Mother of the Year
Today marks five weeks since my mother’s diagnosis with aggressive Grade IV glioblastoma, five weeks since my family’s lackadaisical spring was hit by a grenade that launched us into the surreal world of watching someone next to you on the beach suddenly snatched away by a rogue wave and pulled, slowly but inexorably, off by a receding tide.
I thought I would be much more angry than I am, angry at the unfairness of a universe that takes her in such a cruel manner while it leaves behind the thieves and liars, the selfish and the cruel, but I learned a long time ago that as much as we think we’re all playing the same boardgame, we’re only playing against ourselves. So all I can do is look at the situation in front of me and ask myself, what do I want to do with this? And every moment I spend being angry is one moment of quiet and comfort I will miss, the small scraps of lucid time I can gather up more valuable than gold.
I will, I decided, be unguardedly, relentlessly, grateful. It is a conscious decision, and not without effort, but it’s getting easier every day. It is a mantra I wrap around myself like a shawl, holding onto it until the shivers stop and the chill leaves my bones:
Instead of being angry that my beloved mother has a brutal disease, I am grateful she decided to forego treatment she didn’t want. Grateful I can be here for her.
Instead of being angry when hospice is slow to return my call or suggest solutions, I am grateful I have the benefit of knowledge so I can be proactive and figure them out myself.
Instead of being angry that I can do more for a sick dog than I can for my mother if she winds up in terrible pain, I am grateful that for now, at least, she is not.
Instead of being angry at the people who would make things more difficult, I am grateful they number so few.
Instead of being angry that I need to read through books to counsel me on what amends we should be making and forgivenesses to seek, I am grateful that upon reflection, we have no need. We have always been at peace with each other.
It gets easier with practice. For now, we are at peace with what is happening, and content with the thought that when we look back, we can say with certainty that we have no regrets about how we handled it, and that is perhaps the best one can hope for.
As you can imagine I have been hanging around my mom quite a bit these days, filling the air with talk of the day and the children. She has made it clear she prefers the conversation light. However, when and if she has a moment where she decides she has something important to impart, I want to make sure I don’t miss it because I still feel like there is still so much more left to say.
This afternoon, when the visiting family departed and my dad headed off to the store, she took a deep breath and turned to me, her bright cornflower blue eyes swiveling into focus as they peered into mine.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course, Mom.”
“I don’t know if you know what this is, or even if you know how to get it…” she paused.
I took a deep breath, as this is a moment I have been simultaneously anticipating and dreading.
“What is it, Mom?” I took her hand.
“Do you know….what spotted dick is?”
Of all the things I had pictured her asking me about, that was about last on the list, somewhere between “Sam Kinison’s used socks” and “an 8 track of the Bay City Rollers.” I paused, letting that rattle around in my brain: spotteddickspotteddickspotteddick, then I started laughing.
“Yes Mom, I think it’s a gross British dessert. Where the heck did that come from?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed, running her hands through her hair. “I was just thinking about desserts, and that sounded disgusting.”
I took her hands. “I will never,” I said, “Make you eat a spotted dick.”
She looked at me, Miss Proper Victorian Lady, and burst into laughter. Me and my mom, reduced to 10 year olds by a canned pudding. Then I brought her a cookie. Chocolate chip, because raisins are gross.
Desserts have always been very important to this family.
I know you were all hoping I would have more wisdom to impart about these momentous last days, but so far this is all I got. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, really.
So, every year I attempt some form of creative teaching enterprise at the kids’ school, and some years go better than others. This year, in a school I really like, I think things went well. I was asked to do a “veterinary science station” for the annual Science Fair, and I thought back to what I was excited about when I was a kid:
Playing with guts! And I thought to myself, I bet I could create a dog version of this anatomical model. So I went to Joann’s, bought a bunch of random attachments and fabric bits, and commandeered one of my daughter’s stuffed animals to volunteer to be my surgical model.
Step one: preparing the abdominal cavity
I chose a mottled red fabric for the interior of the dog, and sewed a pouch to contain the abdominal organs. After cutting open a midline incision, I removed a bit of stuffing then sewed in a zipper. (Do this before sewing the pouch in, or you’ll end up with the zipper seam showing.) Then you can sew the top ends of the pouch to the edges of your incision and voila!
