“Do you want to feel a puppy while it is being born?” my dad’s wife asks me as I sit on a small chair against the wall of the now hot and muggy puppy room. She and my step sister are looking after Kate, a yellow lab who is pushing and panting out her fifth and final litter of puppies who will be raised through Canine Companions as service dogs to people with disabilities. It is April 13, an auspicious day for children of any species.
She has already delivered the first three: yellow male, around eight ounces, whose tiny trembling form sends us many times scurrying for hot water bottles to keep him warm; black female, feisty from first breath and a massive thirteen ounce firey bundle of look-out-world; black male coming in to top his precocious sister in weight by a single ounce, whose low plaintive cries make the eldest sound like it belongs to a smaller dog breed. Kate is, at the moment, fulfilling her motherly duty: taking a rest while her babies keen continuously for her attention.
A hands-on birthing experience? I wonder at the idea, realizing that the possibility to have such an opportunity is making me excited and apprehensive all at once. I get very still and consider the question. It sounds amazing, but would Kate mind? How would she feel about that? It is a strange thought to have regarding a dog, I know. I have been noticing lately that I’ve been taking such considerations far too seriously after attending a conference on minimally conscious people and whether they can participate in medical decision making. Of course Kate won’t be phased in the slightest. And unlike a wild dog, she’s even nonchalant about humans moving her babies away from her to a warmer place to help keep them alive and comfortable.
Even so, I find myself inexplicably feeling shy. “I’m not sure,” I say slowly, as relief mixes with a tinge of regret.
“Okay. Let me know if you change your mind.”
All through the birth of pup number 4 I find myself reflecting on the experience I am having already. I am quite moved, and I feel honored to watch. I am astonished by how such a process has gone on since the first instance of life, and yet for me, a single living individual experiencing just one particular life, I have never been present at a birthing before. How strange and beautiful, I think, to witness the transition of a unity, two lives in a single body, into its division of distinct and vibrant creatures– one with eyes watchful of the ways of the world, the other arriving silent and surprised, already implementing instincts to breathe and cry and move.
I try to imagine what it could possibly be like to be squeezed out into a cold, loud, incomprehensible world. I’d cry. I’d sense and feel and feel and feel and there would be nothing else but the moment, no time or ordering, only the now and now of changing feeling — and rising unaware, the impulse to respond. But this is where my imaginative empathy stops. I admit to myself that I really don’t know what it is like. There are people who claim to have memories of their own birth. I am definitely not one of those people.
When pup number 5 is on his way, I decide to change my mind. I simply can’t pass up a chance to be in the middle of things, literally speaking, and really get a feel for what happens (no pun intended.) I am right there with Kate when pup 5 Is born.
Puppies are born in a little sack, unlike humans. When they first arrive, they are not even breathing. There really is a fetal position, and pup 5 is in it. I help with taking him out of the sack, and hold him as he takes his first breath of life. In that moment, it is my turn to be breathless. Puppies are born blind, and I think deaf as well. His first experience isn’t the sight of his mother, but me holding him in the palm of my hand. For my part, I am in awe of him.
Like usual, when I attempt to say something out loud in response to the experience, my words hardly convey my internal thoughts and feelings. “Does he have any fur?” I am immediately answering myself in my head. Of course he does, he’s a puppy! But in my defense, he really doesn’t feel like he has fur. He is so slick in my hand that his fur feels like skin. It is only when I get to hold him again after he’s dried off that I can feel his short newborn fuzz. His ears are barely distinguishable from his head. His tail appears sort of wilted compared to the full furriness characteristic of labs which it will grow into as he gets older.
I hold him a couple minutes longer while he tries with uncoordinated enthusiasm to crawl around in my hands. I lift him up so he’s more level with the tub which will be his home until he’s big and strong enough to climb out of it, and my dad takes pictures.
Afterward, I assume I’ll be giving him to Kate straightaway for tending, but instead we weigh him and put him with the other puppies to stay warm. Kate, it turns out, has one more delivery to go.