Sometimes I think that the worst part about our dog dying this past spring was the moment I told Kai, when I opened up my mouth and spoke the words that broke his heart.
Kai cried the next day in school, he cried a few times after that. We haven’t really talked about it much since, though.
For me, there are definitely times I miss the dog. There are obvious ones, like when I walk past Milk Bones at the grocery store. Elliott looked like the dog on the box of the medium-sized ones. Or when I drive past the vet and I am reminded of that last day. But worse are the unexpected moments, like the first time we had steak for dinner after, and we realized with tears in our eyes that there was no one waiting under the table to eat the fat scraps.
Kai has told me over the last couple of months that he misses Elliott.
“I do, too,” I always say.
He follows that up with a request for a hamster.
About a month ago, I ordered “When a Pet Dies” by Mr. Rogers after reading some blog post or other about a dead pet. When it arrived, I meant to read it to Kai, but somehow I never got around to it. We’ve been too busy doing whatever it is we do, I guess, and the book sat on my counter next to my computer. It felt like maybe I shouldn’t just put that in the bookshelf, where it could be requested of unsuspecting babysitters like the book about the difference between boys and girls has been.
And then Sunday night, out of the clear blue, Kai came downstairs after we’d put him to bed. He was crying hysterically.
“I just miss Elliott so much!” he wailed in between heaving sobs.
Scott and I looked at each other like omgwtf. Because omgwtf? What sparked it I still have no idea, but I do know that grief is funny that way, a rogue wave that knocks you down when you least expect it. Like when you’re eating a steak, say. Or, apparently, watching your iPad in your room.
“Kai,” I said, “would you like to read a book about it?”
I pulled the Mr. Rogers book out of the stack of papers next to my computer, aware that Scott was watching me, that I had actually pulled a rabbit out of my hat, if by “rabbit” you mean book about pet death, and by “hat” you mean the pile of crap next to my computer. Still, though, it felt like kind of an advanced move, like, oh, you’re sad? Well here’s all the ways in which I anticipated this and have handy the solution, as though pet death books are always at my fingertips.
We sat down and read the book, which was full of the word “sometimes.” Kai was still howling, fat tears streaking down his cheeks. I may have shed a tear, too.
When it was over, Kai sat on my lap, sniffling, his breath coming in ragged bursts.
“I just miss him so much,” he said, the tears once again welling and spilling over.
There are families out there who would turn to religion in a case like this, that Elliott is in a better place, that he’s probably eating God’s fat scraps right this very second. But God didn’t occur to me at that moment—Courtney Love did. I’d heard her give advice in an interview once. It was about heart-break, that if you’re having a hard time emotionally, you should turn it into art. “It’s like that ‘Joe Lies’ song in Say Anything,” she’d said. “Write that song. Write 65 of them.”
“Kai,” I said, “why don’t you draw a picture of a good memory you have of Elliott?”
He stopped crying. “What?”
“Let’s draw you and Elliott having fun together.”
“Like the time I was holding his leash and I fell down the stairs because Elliott pulled me?” he asked.
I gave him a sad smile then, because that really was Kai’s happy memory of Elliott. Elliott didn’t really like Kai. Or Ryan. He didn’t lick them or present his belly for rubbing or bring them a ball to throw to him. When I brought Kai home from the hospital, Elliott correctly assessed where he, Elliott, now fell on the totem pole and never forgave Kai for that.
“I don’t know how to draw Elliott,” Kai said.
I showed him how to make a border collie out of a series of shapes—rectangle body, crescent tail, triangle ears.
“What’s that a picture of?” I asked Kai a few minutes later, pointing to a drawing of Elliott with a series of arrows moving hither and yon.
“That’s when I throw the ball and Elliott doesn’t chase it,” he said, laughing.
Falling down the stairs
I laughed with Kai, even though that’s a woefully pathetic memory.
But I was tempted then, to grab the crayon and draw one of my own memories of Elliott from when he was about 8 months old. I was a single girl then, working at an ad agency, and I clicked my high-heeled shoes up the stairs to my apartment one night to find Elliott standing in his crate, wagging his tail furiously.
I was horror-struck by what I saw, pleading with him to sit back down, but he just continued to wag that tail, his head cocked to the side, his tongue falling sideways out of his mouth.
He’d had diarrhea in his crate, gotten it all over his tail, and each wag sent a spray of liquid dog poop all over my apartment like some kind of nightmare Jackson Pollack painting from hell.
When Kai was finally done drawing, and heaved one last shuddering sigh, I asked if he was okay.
“I just want another pet,” he said.
“Maybe we can think about a new puppy next spring,” I offered.
“Or a hamster,” he said.
“We’re not getting a hamster,” I said.
“How about a snake?” he asked.
“You’re making a good case for dog,” I replied.
“But when?” he asked.
“Maybe spring,” I repeated.
“Oh,” he said sadly. Tears welled in his eyes again and he rubbed them away with the heels of his hands, but they fell faster than he could swipe at them, and so, drained and out of parenting ideas, I finally just suggested we watch funny videos on Youtube until he was ready to go to bed.
The Elliott Memorial