Step two: making organs
You can go kind of crazy with this stuff, but I tried to hold myself back to the main parts (no spleen, pancreas, etc). All of the organs were secured to the abdominal wall with Velcro so they would remain in the right place but they could be removed if the kids really wanted to see what was in there.
I tried to keep the organs moderately accurate, but I was limited by my own sewing experience and what I had on hand, which is how I wound up with lavender sparkly kidneys and a two-lobed liver. For the bladder we filled a white balloon with rice. The kids don’t care too much about accuracy.
The intestines were a long tube of velour that I sewed and then had to turn inside-out. I didn’t think that one through ahead of time. I debated leaving it a giant intussusception but I eventually got it figured out with actual surgical tools. Next time, forget it.
In the interest of simplicity, the loop represented both the large and small intestine. I had some nubby yarn that I really, really wanted to throw in there as omentum but I held myself back.
The stomach needed to be fairly correct as a gastrotomy was going to be one of the two surgeries the kids could do. It’s a fleecy material with the nubby side on the inside (rugae! yaay!). I ended up using ribbon “stitches” sewn into the sides of the incision, which was a smart choice once the fifth graders started yanking on them full-force.
For the uterus, I sewed two red socks together at the toe (worked like a charm!) and bought a handful of small puppy toys. The ovaries were little white yarn pom-poms.
I sewed a snap into the tip of both socks to keep the “uterus” closed. I also put in a piece of stretchy rubber ribbon on both sides of the abdomen that the uterus held to with velcro but that was overkill with these kids so I didn’t use it. Feel free to use it for the vet student in your life, though- they’ll have to get used to wrestling with that thing.
By the time everything got stuffed in there it was actually a shockingly decent approximation for the surgical experience- you look in and think, what the heck am I looking at? So I made a legend as well.
With all of that in hand, as well as a bunch of gloves and masks we didn’t end up using, we headed off to the science fair.
Step 3: The actual test
We had a lot of competition at the science fair. Computer programming, dry ice, slime, rockets, frogs. Since the kids didn’t know they were going to be doing surgery until they came up and asked what was going on, they all freaked out a little and then said, let’s do it!
I used some of the radiographs readers shared with me. The pregnancy one was a big hit!
A small cardboard tube served as a trachea and the kids intubated with a See’s candy stick.
An old pillowcase with a rectangle cutout in the middle served as a surgical drape.
For the case where the dog was vomiting, we used our legend to try and determine what we were looking for (something big and pink.)
The kids got to pull out the assortment of items our patient ingested: a ball, a sock, a rock, and to see how they would lodge in the pylorus as there was no way they’d fit into the intestines.
I could easily have had two dogs going, but as I had to re-stuff the dog after every surgery I had my assistant prepare the surgery table while the next group waited.
Unsurprisingly, the c-section was a big crowd pleaser. We had only one person run off in horror when they figured out what was going on, and it was a dad.
I wrapped the puppies in saran wrap “membranes”. For the little kids who weren’t quite up to delivering a puppy, the bigger kids could hand them a puppy to wrap in a towel, remove the membrane, and stimulate them to breathe (you see one in the lower left corner). Worked like a charm.
Even the moms learned something, as in, “dang, that’s a big uterus.” Yes, it is.
The kids were all very concerned after to make sure the dog was closed and “woken up” after surgery was completed, all except the older boys who wanted to pull all the organs out and play with them. There’s something for everyone here at the clinic.
And the best part of the night were the kids who realized there were two surgeries and came back for more. Mission Minion recruitment accomplished!
As you probably know, I have a bit of a complicated relationship with the PTA moms. Not moms in general, mind you, just the small subset of Pinterest loving, glue-gun wielding domestic lifestyle experts whose expectations I can never, despite my best efforts, seem to live up to. It doesn’t matter what school we’re at, it happens every time. First it was the art project/pooper scooper incident in kindergarten. Then it was the Have a Very Agro Valentine’s Day episode. And now it’s crudite, crudite that torments the soul.
It started simply enough: an email asking for volunteers to bring in food items for the teachers this conference week. I looked on the sign up sheet and put my name next to crudite: veggies and dip. Easy, I thought, a quick run to the grocery store for some carrot sticks and dip and done.
I forgot where I was.
(Not two weeks ago, I found myself in the midst of a malestrom for the fifth grade Halloween party when all the room moms got together and asked the parents to bring in food. I asked my class parents to bring in pretzels and fruit. The other moms showed up with cookies shaped like rotting fingers with almond nails and jelly blood, and eyeball eggs with veins hand-painted on with food dye. My pretzels were shoved under the table.)
