Stepdog

by Finley Pines

We bolt down the stairs like the Tasmanian Devil, a trail of mismatched socks and Cheerios in our wake. When we reach the minivan I strap in the first obstacle, the baby. “Fishy fishy,” she murmurs when I hand her the black rooster with the white polka dots and paper scratchy wings. She fingers it with disinterest before tossing it with a mischievous grin. Next is the velvety purple monkey that sings ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’ She understands the game and knows that I am at her mercy. With a chubby-cheeked titter she rejects the monkey too. I sigh, handing over the zip-lock bag of goldfish crackers.

“Finn! It’s time to get in your car seat!” I announce, addressing the four-year-old, who circuits from one side of the back seat of the minivan to the other, hollering his new favorite tune, ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise.’ Rolling up my sleeves, I prepare for battle. Today, we are short on time and I don’t have the patience for coaxing him. While he kicks and throws punches, I restrain him with my left hand while buckling the three-pronged safety belt with my right.

“Let me out!” he screams, pulling at the buckles that he hasn’t yet mastered, though soon will, much like the baby crib that he began escaping from at 11 months old. Despite his protests, I climb into the driver’s seat, exclaiming, “We are ready!” with a preschool teacher’s enthusiasm. This is exhausting, but it used to be worse. Last month, my step-son Carson celebrated his 11th birthday. That means he and I have been a step-team for five years. Becoming a step-parent is not something one plans. It’s a role fallen into more than an aspiration.

As a stepmother I often summon the memory of my favorite Hollywood stepparent: the Baroness Schraeder. She was Captain Von Trapp’s femme in the 1960s film ‘The Sound of Music.’ While she never married the Captain, her failed attempts at step-parenting his seven children seem to represent a fine collection of parenting no no's, executed in the most glamorous style. Remember the long cigarette with the elegant holder? Her platinum blonde hair was exquisite. The plucked brows and those adorably stylish suits were several cuts above Julie Andrews’ round rump in the frumpy dresses sewn from the Von Trapp family’s old curtains. I love the part where she played ball in high heels and a silky peach blouse with those wicked little Von Trapp children. The game ended when they slammed the ball into her stomach.

This scenario seems reminiscent of the indoor badminton matches Carson and I played before his dad and I were married. Carson was six at the time and preoccupied with his mother’s concerns that his father was remarrying and as Carson exclaimed, while trying to hit me with the badminton birdie, “My mother’s got to be a part of this family!”

Carson didn’t remember his parents living together as they separated when he was an infant. During the badminton matches, he spouted ideas about sabotaging my upcoming wedding to his father. “My friends and I have a plan. We’re going to bring swords.”

It might have been at this time that the Baroness’ ideas about sending the little angels away to summer camp started to appeal to me. In truth, I channelled the Baroness more in later years. As a new step-parent, I was gung ho, shrugging off my mother’s fatalistic predications that the situation was doomed from the start.

“You’re not going to love him as much as you love your own children,” my mother cautioned. Her response to my announcement of betrothal was not the traditional, “I am so happy for you” that I sought. Instead, she supplied a simple yet mysterious, “Think about it.”

At the time, I resented her negativity. Later, there were times when I had to concede her instincts had been prescient. These are the thoughts I want to share at my Stepparents Anonymous Club meeting. I fantasize that I will encounter other bewildered step-parents. At the weekly meetings there will be time to ask questions. “Before you arrived did your step-child still sleep in his parents’ bed? Did you have to institute Movie Night to help limit the unsupervised television that dominated your stepchild’s day?” The club members and I will become fast friends because of our shared experiences.

Instead, the years pass and the other club members fail to surface. There are other step-parents, sure, though none that qualify as club members in my mind. The ones I meet have grown step-children who never lived with them. Their step-child sleeps over one weekend a month, or visits from Italy once a year. It is then that I realize that the other step-parents heeded my mother’s advice. They ‘thought about it’ and secured an arrangement more like the Baroness had in mind. They’ve managed to procure the coveted moniker of Evil Step-parent without the actual work.

Today, we are scheduled to pick up Carson from fifth grade, following visits to the bank and grocery. While I distribute sippy cups, Sadie dog swaggers up from the garage to the front porch steps where she collapses for her third morning nap. She is 14 years old, with arthritis, and deaf in both ears, and the only way to describe how this Golden Retriever rises is ‘with effort.’ On stairs, her nemesis, she has adopted an angled, waddling sort of shuffle. Sadie, like my stepson, has known my husband longer than I have. She was the puppy my husband and his former wife adopted together when they were having trouble conceiving, when Carson was just a gleam in the eye. In recent years, her care has fallen to me. As the stay-at-home parent, I am the one responsible for walks and feedings. Sadie turned out to be an excellent companion to my long-haired senior cat. These ‘two old ladies’ as we call them, are often found sharing Sadie’s dog bed, or curled up outside the front door.

