|Linda Downing Miller|
The Premature Birth of a Story
Most writers mine their lives for material. In my first creative nonfiction class, I learned to look for deeper meanings in everyday experiences, to sequence events or collect anecdotes in a way that captures some universal truth.
For the past six years, I had what I thought was a funny little story nagging me to be written. I made several attempts to capture the story in a cohesive narrative, but its deeper meaning remained elusive.
In a nutshell, two nuns and a Princess adopted my poodle. I found this guilt-free solution for my wacked-out dog through what seemed like a stroke of incredible good luck. It came just four months after the birth of my first daughter, which had convinced me that my canine companion was not meant for a family with kids.
Although I'm not affiliated with a specific religion, placing my poodle with two deeply religious women seemed to be the most wonderful adoptive home I could imagine. They would have vast reservoirs of serenity, love, and patience. Bonnie's quirks would be accepted as part of God's plan.
Sending Bonnie to live with another dog (named "Princess") made the opportunity even more attractive. I imagined Bonnie frolicking with a dainty canine friend in a pointed pink hat.
The stories I drafted about the experience felt rich with amusing details.
Bonnie had a cute, wet, "liver-colored" nose, because she was an apricot poodle. We called her "liver-nose" on occasion, as a term of endearment.
Bonnie barked like a maniac whenever the doorbell rang. This was not a problem when my husband and I lived alone in Indiana, where our most frequent visitor was the weekly pizza delivery guy. It became a problem in Chicago, where we knew people. It became a big problem after we had a baby.
For the first four months of my daughter's life, I would either bring her into the bathroom with me or pee as fast as possible. Bonnie made nervous, darting motions toward the baby. I was afraid my poodle might lunge for those tiny, flailing fingers and toes.
My husband and I actually met with a dog counselor, who talked to us about ways to acclimate Bonnie to the baby. My comfort level did not improve.
I found out about the nuns through the sister of a friend of my boss. The sister knew the two Sisters. The Sisters had owned two dogs, but the other dog had died. The family needed a new "Prince Charming" (of either sex).
The nuns agreed to take Bonnie if she and Princess seemed compatible. When the chemistry worked during our first and only encounter, the Sisters whisked Bonnie away in a nondescript car. My husband and I were left standing on the curb, our mouths gaping at our sudden good fortune. (The cast of "Touched by an Angel" could have been hugging in the shrubs.)
The nuns actually sent us postcards from Bonnie. She went on a family vacation with them to Michigan!
Bonnie had clearly gone on to a better life, but what was the universal take-away? My story drafts conveyed the general feeling that miracles do exist, even for the nonreligious. It seemed too "Chicken Soup." The story languished on my computer.
My oldest daughter, now almost seven, began asking about getting a dog. She knew about Bonnie. I wondered what had become of her. It had been a couple of years since I had last heard from the nuns. Was Bonnie still living a life of luxury, at the ripe poodle age of 12? Without telling my daughter, I sent a note to the nuns. I envisioned reading their response to my family, my eyes still twinkling at our good fortune in finding Bonnie the best of adoptive homes.
A heartfelt note arrived in my mailbox, but the warmth with which one of the Sisters described Bonnie could not fully blunt the true end of her story: a car hit my poodle on Mother's Day last year. She had to be put to sleep.
I put the note away, glad only that my daughter was not expecting any news about Bonnie. I mulled over the new meaning of my story. Miracles don't exist? You can never pass on a lifelong responsibility without guilt? Parenthood, even puppy parenthood, is forever? Perhaps more broadly, the flavor of life is usually much spicier than chicken soup?
In the end, I think the story is about writing itself. I have heard many authors compare the process of writing to childbirth. Like a baby, a story should be fully developed--brought to term--before it is thrust into the world.
Writers must follow a story to the bitter end, even if it takes us where we don't want to go. Bonnie's story was premature until I discovered her fate.
Two nuns and a Princess adopted my poodle. She was hit by a car on Mother's Day.
Linda Downing Miller is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction and fiction. Her essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Parent, and Scrivener's Pen. E-mail: ldowningmiller[at]comcast.net.