So now, a few minutes after signing up for the veggie tray, I received an email instructing me to be creative! which is always concerning. To illustrate her point, the organizer included this helpful photo:
As to what our vegetables should aspire to be.
Now at this point a normal person would laugh and say, “OK, lady,” and bring in a tray from Costco, but unfortunately I still have the sin of pride to contend with on a regular basis, so I instead spent the afternoon standing in line at the grocery store watching YouTube videos of Martha Stewart blanching asparagus. Three hours of cursing later, with piles of peeled burnt chestnuts and carrot shavings dripping out of my hair like Jackson Pollock on a bender, I came up with this:
This is the dogged tenacity that makes people like me get through vet school even when all indicators point to the “why?” factor. We can’t explain it. We just have to.
I shared this with my friends, and they all got a good laugh out of how silly it was, and then later in the day my friend in Ohio sent me a link and said, “See? You’re not alone.” It was a photo of some artfully arranged food items a group of mothers had arranged for their teachers.
It was, upon further inspection, a photo from my very school from earlier in the day. It had already made the Pinterest rounds and ended up in Ohio, where my friend saw it and sent it to me as an example of Moms Gone Styled. I scrolled through it, looking for my contribution.
Notably lacking? The crudite. They were apparently so lackluster as to have not even rated a Facebook photo, and when I returned to pick up the dish I found they had been shoved in the corner in order to make way for some gluten free turkey wraps with hand-whisked dressings in, of course, Mason jars.
At this point, even a not quite normal person would just give up, which is theoretically what I should do, but it’s become clear to me I live in a parallel universe where I am destined to almost-quite get it, over and over and over, but not get it entirely. This is why I am a veterinarian, the almost-quites of the medical field.
So you know what? I’m embracing it. This afternoon I decided to go on a Pinterest binge and make a little Pinterest and dog-friendly crudite platter my way. Hope you enjoy it.
A bright autumn day, full of promise and gently whispered secrets amongst best of friends, calls for sustenance.
Lovingly hand-extruded kibble, with ingredients sourced from local artisans in an organic human-grade facility in Portland by men with bushy beards. In a Mason jar.
We end our afternoon in the garden of delights (it’s water friendly succulents! We’re eco friendly here in drought-parched SoCal) with hand-cut carrot bones from the local CSA, mint from the garden, words of wisdom from the dog sketched in canine-friendly peanut butter hand ground at Whole Foods. And of course, no pet garden of delights would be complete without the coup de grace:
nitrate free ham roses.
You saw it first here, folks. I’m waiting on sponsors for a YouTube tutorial but I think a ham bouquet is a lovely thing.
When I took my son in for his first routine eye exam, I had no idea he needed glasses. Neither did he. He seemed fine, wasn’t running into things, was reading fine in school, but nonetheless the optometrist suggested glasses. OK, I said, let’s give it a shot.
One week later, his glasses arrived and we went into the office to pick them up. He picked them up dubiously, slid them over the bridge of his nose, and stood there for a moment, blinking as the refracted light hit his retina in new and improved ways.
He spun, slowly, taking it all in. His lips twitched, burbling with something important. When he could no longer hold it in, he opened his mouth and shouted, “I CAN SEEEEEE!!!!”
Boy did I feel like a horrible mom as the assorted clients turned to see this blind boy get his sight back.
Later that week I was sharing this story with a friend. As we were talking, her daughter picked up my kid’s glasses and put them on just for fun to see how weird things looked.
She came over and tugged on her mom’s sleeves. “Hey mom. Things look pretty good with these things on. I think I can’t see too well.” Then I felt less bad. It happens to us all.
We thought things were fine, my kid thought things were fine, and then someone with tools I didn’t have access to and the ability to evaluate things said, “Actually, life can be even better.” And it was.
I think of this all the time when people say, “Oh, Buster’s doing fine, he doesn’t need an exam or meds or anything.” To a client’s eye, he is fine. His gait is the same it’s always been. But I can pick up things they don’t, that slight crunchy feeling in the knee, a stiffness when I extend the leg. It took some doing, but we convinced that lab’s owner to try some Rimadyl.
Or the dachshund who came in for a routine dental. “He’s fine,” the owner reported. “He eats kind of slow but he’s been that way since we adopted him two years ago.” When we opened his mouth, the fetid odor of eight rotting teeth hit my nostrils, teeth held in by tartar more than by tissue at that point. It took some doing, but we convinced the owner to let us remove them.
