By Megan Rix. Plume. $14.
Before you run out and purchase this thinking it is totally a warm, fuzzy holiday read, sit and stay!
A keeper golden retriever puppy named Traffy arrives in the household of the author and her husband Ian, but not until late in the book after the English couple fosters two service dogs, Emma and Freddy, for Helper Dogs, and experiences a bumpy emotional ride through the process.
But the thread throughout this nicely-paced narrative is 43-year-old Megan and Ian’s attempt to conceive a baby. Month after month without success they turn in several directions from considering fostering to fertility options.
After falling in love with a rental walker dog during Ian’s two-week work assignment in Japan, the couple returns home to England and a few weeks later spots a newspaper advertisement about Helper Dogs, an organization that provides service dogs for individuals with disabilities that is opening a satellite training center nearby and seeking volunteer puppy parents.
Rix describes the day of tiny Emma’s arrival, “My heart was thumping like a 15-year-old going on a first date. Would the puppy like me? Please let it like me. I was going to be a first-time puppy parent. A puppy mum.”
The couple finds instant happiness while diving into the commitment of puppy-rearing, not recognizing the angst they would be facing four months later. The author details every challenge the owners face within the home, training center and on nearby outings, crediting friends and Helper Dog staffers with quick assistance in every time of need. Coming from a previously “dog-free zone,” the pair’s life changes enormously with a new circle of friends, as Emma, their four-legged love child, becomes their social centerpiece.
In the process, Emma becomes a community celebrity and the focus of a weekly newspaper column written by Rix in the dog’s first-person voice.
While her failure to conceive nags her throughout, Rix’s biggest heartbreak occurs when she is forced to let her beloved Emma go after six months for advanced training and hopefully eventual placement with a disabled party.
Upon getting the word in a phone call, she tearfully looks at Ian and sobs,” I don’t know how I’m going to bear letting her go. I feel like my heart is being ripped out.”
Could money buy happiness? Rix gives it a try, making a generous offer of 10,000 pounds (money her parents had given her for an IVF procedure) but it is rejected and several weeks later the dreaded day arrives when Emma is returned to Helper Dogs along with her boatload of toys, bedding and other supplies, as Rix confesses uncertainty of how she could love another puppy Helper Dogs has targeted for her.
The poignant narrative follows a somewhat similar path with their next puppy project named Freddy, but this time the couple is better prepared after having been down that road before, which reaches its end about the same number of months later.
Rix admits, “Puppy parenting has been the best thing for us, the most amazing way to spend the first year of our married lives, but the wrench to give Freddy up was going to be hard. – too hard for us, maybe.
“. . . Maybe if our lives were different. Maybe if we were strong people we could keep on doing it, helping . . . all the people who benefitted from Helper Dogs. But for now all we wanted was a puppy of our own.”
An opportunity arises quickly with a promise from a respected nearby golden retriever breeder that they can select a puppy of their choice from a new litter, hence “The Puppy That Came for Christmas,” their “forever dog,” arrives several weeks later during the holidays after Freddy moves on to advanced training and eventual placement.
The jaunty narrative pulls several story strands together into an affecting mix of sentiment and commitment while deftly balancing frustration and focus. In the process, Rix’s narrative is served up in a tone of plain-spoken naturalism bursting with panache around every corner.