It is an interesting quirk of my personality that I can watch "Forensic Files" and "Disappeared" and "Cold Blood" and "Unusual Suspects" and numerous other programs in which real people do horribly unthinkable things to other real people for hours on end without flinching – and yet if a dog dies, even fictionally, I turn instantly to a weeping pile of jelly. I don’t do dead dogs.
When I reread the Little House books, I have to skip the first few chapters of By the Shores of Silver Lake not because Mary goes blind – psh, who cares about that? – but because Jack the loyal bulldog dies in his sleep. When I reread the Babysitters Club series (don’t judge me!), I have to entirely skip Book 11, Kristy and the Snobs, because her collie, Louie, spends most of the book getting sicker and sicker and is put to sleep at the end. And don’t even get me started on Sounder. I think I practically had to take a leave of absence when my class read that in sixth grade.
When I was 22, my first dog, Henrietta, a sweet, stupid and utterly devoted terrier mix from the Japonica Street SPCA whom I had had since first grade, had to be put to sleep. I was a mess. I walked around for days with swollen red eyes, and for at least a couple of weeks, tears would start anew whenever I saw a little girl with a dog. But after about a month, I decided I was ready for a new dog. Jamie, my now-ex-husband, and I drove to the local pound and picked out a 40-pound puppy with enormous paws. We named him Loki, and we adored him as if he were our first baby. I made him dog biscuits from scratch, researched dog foods, even planned a first birthday party for him.
"God, I love him so much – what will I do when he dies?" I asked my mom.
"By the time he dies," my mom said, "you will probably have a real baby, and you will be much more concerned about how Loki’s death will affect the baby than you will about your own feelings."
Well, she is mostly right, but moms can’t know everything – I lost "custody" of Loki in the divorce, and although I am sure it will be hard when he dies, the first dog Ruby will have to mourn is actually Oliver.
Oliver belonged to my friend Jim who died in March 2010. Jim died suddenly, and in the crazy chaotic shuffle that followed his death, Oliver somehow ended up at my ex-husband’s house. It was supposed to be temporary, but 18 months later, Oliver is still at Jamie’s … and his time is running out.
"Oliver can’t walk," Ruby told me sadly when I picked her up last week. "Daddy has to carry him, and he potties inside all the time."
So yes, I am much more concerned about how the dog’s death will affect Ruby than I am about my own feelings – but I couldn’t have known back then the bizarre set of circumstances that would accompany the dog she is grieving.
Regardless, she is sad, and my ex is sad, and I am sad. I did a bunch of Internet research on what to tell kids about the death of a pet, sobbed my way through several versions of that "Rainbow Bridge" poem (I know it's mawkish, but it gets me anyway) and purchased The Tenth Good Thing About Barney and Mr. Rogers' When a Pet Dies.
My problem is that the books won't help if I follow my natural inclination to hide them under the couch cushions – I just have no idea how I am supposed to read them to her without falling apart.
Wish me luck, everyone, and please, if you're so inclined, spare a thought or prayer for Oliver as he goes on to the great doggy beyond.