Filling the Empty Nest

Jada and Gus in snowLast January, a sudden bout of empty-nest syndrome collided with my daughter’s desire to get a puppy. At first, she wanted me to get a puppy that she would “visit and help take care of”. Fat chance! I outlined for her the many reasons I would not house a puppy for her. Two of them, Newman and Coal, are the now adult cats that she and her brother promised to take care of, promised to take with them when they moved out, swore they would love forever, which now live with me in my apartment. Against my will, my children turned me into a middle-aged cat lady.

When my son had moved out to live with his dad, I was certain I was going to relish my solitude and become productive, tidy, and solvent. Life was just beginning after all – the childcare train had left the station. So I was surprised when I was slammed by empty-nest syndrome, or more accurately, grief. It walloped me when my messy, stinky, noisy, uncooperative teenage son moved out. I never thought it would happen – I actually missed him. I still do.

By last January, I had been living alone for a few months, with the cats, when I realized I missed living with another human in the apartment. I’d had overnight guests in the spare bedroom a couple of times and those occasions made me recognize that I didn’t really want to share a bathroom with non-family. I wanted one of my kids to move home. Funny, I’d heard that most parents had trouble getting rid of them!

Neither of my kids wanted to move in. Then when Jada started rattling the cage about getting a dog, I found myself using the oldest trick in the book – I used a puppy to lure her in. She could get a puppy, I told her, if she paid for it, owned it, and took it with her when she moved out. She fell for it. And so did I.

We were on our way to Port Credit to meet our chosen puppy. Jada was worried that we would not pass the owner’s strenuous list of qualifications. I was not troubled about that. I was fretting that we would be declined on our first choice, Gus, and that Jada would be desperate enough to agree to take home one of the other pups. This woman had a number of puppies available, but only one breed was suitable for apartment living, in my opinion. What would I do if Jada set her heart on one of the consolation puppies,  which we were told were Rhodesian Ridgeback/Labrador Retriever mixes?

When Jada was four-years-old and her brother was one, I had decided  we needed a puppy. Ever the strategist, I chose a breed that I read would be child friendly and began the search for a reputable breeder. I read all the advice about adopting and had a checklist of conditions a new puppy must meet. The hunt proved more difficult that I’d imagined but along the way someone told me about a breeder in Peterborough where a friend had got a puppy. I called and made an appointment. The breeder had two litters ready to go.

Jada and I picked up my sister at her farm and headed to Peterborough. My sister is the animal expert in the family – in fact, she had a litter of Jack Russell Terriers in her barn at the time, but all the books said, “No!” to Jack Russell Terriers as family pets. It was a hot summer day and it was high noon when we pulled into the breeder’s long dusty driveway. Only the breeder’s name on a forlorn and crooked roadside mailbox let us know we were at the right location.

We could hear dogs barking as we got out of the car but bushes screened the back yard so we couldn’t see them. We knocked at the aluminum side door and were ushered into the kitchen of a split level home. As introductions were quickly made, a man in the next room continued to watch a blaring television. The puppies would be in the basement. We just had to wait a minute as the woman shouted for her son to help her get organized. We remained in the kitchen eyeing the shelves of hockey trophies and framed school portraits.

After a short time we were ushered down a circular metal staircase to a basement rec-room where the puppies were squirming and crawling over one another in a child’s blue plastic swimming pool.

Instantly I knew we’d made a mistake. These pups were not eight weeks old, they were much younger. And as four-year-old Jada knelt excitedly beside the pool they fled to the other side where she couldn’t reach them. One pathetic pup with rusty goop in both eyes and a dry nose was too lethargic to get away and Jada’s tiny hands were soon picking her up and cradling the puppy to her face.

My mind was racing. Certainly it wasn’t ideal but safely at home surely one of these pups would thrive under our care and attention, wouldn’t it? We’d driven a long way on a hot summer’s day. The price was right. Finding a puppy was much harder than I’d realized. And if I said no now, how would I ever get Jada to put that puppy down?

My sister asked if we could meet the pups’ mother. Of course we could. The woman led us out through the back door to the kennels. Immediately the steady barking turned into a frenzy. Countless dogs were housed in plywood shacks with narrow fenced-in chain-link runs. It was a hot day. Some dogs stood on top of their houses barking ferociously. I held Jada’s sweaty little hand tightly as the breeder led us to the home of the pups’ mom. She was nowhere to be seen. After a couple of whistles and a sharp call, a cowering female dog slunk from her shack and watched us warily from her platform.

Okay, we’d seen enough. We thanked the breeder and told her we needed to go have lunch and think about it. Jada chattered at me as I strapped her into her car seat. “When are we getting the puppy, Mom? Which one are we getting? I love those puppies.” I’d wished I had something with me to clean her hands.

On the long drive back to my sister’s farm Jada fell asleep and my sister posed the question, “Why don’t you just take one of my puppies?” Oh no. I’d read terrible things about Jack Russell Terriers. They barked incessantly, destroyed furniture, jumped on everything, they were untrainable, hyperactive maniacs.

The scruffy little Jack Russell my sister placed into Jada’s arms a few weeks later lived a healthy sixteen years. She was a terrific pet, a wonderful companion, and one of the best dogs anybody ever met.

A twenty-one year old Jada pointed out the turn off for Hurontario. What would I do or say if the puppies on this trip turned out to be less than desirable? I couldn’t take her by the hand and lead her away, or strap her into a car seat.

Gus entered our lives that day and I had no inkling how he would change my life. Looking back, I have to laugh at how naïve I was. Today, Gus and I sit in our usual morning places in the living room, him snoozing, me writing. We are waiting for Jada to wake up. We spend a lot of time waiting for her, me and Gus. I have a feeling it’s going to be like this for a long time.


  1. What a beautiful story, Sandy. I can honestly say that I know how you were feeling during your empty nest time. Megan went away to Western over three years ago and her brother also lives with his dad. The grief when she left was more overwhelming than I thought it could be. Luckily I already had Tayah, who I got four years before she went away. I don’t think I could have made it through the last three and a half years without this little ten pound ball of fluff. I’m still not entirely used to the quietness in my house but when I come home from work and my little sidekick comes bounding down the stairs to greet me, my home and heart feel full.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

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