradicted him with a fierceness and generosity that raked my insides raw. For days she had begged and pleaded with me, but she had never once resorted to threats.
“That’s not true,” she sniffed quietly. “I do understand why Mum’s doing it.”
It’s true what they say about animals teaching us how to love.
I left the room and went out to the car to cry.
The hardest thing to come to terms with was my own stupidity. Rehoming a pet is worse and more emotionally gruelling than divorce. Now my kids would have to go through both. At least when you leave a marriage there are things to look forward to; the fighting might cease; the household can stop walking on eggshells.
I remember our last summer together, sitting on the beach at Haumoana on New Year’s Eve listening to him tell me about his plans for retirement, visions which included golf courses and mountain bikes and Land Rover club membership. He was sipping a single malt beneath a blanket of stars and I remember the clink of the ice in the bottom of his glass and how sick I felt. I remember thinking: this is cruel. This isn’t fair on him.
Paul lives in Waipawa.
Is Paul used to children? Yes.
Is Paul toilet-trained? No.
How well does Paul get on with other dogs? OK.
A bit about Paul’s personality: I have had Paul since a pup and find he has a friendly personality.
A few years after Puppy died, we got Bouncer. He was a brindle staffy with a deficit in brain cells that he made up for in muscle. I invested a lot of time in Bouncer. I fed him, washed him and changed his water daily. I would have taken him for walks too if not for the risk he might haul me onto the road into oncoming traffic.
I taught Bouncer how to jump on the trampoline – an obvious trick given his name – but he wasn’t a natural and couldn’t easily recover from a double-bounce. He preferred hide and seek, although he was useless at counting and often cheated. For special treats, I used to hand-roll chunks of dog meat into balls and serve them on a fancy placemat floating in a bowl of milk. He barely paid attention to these culinary delights, slurping the meatballs whole before retreating to the back garden to spew them up and eat them a second time.
Despite my affections, Bouncer only cared for Darren. Theirs was a world of two. When Darren left home, and was therefore out of the picture, I thought Bouncer would throw himself at me. Instead, he moped around with his tail between his legs as though he’d been abandoned in a dog shelter with a complete stranger.
After my parents separated, their assets and liabilities were split down the middle and Bouncer found himself suddenly stateless. No one wanted him except me, and I had no refuge to offer him.
Eventually, Darren pulled into the driveway in his convertible green MG and whistled. Bouncer took off without a backward glance, launching himself into the passenger seat and panting happily. I stood on the porch and watched them drive away with a lump in my throat.
Seriously, that dog had no manners.
People applied to adopt Piiata from all over the country. This might be hard to believe until you’ve seen pictures; like I said, gorgeous. I responded to more than a dozen inquiries in the first week. People were prepared to fly her to a beach in the far north and a sheep station in the south. One guy wanted to come and pick her up on Christmas Eve, a last minute present for his girlfriend and could I please urgently provide the address for pick up? I turned all these requests down, because.
I took Piiata on a total of three separate dates. Each time I reached for her leash and called her name she frothed with excitement, oblivious to the cause of all these unexpected excursions. I took her alone, just another unglamorous solo parenting exercise no one would ever bother to write an essay about.
Eventually, we found the right home for her. It was a serious trade-up in material terms. I googled the address and hovered above the satellite images and wondered if they would adopt me as well. Piiata would have literal palm trees and a pool, a two-storey five-bedroom property ringed by its own estuary, across the road from Queen Elizabeth Park.
On the first of several play dates, we were introduced to three different fenced outdoor spaces that Piiata could enjoy – that is, in addition to the living rooms and bedrooms.
A burly guy in his early 50s greeted me at the gate and assured me he had years of experience with big breeds and would have Piiata obeying him in no time. He worked from home, he said, and would be able to take Piiata and her new chocolate lab sibling to the reserve daily.
I noticed a packet of cigarettes on the table and wondered if I could ask if he had health insurance as well as pet insurance, but I remembered my friend’s counsel that there are limits to what is considered a “reasonable inquiry” of a potential new owner.
Instead, I asked if Piiata would be allowed in the swimming pool. He said no, but when we went to pick her up a few hours later she was doing laps in it and my daughter and I laughed all the way home.
