My mother loved to tell the story of when I was sick with the chicken pox. I came downstairs in my pajamas, miserable with pain and itch, wretched with a high fever. I stood in the kitchen and cried.
Our beloved family dog Heidi had recently birthed a litter or eight tiny, squiggling black puppies. My father had built her a small pen in our basement, and filled it with old blankets, so she would have a place to birth and raise her pups.
When she heard my sobs, she left her pups in their basement pen and came up to see the situation for herself. My mother never stopped delighting in telling how Heidi nuzzled into me and began giving me gentle but insistent pushes towards the basement staircase. She was trying to herd me down the stairs, so I could join the rest of the babies that needed her.
Heidi did love me best of our family of four, but I thought it was mighty generous of my mother to say so, and to delight in it, considering that she had done the lion’s share of the hard work of housebreaking, and training, and feeding and slogging the big dog inside and outside since the day we had brought her home. I was three years old then, and therefore instantly and deeply in love. I held the sleeping puppy for hours. I examined every square inch of her as she grew, so I would know her dog body as well as I could. Til the very end of her life, whenever I would sit on the floor in front of a heating vent in order to shake off winter’s bitter chill, she would lie down next to me, resting her head in my lap. I spread her ears out across my thigh and stroked them, and reveling in their unequaled softness.
I have no memory of the chicken pox incident myself, but I heard it so many times growing up that I have formed a clear picture of it – Heidi’s expression of alertness and concern, my flannel pajamas with faded yellow flowers all over them, so small on me that my 5-year-old belly showed in the space between the tops and the bottoms. My only memory of the chicken pox is watching my mother pour nearly a full box of cornstarch into a steaming hot bath and telling me that it would help with the terrible itching. It didn’t. She told me that I had an unusually bad case. In a state of scientific wonder, she decided to count the pox on my face one day, but she stopped just past the bridge of my nose, when she had already reached 100.
I was past the worst of it. The pox were scabbing over, and though I was still sick, I felt so much better than I had that I was filled with a kind of giddy exhilartion when I woke up that morning. I bound into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to the basement to play with the puppies. She turned from the kitchen sink to face me, and told me that one of the puppies had died during the night. “Why,” I asked.
“You never know about these things,” my mother replied. “So many things can be wrong that we can’t even see.”
“Where is the puppy?” I wanted to know.
“It’s gone,” she said.
“Gone where?” I wanted to know.
She didn’t answer.
“Was it a boy, or a girl?”
“It was a boy.”
The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual. My mother stood in the kitchen, wrapping a tiny, still black thing in a sheet of newspaper.
“You’re up early,” she said. “Another puppy died last night.”
“I want to see it.”
She unwrapped a corner of the newspaper, and I could see the fat, adorable-looking puppy that I had held and played with the day before. It was completely limp, like a rag doll. But otherwise – perfect. “How do you know it’s dead?”
“Because I know,” my mother said.
Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Every night, another puppy died. My mother said that Weimaraners were special dogs. A highly pure German breed. We had intended to breed Heidi with a carefully selected male, but she had gotten knocked up in the back yard before my parents were sure that she was in heat. My mother explained that often times, when Weimaraners bred with other breeds of dogs, the puppies were not viable. It was a new word. Viable.
One puppy remained. A male. Each morning I woke up, and he was still alive. I studied him, trying to figure out what possible magic he possessed that allowed him to live. My parents found a young man who wanted to adopt him. My mother told me that he was going to come to our house in a couple of days and take the one remaining puppy to grow up and live with him.
“Are you sure he’ll be able to stay alive,” I asked. “Are you sure he’s viable?”
“I’m sure,” she said.
Now that I know the truth, I sometimes try to picture it. I wonder how my mother made her decisions about which one she would choose. I picture her carrying a wriggling puppy in her two hands, up the basement stairs and into our darkened kitchen. I see her plugging the drain, and running a sinkful of water. Or did she run the water in advance, I wonder. Warm, or cool. What goes through your mind when you are cradling new life in your hands, feeling that life drain away, watching for those last tiny bubbles of air to rise to the surface.
Photos: William Wegman