They say you should let sleeping dogs lie. But when it comes to dead ones? I’m afraid the truth will out.
I’ve been avoiding letting MJ skype with my mom and step-father. Their dog Otis died two weeks ago, and I hadn’t found a way to tell her yet.
What’s the connection? It’s simple. Whenever MJ skypes with someone, the first thing she wants is to do is “talk to” their pet. The humans are sort of an afterthought, honestly. It’s the animals she wants to see. A Skype call with my mom and step-father, then, always featured a visit with Otis. Usually passed out on his rug. Still, it was MJ’s favorite part of the call.
But now Otis is gone. MInd you, he lived to a ripe–and then some–old age. By the end he’d grown stiff, deaf, and completely incontinent. Coming with our family to Nova Scotia this summer was his canine swan song–even if he shat in the car the whole way up. His last weeks on earth were happy and sun-soaked, frail and skeletal though he was.
We grownups knew he was at the end. Sometimes, when he was lying in the grass napping, we’d have to shake him lightly to see if he were still alive. It could be quite hard to tell. MJ, who doted upon him, was oblivious. It never occurred to her for a moment that, when she said good bye to him on the morning we flew home, it would be for the last time.
He was put down two days later.
Since then we’ve been agonizing: to tell her or not? The latter seemed the better choice. With all the changes afoot, it seemed cruel to toss in an additional blow. “We know you’re upset about your mom going back to work, but–remember Otis?”
Finally, though, we broke down. A couple of mornings ago MJ asked, for the third time, to skype with my mom. We’d been putting it off, changing the subject, making excuses, but we knew it couldn’t go on. We lived in the modern world. We couldn’t hide behind a telephone. MJ wanted to see her grandparents. And, even more, their dog. We had to tell her.
Mike and I exchanged meaningful looks. This was going to suck. First of all, it was way too early for such weighty conversations. I’d barely made my first cup of tea. Secondly, Myra-Jean had never known anyone who died before. This was going to hit her hard.
MJ was sitting on the bench next to me. She’d decided to start a puzzle while she waited for the computer to boot up. “So, honey,” I said gently, putting my arm around her, “before we Skype with Nana Bonnie Mike and I need to tell you something.”
Deeply engrossed in her new undertaking, MJ barely looked up. “What?”
Mike, who was standing in the kitchen, took a step closer. In his softest, kindest voice, he said “It’s about Otis.”
“Oh.” She didn’t look up. She was piecing together a picture of a dinosaur. It was standing in flowers and wearing a derby. Hatosaurus.
I nodded at my husband. Let him be the one to break the news.
Mike cleared his throat.”So when animals get very old their bodies slow down.”
“Oh.” Another piece.
“Yeah. And then, well, they get sick, and have problems, and, um, eventually they just, um, pass on.”
I shot him a look. Pass on? She’s going to think it’s a game of hot potato. “He means they die.”
MJ looked up, her face implacable. “Oh.”
I remembered–vaguely–something I’d heard her teacher say. “Die means they stop moving and they never start again.”
“Otis is gone, honey,” Mike added, tenderly. “He won’t be able to Skype with you anymore.”
MJ nodded slowly and looked down at her work. There was only one piece missing. Finding it beneath her leg, she placed it carefully in its spot. We waited, solicitously watching her lowered head. After a moment she looked up.
“Yes, sweetie?” Here it came. The death question. Oh God. OhGodohGodohGod.
MJ smiled. “I am a puzzle genius.”
There was a beat. “But honey. About Otis. How are you with all of that?”
Myra-Jean shrugged. “I’m great.” Hopping down from the table, she began putting her puzzle away. “Can I please have a glass of milk?”
And that was that.
Mike and I are praying it’s developmental and not sociopathic.
In the meantime? Our little genius wants a cat.