As always, I make the toy sweep behind the car before leaving the house. Too many times reversing has been accompanied by the unnatural sound of a bursting ball or the crushing of plastic. Even following the toy sweep, I use my mirrors. With nothing in our path, we are ready for departure. It’s when I’m backing the car out that I hear something, but not the usual crunching toy sound. What did I miss in my sweep? Car in park, I climb out to check. A soft yet high-pitched yelping is audible from under the car and I do a double take on the back seat to make sure the children are still there. I bend down to search under the car, scraping my knee on the cement as I squat to identify the source of the noise. Sadie is on her side, rocking slightly as though trying to rise but unable. I let out my own noise when I see her, a pig-like squeal.

“What is it, Mom?” Finn asks.
 “Oh my God, it’s Sadie!” I shriek. “She must have moved!”

Without hesitation I climb back in the car and drive forward to free her from the weight of the van, though I’m unsure if I am freeing her or rolling over her a second time. Parked again, I hop out and scoop her 75-pound frame from under the car. Though the angle is awkward, I place her on the floor between the kids, who stare at her, too young to grasp the gravity of the situation. The baby claps her hands and points. “Doggie-ay! Doggie-ay!” she says with a giggle, thrilled that Sadie is accompanying us.

“Okay, we are going to take Sadie to the doctor,” I say, as we zoom down our street towards the emergency vet. ‘Sports casting’ is what they call it at Finn’s preschool. Describing what is happening in a calm voice in order to translate the mood and meaning of the moment to a child. My voice comes out high-pitched and strained and the speed of the car is anything but relaxed, so I decide to remain silent.

“What’s wrong with Sadie?” Finn sobs. “Is she gonna be dead?” I click on Rafi singing ‘Down by the Bay, Where the Watermelons Grow’ in the CD player, cranking the volume up in hopes it will put the baby to sleep and drown out his questions.

Once parked at the vet, I rush to the front desk. “I ran over our dog, she’s in my car!” I announce, the words spilling out in a garbled confession. Seconds drip by before the attendant strolls out to get Sadie. We watch amazed as he puts a leash on her and makes her walk. Why does he not carry her? Unlike an emergency room for humans, there seems to be no sense of urgency here. I am the only one sweating, and with racing heart, I dial my husband Benny at the medical office where he works, to tell him the news.

“It’s okay,” Benny whispers. “She’s old. Of course it was an accident.” He absolves me but I am not sure everyone will. He has patients waiting for him so I agree to call him when there is more information about Sadie’s condition. In the waiting room, we read Richard Scarry's Busy Busy World. I nurse the baby while the four year old poses 20 questions about what is happening to his dog. Why was she under the car? Is she dead? Is she going to die?

Finally, Dr. Winn Davis comes to talk to us. He has a chiselled physique and calm demeanour like a medical hero on the soap opera General Hospital. I tell him I have no idea what happened, what part of Sadie was crushed. He nods with compassionate sympathy. He will not contact law enforcement or even God. “We’re going to do a few x-rays. Are you okay to wait?” he asks, surveying my motley crew.

During our brief conversation, Finn started to scale the top of the chairs in the sitting area and is now blurting out, “When I’m in port I get what I need!” The baby upends her bag of goldfish and now sprawls on her belly, grabbing handfuls of the crackers mixed in with clumps of animal fur. I nod weakly and turn to distract the kids. Finn and I play an endless game of ‘War’ with our deck of cards, while the baby gums animal crackers and a box of raisins. There’s a spotted banana that gets partly eaten, the rest left to mush in with other food and purse contents like trail mix, hair, a tampon and car keys.

Still, it’s not long before Dr. Davis returns with his wonderful bedside manner. I decide I want him to tell me the fate of all of my family members. He could inject me with morphine and send in the nurse to give me my sponge bath. Sadie’s front paw has an ugly fracture. It is worse news because her arthritic spine is so deteriorated that any sort of meaningful recovery is unlikely. Her suffering will be high, her mobility nil. She will require lots of care. Another infant will be upon me. This will only be after surgery and here’s the kicker: first her brain must stabilize. Dr. Davis doesn’t know if she has suffered a concussion. Her vision seems blurred. This is when my left leg starts to wobble involuntarily. A bone fracture sounds human, recoverable even. But brain damage?I wince as the image of a car tire running over her skull repeats in my head.

Dr. Davis doesn’t recommend the surgery. He recommends euthanasia. Given her pain, the decision cannot be delayed. I call Benny for the second time. “It doesn’t look good,” I say. “I’ll let you talk to the doc.”

Benny says he has been prepared for her passing for awhile. His doggie of 14 years. Sadie girl. Sadie dog. Sadie girlie. The one who went everywhere with him. The one who would wait on the stair landing for him to get home. Wait until he ambled in at three in the morning from the hospital night shift and then waddlefoot her way up the remaining steps to the bedroom. There she would settle on the dirtied stretch of carpet which her doggie frame had discolored from years of use, adjacent to Benny’s side of the bed.

He tells Dr. Davis that we choose to let her go. Too much pain. Too much complication. Too much expense. He is so good about it. Why can’t we let people go like that? Running over her was an accident. Still, I feel like they will think I did it on purpose. This is ridiculous. I don’t have spare time in which to murder dogs. And who are they anyway?