The last time I ever saw Bouncer he was living in a tinny flat hung with fluorescent lighting and responding to his new name of Ouncer.
I often asked Darren what happened to Bouncer but he would never give me a straight answer. Once, after a few drinks, he told me that Bouncer died of old age and I was overcome with relief, picturing him bounding over the rainbow bridge in pursuit of meatballs.
“Is that really true?” I whispered.
Darren raised an eyebrow at me and shrugged. “Could be.”
I think he knew that sometimes people need the truth, and other times they just need a story.
In the midst of it all, I joined a Facebook support group for people grieving the loss of their pets. Technically Piiata didn’t die, but the house had the same quality as it did when Darren passed, only this time we didn’t have Piiata’s routines enforcing a structure on our mourning. Eventually, Mum took to the silence with our expensive Miele cat and dog vacuum, filling three bags to remove every last trace of Piiata’s fur from the carpet and furnishings.
I’m breaking down every day. My boyfriend doesn’t understand. I can’t sleep in my bed because that’s where we spooned every night for nine years. The house is quiet. I don’t know how I’m ever going to forgive myself. I love you so much Vinnie and I am so sorry.
On the day we finally rehomed Piiata, another solo mum came with me in a show of solidarity. My daughter helped load Piiata into the boot with the bed she never slept in and her favourite pink squeaky pig. To Piiata, it was just another day. She barely looked back.
Nana collected my daughter in her arms and she sobbed harder and more physically than she had at the tangi, or the separation and divorce before that. I gripped the steering wheel and drove away, reminding myself that the only thing harder than saying goodbye is never getting the chance to. My brother taught me that.
It was New Year’s Day and hot. My friend wasn’t hungover because when you’re flying solo in midlife staying up till midnight is not a reward, ever. She assured me I was doing the right thing, a phrase solo parents don’t hear nearly enough, let alone dog rehomers.
When we pulled into the driveway and she saw the house she leaned out the window and said “farkin hell, will they adopt me too?”
I’ve only been back to see Piiata once, even though the new owners said we were welcome any time. I took the train out intending to ride past the house and sneak a look over the fence. I was not expecting to see her. She clearly wasn’t expecting to see me either. She was dozing on her paws, no shit, in the shade of a palm tree. At first we just stared at each other. More than a year had passed.
Then I called her name, and it was like one of those viral dog reunion videos where owners return after months or years of absence. She was on her feet, bounding in slow motion across the grass, knocking me over in a frenzied attack of the tongue. I drew her in and inhaled deep gulps of her foul, sweet breath.
I once thought we might visit regularly, I even offered to house sit if the owners ever went on holiday. But I was surprised how quickly that idea seemed ludicrous once we knew she was no longer ours. Kind of like occasional hook-ups with your ex, not really recommended.
After a few minutes, I turned to leave. I remembered the advice that it’s important to ensure transitions are complete and free of confusion for the dog. The gate was open, she could have followed me. But she just stood there watching until I disappeared from sight. Then she turned and went back into the yard. She had finally learned not to stray. A dog could live a long life with nous like that.
People sometimes ask if I will ever adopt another dog but the thought is as shuddering as a second divorce. I content myself instead with episodes of The Dog House on TV and Trade Me rehoming ads and Facebook pet grief support groups. I’ve recently joined a retirement site for working dogs looking for forever homes which aren’t likely to extend beyond two years:
Dawn is a medium-sized, female heading dog, aged 15. Dawn will still go out and shift stock but is also quite happy sitting round the house sleeping. She is very loyal and tries her best with everything. Very hearty dog who will go all day and not give up.
My daughter won’t entertain the idea of another dog yet, or possibly ever. The wound still weeps.
My best memories of Piiata are our morning walks. In the weeks after Darren died, if it wasn’t for Piiata, I may never have gotten out of bed at all. I’m not sure if I can express my gratitude to her for that in a single essay.
One day, I vividly remember her chasing a bird through the golf course into the far distance. I called her name repeatedly but she ignored me, as was typical. Then I realised that the bird was teasing her, flitting just above her nose, giving her a good run.
That same night I dreamt I saw Darren walking through the golf course. Piiata was trailing along behind him, a golden flame flicking at his heels, following him, like she never once followed me.