The Whelping Box

We lived in a large house of abundant womanhood, three females and a male: my wife, Trudi; our young daughter, Claire; our English bulldog, Mercy; and me. One summer, a fiesta of fecundity, the dog and the wife were discovered to be simultaneously pregnant. Mercy gave birth six months before Trudi was to come to term. As a consequence, much of the heavy lifting associated with canine midwifery and puppy nurture fell to me – the midnight and the 4am feedings and all Mercy haulage. I was a doggie doula.

Mercy was a sexy bulldog. She had a well-proportioned figure for an animal with such big shoulders and head and little legs, svelte in comparison to the hulking, pumpkin-headed males. Her large, damp, brown eyes were set wide in a blunt and wrinkly cranium. So enormous was her mouth that she could yawn and inhale the entire world. The wet drapery of her lips sent slobber flying like shrapnel when she shook her head. Her coat was short and pale with patches of a less pale beige. Where the skin of her face was exposed, it shone ebony and moist, except for her nose, which resembled a heavily calloused, black wall-socket or a burnt marshmallow punctured twice by a pencil. The dog reference book gave bulldogs an ‘A’ as guard dogs but flunked them as watchdogs, saying, in effect, “you had to wake them up and point them at the intruder.” Mercy was best at sleeping and farting. Still, she had a merry gaze and the sweetest temperament.

Breeding Mercy seemed like a good idea. Puppies, aw. We schlepped her back to the breeder for a weekend tryst with a handsome brute named Mister Orie. They parted without a backward glance and, two months later, Mercy was delivered of nine puppies. The vet was astonished. Customarily, bulldogs bear litters of four, and very gingerly, due to their extreme mutancy. Something about a y-shaped uterus and perilous ungainliness. The last two of her pups didn’t survive the first day.

To accommodate her brood, I constructed what canine manuals called a ‘whelping box.’ A four-foot by four-foot open crate with ten-inch sides, it would provide a home to the tiny, helpless critters. Possessing no innate carpentry skills, but endowed with a hare-brained faith in printed instructions, I set out to build my dog a nursery. I had the plywood cut, then assembled the whelping box on the driveway with a hammer and too many nails. I used ¾ inch plywood, instead of equally durable 3/8 inch. It weighed a goddamn ton, where it should have weighed a half a goddamn ton. I heaved the thing up the flagstone steps and into a downstairs room in the studio next to our big yellow house.

These brand new creatures were utterly enchanting. Blind and featureless at first, like seven balled-up pairs of warm, cashmere socks, they didn’t do much except eat and shit. Still, they could stop your breath just by twitching. Mercy was forbidden to remain in the whelping box after mealtime because of her clumsiness. “Bulldog young can be inadvertently crushed if left unattended, so it is incumbent upon caregivers to monitor feeding times closely. It is wise to remove the mother between feedings.” The newborn pups required Mercy’s battery of teats every four hours. This was practical information that one reads and registers, but cannot fully comprehend until the time comes – then comes again all too soon.

Mercy had to be roused from her slumber, coaxed outside, and then into the studio and hoisted like so much dead weight into the formidable whelping chamber, where she would lie inert while seven little parasites affixed themselves to her undercarriage. After drainage, removing her from the whelping box harkened back to stump removal in olden days, when teams of oxen exerted great and mindless strength until the earth groaned and released its captive stump. That accomplished, it was time for us (me) to try to catch forty winks, before the ungodly procedure began again.

The puppies’ room was monkishly small: in olden days it could fit a twin bed, a chest of drawers, and a very slight person. Even empty of furniture, there was not a lot of maneuverability with the whelping box claiming pride of place. The animals needed a toasty, draft-free environment in order to thrive. Mercy was not available to generate warmth, so an alternate had to be found. Though it was summer, I rigged a cheap photographer’s spotlight with a potent bulb and the room incandesced. PuppyLand became the epicenter for transcendent sweetness and a powerful and complex aroma.

The first Sunday postpartum, Mercy’s abdominal stitches gave way, resulting in several exciting hours of Family Bonding Time and Hyperawareness Theater. The four of us bundled into the old Oldsmobile and headed off in the direction of the only open animal emergency room, located in the opposite corner of the county. My wife drove with Claire in the front seat, while I held Mercy on my lap in the back, trying to keep her insides inside. “Oh, our dog is leaking.” was our doleful cry. We accepted our mission and it was accomplished. Mercy was resewn and domestic equilibrium restored.

The little beasts grew so fast. In a matter of days, they were gobbling up a slurry of pulverized kibble and water as well as mother’s milk. One Cuisinart blade was terminally blunted in the kibble grinding process and another grievously dulled. Poor Mercy became understandably reluctant to submit to the ravening mouths of her progeny. Tiny pointy teeth mauled the tender skin of her belly. Finally, the hungry creatures were weaned and she could withdraw, leaving the drama of her maternal trials behind.

The puppies all had different markings and each received a well-considered name – Gracie was funny, Red was named for a Fraggle (a specialized Muppet of the day), Whitey was snow white with a pink nose, Timothy fit his name for reasons obvious only to Claire, Dudley was the runt (but only at the beginning), Emma was girlie, and Finny had five brown patches (hence, a five spot, a five-dollar bill, a fin). A litter of doggies romping on the green, green grass may be the closest to honest joy I have ever experienced. Their sparking energy and the bounding pleasure that they took in their puppyhood remains an adhesive reverie for me.

The pups, source of so much enjoyment for all of us, soon posed a serious quandary. They needed homes. The daunting prospect of finding families for all that adorableness cast a pall over the late summer. We hadn’t really thought it through. We hadn’t anticipated that Mercy would be so extravagantly fertile or that there might be other, more important, things on our minds. A litter of three, four tops, that’s what we imagined. Not seven. After much discussion, we decided to give up the youngsters to Mercy’s breeder as she was in the finding-homes-for-puppies business. That was a sorrowful trip, but a clean break.

Then, two weeks after Halloween, our Katherine was born.

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