A few years after Benny and I were married we took a trip to Seattle. Sadie stayed behind of course. Each day, Carson broke down sobbing, “I miss Saaaadie!” In the middle of a fun activity, a tour of the Seattle catacombs or lunching in the revolving restaurant of the Space Needle, the dark cloud would overcome him. “When are we ever going home? I need to see Saaaadie!” I stared in disbelief at his sobbing face. Was this the same boy who shoved his dog in the bathroom and sat giggling outside the door while she whined? The one who dragged her by the collar when she wouldn’t follow him, whacking her behind with a stick? He must be saying Sadie, but really missing his mother. That was the summer his mother left him behind for a two-month trip to New England. How could a young child miss a dog more than a mother? It didn’t make sense.

When Carson’s parents separated, he lived the life of many children of divorce, shuttling back and forth between two homes. With each exchange, Sadie went with him. It was not until Carson was five years old and his mother got new carpet, that Sadie began to live with Carson’s dad permanently. During those first years, Mom and Dad were part time. It was Sadie who was the full-time parent. Sadie, ever constant, ever loyal.

Now her brown doggie eyes stare up at me from the crate in the back room of the emergency vet. We lock eyes for a moment and I am reminded of how little attention I’ve given her since Carson’s siblings were born. I recollect the patient way she tagged along while I pushed the baby jogger, how she paused and panted as though smiling while I bent forward to adjust a hat slipped over a face or stooped to pick up a dropped toy. Her eyes remind me of the times I yelled at her when her aged bladder left yet another accident on the rug.

“Sorry Sadie,” I whisper. “You’ve been a good dog.”

Dr. Davis gives Sadie a shot to ease the pain and we head towards Garden Elementary School to find they…I mean Carson, my stepson, and tell him the news about his dog, the one his evil stepmother drove over. But I need a little time. So, I drive around while the kids nap. I eye my watch and prepare my talk in my head. We hang out on the playground, waiting for Carson to be dismissed. It takes an eternity for 2:55 to roll around. Carson is the last kid out of class. We walk with him to the car. I regret the trail mix I gobbled earlier which now churns inside me. I do the car seat routine again. Everyone strapped in. No one can escape.

“Bad news, Car,” I say. “It’s Sadie. We’re going to have to put her to sleep.”

I give him the details – the backing out of the car and the fractured front paw. He is calm. Unusually so for the kid who cried, “I miss Sadie dog!” on the Seattle trip. Won’t he put a frog in my luggage or a pine cone on my chair like the Von Trapp children did to Fraulein Maria? He should scream that he hates me and I’ve ruined his life. Instead, he wants to see her. We drive back to the vet and go into the back room where Sadie lays panting on the floor in a metal cage.  “Hi girl,” he says. He holds her paw, pets her head, his brown eyes red and brimming with tears. I take his siblings out to the waiting room to give him some time alone, to say goodbye. When he comes out, we pile into the van without comment. Carson’s face is puffy and red, but he doesn’t do the melodrama thing. He is 11 years old. He seems to hold himself with a new poise and does not seem to blame me for Sadie’s death. Even his mother later says how badly she feels for me to have such bad luck; a deaf suicidal dog.

Once, when Benny and I were first married I was buckling Carson in his car seat. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to get in, as is common among young children. He felt annoyed with an evil stepmother telling him what to do.  “Why you’re, you’re, you’re just from Poo Poo Platter Planet!” he blurted. He seemed to expect me to be angry at this slur. Instead it struck me as funny and creative, embodying his love of Chinese food and sharp sense of humor.

“Wow, that’s a good one,” I said, laughing. “I think you have me pegged. My people would be from a place like that.” Seeing my pleasure he repeated his joke several times, breaking into his proud wide-faced grin, the one he saves for can’t help himself moments. He always has possessed that ability not to hold a grudge, not to pout, that readiness to blow it all out with a good laugh. After all isn’t there something fun just over the horizon of being mad? This is the inherent wisdom of children that we grownups have forgotten.

Sadie’s is to be the first of our pet death partnerships. Later it will be Carson who helps me scoop up the mangled body of my old cat, digging a grave for her following a dog attack. It is Carson who crafts a wooden cross out of willow branches to rest on her burial site. And when a feral cat delivers five kittens in our garage, it’s Carson who accompanies me to the vet when one gets injured and has to be put to sleep. Dr. Davis gets another big check for that shot of euthanasia and the card of sympathy.

But first there is Sadie. Once home, we are quiet. We bake a carrot cake the same color as her coat. We ice it and write Sadie 1994-2008 on it. I take a photo of Benny holding it with the kids. One month later, we will receive her ashes in a small wooden box with a golden plaque. ‘Sadie’ is inscribed on the front. Carson insists on housing this box in his room. I frame a photo of the two of them together. I frame one of Carson with his mother as well. I place the photos next to the box of ashes on top of his book shelf.

Godspeed Sadie dog. R.I.P. Well done, Carson. When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when you’re feeling sad; simply remember your favorite things and then you won’t feel so bad.

 

© Finley Pines

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem