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On Letting Go

a blog by Traci Shahan, RN, WHNP-BC, Doctor of Nursing, Albrecht Women’s Care Denver IVF, June 3, 2012

Since I can remember I have loved dogs — all shapes, sizes, genders — any canine with a cold wet nose, warm heart and pleading eyes speaks to my spirit in a way that few humans can. In my childhood home we always had a dog or two lying about, usually on my bed at night, tucked into my belly, my arms looped around its neck. Despite my face being bitten by a Husky that took umbrage at my 3-year-old self poking my finger into its ear canal, I have been smitten with all things dog-esque. As soon as I could afford a dog after college, I got a Samoyed who loved to run away, then watch me race after her. She, smiling, always loping ahead a few hundred feet; me, panting and swearing my way toward her. And so it has continued the last 23 years. A bone-shaped sign hangs in my office that reads, “The dog hair is free,” as most days I wander around with a patina of dog hair stuck on my clothes.

So it was natural that after Sarah, a vision-impaired person dependent on a guide dog, did something so self-sacrificing and incomprehensible for me 16 years ago, that I was compelled to find a way to repay the debt that I owe her, though it can never truly be repaid.

My sister, Teri, helped me find the answer. It was Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit that trains and places dogs to help persons affected by disabilities. I am now in the process of training my third dog for CCI, Filly, who is all id, fangs, and ADD stuffed into a 15-pound Black Lab body with a tiny pink heart tucked deep inside, like the teddy bears that kids assemble at Build-A-Bear. Filly has a fondness for trying to amputate my feet from my ankles, a pastime she pursues with great passion each evening as I putter from kitchen to living room to my reading nook. As a consequence, I have learned to read with my feet buried under mounds of blankets and pillows. She is completely unlike her immediate predecessor, Pandora, who just last weekend was placed with a recipient who is an accomplished and wonderful healer in his own right.

In order to formally hand Pandora to her recipient, CCI conducts a lovely brunch graduation ceremony, complete with doggie vests with tassels — no mortar boards — while Pomp and Circumstance plays in the background. This event takes place in Southern California — Oceanside to be exact —a place that is foreign to me, kind of surreal with palm trees that seem to lilt into a namaste position across busy, herky-jerky. but gravel-free streets. (Note here: for reasons I don’t quite understand, I have traveled to far flung places like Costa Rica and Nepal but never to most of the United States. I live in Colorado where, due to our labile seasons, our streets are always pocked and lined with gravel, mementos from hellacious snow storms with. of course, not a single palm tree to be found.)

CCI places pups at 8 weeks old with vetted volunteers who house and train them until they are about 16 to 18 months old. Invariably, I fall in love with the dog, just as I did Pandora. After a few months, we take the pup around with us to almost all of our activities; ultimately the dog spends 24/7 with the raiser. It is astonishing to watch as the puppy morphs from its fangy, tweety, bird-eyed, snub-nosed infant self into a mature, confident and, I happen to think, magnificent gift from nature, sculpted perfectly through natural selection, just what Charles Darwin wrote about while afloat on the HMS Beagle. (Double entendre unintentional.)

I grew quickly to adore Pandora, her peccadilloes, her weaknesses and her many, many strengths. I even took on and won a tiny show-down at a board meeting of people who tried to vote Pandora and me off their country club island. Due to my classically introverted nature and terror of public speaking, I have devised all kinds of sly ways over the years to avoid speaking publicly, including choosing a doctoral program that did not mandate a public defense of a dissertation. But when it came to pool people trying to bar Pandora from their club, I addressed the entire board with an even eye and only a tiny quaver in my voice. Pandora was not going down.

So we went on, Pandie and me, in and out of grocery stores, restrooms, hotels, schools, work, hair salons, gyms, soccer games, church, races and even on my volunteer work to visit those dying in hospice. My most cherished memory of her was when a man who lay dying asked for me to lift her into bed with him. I placed a palm cross in his hand, Pandora alongside him, and for the first and last time in the last week of his life, he smiled as he petted her. I found out later that he had had Labs nearly his whole life, and it is clear now that she offered this dying man succor and peace during his last few moments on earth.

Last weekend, as I said, Pandora graduated. I would like to write that I marched stoically across stage, shook Pete’s, the recipient’s hand, then trotted back to my seat to watch the rest of the ceremony, nodding respectfully and ah’ing as the other graduates received their acclaim.

Not so. As with every other loss. like losing babies in utero, watching My Sister’s Keeper, my grandmother’s death and my first boyfriend leaving me, I was a sodden, icky mess. Before the ceremony, I tucked one of my great grandmother’s handkerchiefs into my purse, envisioning myself daintily, with maybe a tiny sniffle, dabbing away a tear or two.

In reality I sounded and looked like a wounded baboon, save for the bright red buttocks. (Well, at least I think my butt wasn’t red but I didn’t really check it out.) I had remembered to buy waterproof mascara but the rest of my face was swollen, my hand shook on stage and didn’t know whether to shake Pete’s hand or hug him. Then of course part of me wanted to cut and run for the Mexican border where Pandora and I would live the rest of lives on the lam but together at least.

Somehow I lurched across the stage, I think I hugged Pete, I know I petted Pandie for the last time, then I scuttled back to my seat like a prairie dog to its burrow. That’s when the wailing baboon honking really kicked in, so instead of being a stalwart puppy raiser team member, I bailed, sobbing my way to the back of the event hall, my chin tucked into my chest, wishing I could be like Spock and transform myself, instantly, to anywhere else except this mausoleum where Pete was taking my dog to live with him to a place that sounds hot, saucy and congested.

I got to the car and stared at the exotic palm trees in their namaste postures. I did a little baboon wail into Gram’s handkerchief, wondered if the Golden Gate Bridge was all that far away, and then, suddenly, Sarah flashed into my mind. Sarah, my blind angel dependent on her guide dog. Sarah, who would never be able in this lifetime to see the praying palm trees, gravel-free streets, proud dogs in royal blue graduation capes. Sarah, the woman who had done for me what I could not do for myself as a surrogate who gestated my daughters, after my mangled uterus could not foster life.

I started the car, drove through the pristine streets, got on the plane and made my way home to Fangy Filly, who I will grow to love, then will let go just as I have Pandora. I think there’s even a chance that both of my feet will remain intact, attached to my ankles. Letting go is exactly what Sarah did for me, she suffered through a horrible, terrifying pregnancy, then handed over my 5-pound preemies to me and walked away.

We never forget our losses. Some tacit part of our souls remain torn asunder, rent and tattered, a little less for the wear. I miss Pandora like mad and think of her every day. And yet I know that there is an incredible woman who volunteered — you read that right, she came to me and offered to gestate for me — who will never be able to read these words, who did for me what I could not for myself. As Scott Peck said in his first book, first line, “Life is difficult,” I concur. Infertility is, at best, difficult, at worst, hell on earth, and yet, there is always hope. Lean on others, love yourself, or if you can’t, let someone else do it for you until you can. And remain open to the mystery of life. Above all, be well.

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