From early childhood there were two things I always loved and longed for: babies and dogs.
When I was 21, I got the dog. An eight-week old Golden Retriever/Black Labrador mix, offered up through an ad in the paper for free. There was one female left. I took her home and named her Ella. That was twenty years ago.
At the time I was hopeful that I had found a fairly permanent home in an old farmhouse, on acreage, in Oregon. Surrounded by blackberry bushes, with the river down the road, life there with my boyfriend, who worked on an organic farm, seemed full of potential. We had three roommates; one couple, and a single man. The couple crocheted hemp hats to earn money, and though they struggled to pay the rent, they didn’t hesitate to stock up on expensive herbs, in bulk, at the local, natural foods store.
The single man had a good heart, but battled with addictions that only came into my awareness after months of a deteriorating home scene. Unbeknownst to me, my boyfriend had begun dabbling along with him, and when all came out in the open, the house soon disbanded.
I had always considered myself a responsible person. The eldest child of three, my mom recounted stories of how I naturally assisted with my younger siblings. I got good grades in school, went on to college, and completed three years before having a revolutionary summer vacation that opened my mind to travel and the kind of life experiences I’d only been reading about in books.
It was during that summer of travel when I had met the organic farmer and fallen in love. Though I had tried to resume my college studies in the Fall, sitting at a desk felt impossible. When the farmer called and asked me to come and till the land with him in Oregon, it was just the invitation I was looking for. I withdrew from school and moved to the farmhouse.
That dream did not last for long. We never did get crops in the ground, and my pup, Ella, was about six months old when the Oregon farmhouse fell apart. I was stunned and lost. Despite my better judgement, I was also still clinging to the relationship with the farmer. When he flew to his hometown in New Hampshire, Ella and I were not far behind. I tried to disguise my attachment, by announcing to friends and family that I wanted to learn to spin wool, and New England was the prime spot to apprentice on a sheep farm. Though my spinning interest was sincere, it was the farmer that inspired my cross-country road trip with Ella in my Subaru.
In the years that followed, I had a stint at a Vermont sheep farm, a final break-up with the farmer, and some beautiful time living in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. I loved the land and the people of the East Coast. Ella and I were able to piece together a semi-nomadic life, with me working random jobs and supporting us on little money. I was in my twenties, full of enthusiasm, writing poetry, playing music, and making my way through the world with my dog.
Under the circumstances, I think I did pretty well as a dog caretaker. There were many times, however, when I fell short of ideal pet ownership. My life situation was far from the kind of stability that provides a foundation that fleshes out a dog’s full potential. With Ella, I always took care of the basics, and I loved her tremendously (probably to a fault), but in my survival mode, I was often distracted. Though I did the best I could, deep down I knew that in adopting a puppy back in Oregon, I had taken on more than what I should have.
My housing situation eventually settled itself when a friend bought a house in the Vermont countryside and invited a few friends to live there with him, rent-free, indefinitely. I was one of the lucky ones to be asked. There really were no strings attached, he just wanted to share his fortune with good friends. But I still had wanderlust. After a spring and summer there, I was feeling inexplicably called to Kauai. I had never been to Hawaii, and never had any marked interest in the islands before, but suddenly, it became a draw that I could not deny.
At the time, any canine coming from the continental US to Hawaii, was required to spend one month in quarantine on the island of Oahu. If I drove Ella to California and flew to Hawaii from the West coast, I wondered how she would fare on the five and half hour plane trip. If I gambled that the flight would not be too traumatizing, I still could not bring myself to quarantine her for a month, especially on an island separate from where I was residing. If I went to Kauai, it was clear that Ella was not coming with me.
Faced with this dilemma – a strong urge to go to Kauai, and my love and obligation to my dog – I was completely torn. I berated myself for even considering leaving my trusted companion behind. It didn’t help when a friend questioned my plans one day, stating, “If I had a dog, I could never leave it.” His words ripped through me, stinging at any notion of myself as a compassionate and responsible parent.
In the end, the draw to Kauai won out. I think, somehow, I also knew that my life was still unstable, and it was almost unfair to continue to drag Ella through my questful meanderings. When our roommate’s dog was sadly hit by a car and killed, it became obvious that Ella would possibly have the chance to fill a void, as well as remaining in the home she had become accustomed to.
The day I pulled away from the Vermont house, with Ella in my rear view mirror, is forever burned into my heart. I ached with sadness, imagining her awaiting my return. I chastised myself for not living up to the responsibility it took to be her mother. I had abandoned her, and this felt unforgivable.
My cross-country trip to California didn’t take me directly to Kauai. That’s a different story for another time. But I did finally make it to the island. There, I recall one sunset swim in the Hawaiian waters, the ocean calm in the bay, my body surging with grief for Ella and disdain for myself. Friends and written to tell me she was doing wonderfully, but I couldn’t release my missing or my guilt. In my heartache, I vowed to myself: never again. Never would I bring a dog into my life before I was perfectly ready. Never would I take on something I couldn’t see all the way through.
That was nearly twenty years ago.
This morning, I have an 11-week old Labrador sleeping at my feet.
It’s been a psychological journey of great import to bring me to this moment.
And I haven’t even written of the actual unfolding of events that brought her here.