One of the challenges of parenting is knowing how much information to give your child. I remember my daughter once asked me where rain comes from. In retrospect, the correct answer at the time was “It falls from clouds in the sky.” But I was a science teacher, so I was a full paragraph into the technical aspects of the water cycle before my husband intervened wisely with “It comes from clouds in the sky.” Her eyes had glazed over and it took a moment before it registered that he had answered the question. As she skipped off happy with this explanation, I knew my instincts in this area were not to be trusted. In fact I had an assistant principal once (ironically who had no children) who repeatedly reminded me to answer the question that was asked and only the question that was asked. I was not a quick study in this area. Sometimes my ill-advised explanations were met just with an eye roll. Sometimes I made a mess that I had to clean up. Such was the case when the first dog my daughter knew passed away.
I had gone three long years without a dog of my own when we found her. My husband had cats. They hated me. I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic sense. They actually hated me. In fact, I am pretty sure they were actively trying to kill me or at least run me out of town. In the middle of the night I would be awaken by Fallon who would try to push me out of bed by burrowing under the covers and putting her claws to my back. She and her partner in crime shredded all of the long skirts in my closet. They took turns slinking silently atop the shower door where they would wait patiently like feline ninjas until my head was soapy. Once my eyes were closed, they would strike. I nearly broken my neck every time I felt a paw hit me in the head. Suffice it to say, they gave my husband fluffy and cuddly. They gave me claws and teeth. I was so excited when we finally moved to a house where we could have a dog. It was late fall (which is actually mid-winter in Fairbanks) and I heard about a litter of Spring Spaniel / Border Collie pups. It is not ideal to have pups at this time in Fairbanks as the frigid temperatures and snow pack made housebreaking nearly impossible. Despite the challenges, I fell in love with the pups right away. They were in a crib wrestling around like puppies do. One was clearly bigger than the rest and moved about like a bulldozer. He was plump and fluffy and bold. I picked him immediately. When we came back a couple of weeks later to pick him up, the runt of the litter attached herself to his ear and held on for dear life. I couldn’t bear to separate them, so we took them both. We named them Levi and Strauss. Strauss was a sweet girl. She went just about everywhere with me. As soon as I picked up my keys, she would jump into the bed of my pickup. In the winter, she would sit beside me on the bench seat, leaning gently against my shoulder as she stared through the windshield. True to her Border Collie nature, every living thing that entered our house became her herd. When we played in the yard, she would stick close to my toddler contently enduring the petting, which was much more like awkward slapping. She started to slow down at about 14 years old and I knew her time was short. She was 16 when the time came to let her go.
I pulled into the driveway one afternoon to find my husband waiting in front of the garage bay where I normally parked. He put his hands up to stop me. I remember he said, “I’m glad you’re home. Strauss can’t get up. I am going to run to the store and get some toenail clippers.” With that, he jumped in his truck and left. My husband is a strong man with a big heart. Though his comment really made no sense, I knew he was trying to make things better. He knew how much I loved that dog. I could tell just looking through the windshield that toenail clippers were not going to solve this problem. Strauss lay on the cement panting though it wasn’t hot. She wouldn’t move and barely acknowledged me when I called her name. I called our vet and, with tears in my eyes, told her it was time. She was a big dog so it took all the strength I could muster to lift her into my car. She whimpered, and it broke my heart that she was in such pain. Our vet was a kind woman who allowed me to sit on the floor with Strauss as she examined her. When the time came, I held her in my arms as she passed. I could feel my heart break.
As I drove home, I sobbed. I called my dad crying so hard that I could not talk. At first, he thought something had happened to my husband or daughter but I finally choked down the sobs long enough to tell him that I had put Strauss down. He was a dog lover and I knew he understood how sad I was. He tried to comfort me by saying that, “You loved that dog more than most people love their kids.” I asked him how I could tell my daughter. She was going to be heartbroken too. He said, “You are going to do what every parent does. You are going to tell her that Strauss went to heaven to live with God. That is all you are going to tell her. Keep it simple.” I pulled into the garage dreading what I was about to do. I blew my nose and wiped my tears. I found my daughter on my bed watching cartoons. I took her in my arms and asked her to turn off the TV for a minute. Then I said, “Strauss isn’t coming home.” She asked, “She’s not? Where is she going?” I took a breath in hopes that I would not break out crying again and said, “She’s in heaven with God.” She searched my eyes, “She is in heaven? With God?” “Yes”, I said. She pursed her lips and said, “OK, can I watch Sponge Bob now?” I could not believe that worked! My dad was a genius! I was home free.
But grief, even realized much later than the passing, still must be experienced. Sometimes the distance from the event does not really lessen the pain. Several months after Strauss died, I was driving my daughter to daycare on the way to work. We passed a cemetery that saw every morning. On this particular morning, she noticed it. She asked what it was and I told her the name. She asked what happened there. I explained that when people died, they were buried in a cemetery. She asked if I knew anyone who died. I explained that my mom had died. Her eyebrows stitched together. “Your mom died?” I said, “Yes. She is heaven with God.” Her eyes grew wide. “She is heaven?! With God?!” “Yes”, I said. She looked at me stunned and screamed, “Strauss is dead?!”
It was in this moment that I learned three important things about parenting. The first was to answer just the question asked. Kids will let you know when they are ready for more information. The second is that you might think a child understands what you are saying when they really don’t. Finally, never talk about difficult or complicated things on the way to day care… or work… or school… You are going to be later for work and your shirt will be covered in tears and snot. Worse than that, you will relive the situation all day long.
I chose these photographs of my daughter and her puppy posse: Strauss (black and white) and Sadie (fawn). I remember this day vividly. I was weeding the front garden and I put her on her blanket in the spring sun. The dogs immediately took their places next to her and sat patiently as she crawled on them and patted them. At one point a young dog got loose from down the street and Strauss jumped in front of her while Sadie ran down to chase him off. Once the threat was gone, they resumed napping in the sun together.