Acres of tall corn sway in the yellow August wind as I drive alone through the Iowa countryside on my way to buy a puppy. Adding to my excitement, I find my favorite Bruce Springsteen song on the radio to accompany me. My phone rings; it’s my sister. When I tell her where I’m headed, she’s shocked. She didn’t know I wanted a dog. Oh, but I do!
When she asks why, I say, “So I have someone to take care of.”
Growing up, I was “that girl.” Not the cool, independent Marlo Thomas That Girl, but the unfortunate opposite. I was the girl who ditched my friends when a new man came into my life. Yeah, sorry about that, girls. At 18, I met a man who, at 21, became my husband who, by 28, was the father of my children. Not just a couple of children, we had four sons. I had five men to take care of, so that’s what I did. It’s who I was.
After 15 years, that marriage ended, and my work load doubled overnight. I had my children, plus a house, plus a job. If I had a nickel for every time someone said … Life was busy, and I was happy. I was the all-important hub of our fast-spinning merry go round.
At 40, contrary to the 1986 Newsweek report that I was more likely to be struck by lightning, I met and married a wonderful, supportive man, slightly older than me and retired. When my youngest son left for college, my husband and I wanted to travel, so I closed my art gallery and decided to pursue my dream of writing. Got laptop? Will travel! For three years, I packed, unpacked, wrote, packed, unpacked, and wrote in exotic locations around the world.
Recently we decided to rein in our travels a bit. Life slowed down and became almost … boring? My boys are now independent men in their 20s. My husband is quite self-sufficient and constantly encouraging me to write, but I still have too much free time. That’s when the shock hits: for the first time in 28 years, no one needs me.
I’ll get a puppy, I think, a small breed that I can hold in my lap while I type. So over the hills and through the cornfields I go.
When I arrive at the breeder’s home, I’m surrounded by puppies. They jump and wag and lick and bark and play. I’m overwhelmed by how much work this is going to be, a continuation of the last 28 years of being a mom and a wife. At 49, it occurs to me that I’ve built my identity around taking care of others. If I buy a puppy now, as a bandaid, because I’ve never learned to put myself first, how will I ever figure out who I am on my own? Might I find a new hobby? Take up tennis? Learn bridge? The breeder thinks my smile means I’ve made my decision, and indeed I have.
After two hours of playing with the puppies, I walk away empty-handed. I will get a dog one day, but for now I realize I don’t need a puppy, what I need is to pamper myself for a while.
On my drive home, I call my sister and proudly tell her my news.