It happened suddenly a couple of weeks ago, in the midst of turning our lives upside down and moving out of our townhouse, we had to say goodbye to our dog – Ruby. She was a great dog and lived a good life. A life that was solely possible because of the kindness and determination of my wife who plucked a 3-month old German shepherd “mix” out of the pound nine years ago.
She was a good dog. She was a loyal dog. She was a stubborn dog. She was a tough dog. She was a beautiful dog. She protected the house and the people she cared about relentlessly. It wasn’t easy becoming part of her inner circle but once you did you were in it for life.
While dealing with the grief of losing a member of our family, I realized I had no idea how I was going to talk to our kids about this. Would I even have to talk about this? How much does a 4 and two-year-old pay attention? It’s not like she slept in their room or they even played together. Maybe…they won’t even notice?
These were the thoughts that go through someone’s head when it’s not in the right place.
But, there was a factor at play that fed my delusion. We were headed to San Diego the day after we said goodbye. Ruby was scheduled to go to the kennel for a week, and our boys headed to their grandparent’s house. For a four-year-old with a poor understanding of time - that was an eternity.
After returning from San Diego, we were excited to see the boys but a tad apprehensive about any questions about where Ruby was. Their initial excitement to see us also brought us additional time to figure out what to say if/when they asked. We didn’t come up with anything. We instead took a “see if they ever bring it up” strategy.
(Up until this point I was still rooting for them to never ask about the dog. I even went so far as to remove the dog bed, bowls and any evidence we ever had a dog. For a moment, I thought it might work. I know. I was delusional. )
A few more days past and my four-year-old began to have that look in his eyes. The one where you can tell he thinks he misplaced something but before he can give it any real thought BOOM there I am with some candy or the iPad for him.
If Agent Smith did this to Keanu Reeves in The Matrix that movie would have been 5 minutes long.
Unfortunately, that itch that my four-year-old couldn't scratch wouldn't go away. The other night he caught my wife off guard right before bedtime
My wife took a deep breath, knelt down beside him and told him the truth. Ruby died.
"Oh..." he said back to her. My wife paused, not sure what was going to happen next. Does he even understand? Is he going to freak out? What if he doesn't care? Should we be worried if he didn't care? Are we living with a junior sociopath?! Oh wait, he's crying. Whew.
What he did next is the sort of thing that crushes a parent. He wept. Not the type of tears when he falls and skins his knee or when he's pitching a fit about the iPad being turned off and is screaming bloody murder. This was sadness. A gentle weeping barely heard after he pulls the covers over his head. It was almost like he didn't want us to see him cry. I could feel myself melt as I watched him tremor under the blanket his Oba made him. I would have preferred if he freaked out, that I can handle. With this, there was nothing to do but rub his back and try and comfort him.
He cried himself to sleep that first night. We ended up putting him and his brother in our bed. If we're going to feel like shit, we'll do it as a family. The next morning he woke up like his usual self and immediately asked to play on the iPad.
Was that it? Were we in the clear?
He hasn't cried since, but there have been a lot of questions about this whole "death" thing.
Is Ruby in heaven?
Why did Ruby go to heaven?
Is she with Jesus?
Is she with Jesus and Buddha?
Can we visit her?
Can we get her?
We can't leave her behind.
When will we get her?
Do Jesus and Buddha need her?
Why can't Jesus and Buddha give her medicine and send her back?
Is she playing with Jesus?
Why did she die?
How old are you?
Are you old?
Are you going to die?
I am going to build a rocket ship and go to heaven and get her. Then I'm going to give God a spanking.
That last one isn't so much a question, but it was a heck of a statement that made me smile.
He's been peppering us with questions like this for about a week now. He'll be going about his day when something he hears or sees reminds him of her, and the interrogation begins again.
How do you discuss death with a four-year-old without freaking them the fuck out? Or is the answer you don't? Part of me thought about telling him she went to live on that magical farm that everyone's pets seem to end up. A place where she could run and chase squirrels and scratch her back in the grass all day as the sun warmed her belly.
We decided against that for two reasons. One, that kid remembers EVERYTHING. Kids are like the cops. They're going to ask you the same question over and over again to see if you're answers ever change. If they do, it will lead to suspicion and more questions.
I don't want to have to remember what color the barn on the farm was or if it had horses or not. This is the sort of lie that can live on for years. I just don't the long-term memory for that.
The second reason was for the next three years every time we'd pass a farm he'd have his hopes up that he's going to see Ruby gallivanting across the field. Can you imagine as we passed every piece of green open land larger than an acre he'd have his nose pressed up against the car window begging me to pull over. That's too heartbreaking.
So we went with the "band-aid" approach. It was a swift, devastating truth that ripped the hair off your arm but was over quick (hopefully).
It's been over a week now, and the questions are still coming but less frequently. Instead, replaced with general comments about missing Ruby. I forget that Ruby was present for 100% of my boys' lives. There wasn't a day that she wasn't napping on the couch or keeping guard by the windows. Ruby was an adult dog when the boys arrived and accepted them as part of her responsibility to protect. She tolerated their grabbing hands and shrieking voices by hiding upstairs on our bed when they got too much for her. When they were older, she happily cleaned up after meal times as our "no people food" policy expired once we had kids (along with our "no dog on the couch or beds" policy).
Despite her intimidating appearance she never once acted aggressively towards them. She opted instead for an eye roll, deep sigh and sanctuary on a quieter level.
She was loved and a part of our family for nearly a decade.
And she is missed more than she’ll ever know.
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