In both cases, we got a call about a week later to marvel about this new dog in the house. “He’s like a puppy again! I can’t believe his energy! Who IS this dog?” Like my son spinning around in the optometrist office, they had a problem they didn’t even realize existed lifted from their shoulders, and got to experience something better for the first time.
In the year since their last eye exam, both kids seem to be perfectly fine, but I took them in dutifully anyway. Both of them need new prescriptions. This time, I don’t feel so bad. Big things we notice- small ones? Not always.
It isn’t my job to evaluate such things in my kids, or to be able to recognize the more subtle signs of something needing help. All I need to do is get them to someone who can, on a regular basis. Next stop: orthodontist. Lord help us all.
Just a little reminder to everyone that there is a reason we recommend yearly (twice yearly, for older pets) checkups at the vet. We’ll probably find things you weren’t aware of, and that’s OK. That’s what we’re here for! Every pet deserves the revelation of improved health.
When I was six, my mother enrolled me in my first dance class. I enjoyed it, I had fun, I got to wear cute little sailor costumes and get up on stage and tunelessly tap my feet.
The teacher always arranged us in two rows, and this being the early 80s before everyone had to get equal play, she arranged us not by height but by talent. The precocious dancers with the big smiles and the good rhythm were front and center, and those who tripped on their shoelaces or danced with the angry pounding feet of someone trying to stomp out the last burning embers of an old campfire found themselves perpetually in the back.
My dad has a lot of pictures of half of my body hidden behind the other girls.
Had I been desperate to improve my lot in life as a dancer, I imagine my parents might have encouraged me to spend more time honing my craft. I have learned in life that training trumps talent almost every time. However, I didn’t mind the back row, and they didn’t mind, so they let me be in between dance classes to pursue what really floated my boat: palaeontology.
I read every book I could get my hands on, gaping in horrified intrigue at the artist’s rendition of a Tyrannosaurus gorging on a defeated looking hadrosaur. It was riveting. I spent my allowance in the craft store and would rush home every day to put together my little wooden skeleton models. I had them all.
It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be interested in science or that my time would be better spent improving my jazz technique than reconstructing extinct fossils. At night, we’d gather around the TV and watch Nova, or Cosmos- the original Carl Sagan version.
My mother, who is herself very Victorian and feminine, never made me or my sister feel like we weren’t girly enough, even when I was plastering the walls with Garbage Pail Kid stickers and cackling at the, ahem, crude humor. We were who we were, and in my case, that was a sci-fi loving anti-fashion science geek.
I worry sometimes, raising a daughter, that things are different now and there’s more pressure to conform along certain stereotypical lines. I don’t ever recall seeing shirts like this for sale when I was a kid:
I saw this shirt in Children’s Place, shortly before it got pulled, and promptly went next door to Peek where I found that amazing Jane Goodall children’s shirt I posted earlier this year. These messages we send to kids matter. They do.
Shortly before that T-shirt incident my daughter said to me, “I guess I’m just not good at math mom,” in response to a poor score on a math test she didn’t feel like studying for. Needless to say that didn’t fly; she may not care for it, it may not come naturally to her, but I wanted her to know she could overcome that. And with the help of a good tutor, she did. “I never,” I said, “ever, want you to think you’re not smart.”
She’s always been an artistic kid, and while I encouraged her to pursue those confidence building theater experiences I wanted her to know it didn’t have to be the only thing that defined her. You can be an actor and a writer and a mathematician and a dancer and an athlete. You can be in the front row of any show you want and are willing to work for.
I can only hope that in the face of many conflicting messages, she will remember this.
We’ve been watching Cosmos as a family the last month or so, because Neil deGrasse Tyson is amazing and the show just makes me happy. My son plopped down instantly to get his science fix, and a few moments later after realizing we weren’t going to be watching American Idol, my daughter sat beside him. A day later, they were discussing time travel in the car on the way to school and my nerdy heart soared. “When’s the next episode coming out?” they asked breathlessly.
That afternoon, my daughter took a break from recording and re-recording herself singing “Let It Go” over and over, sitting at the table earnestly scribbling away on a piece of paper. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Writing a fan letter,” she said. “Can you help me mail it?”
I paused. I wrote my first fan letter when I was eight. I remember it well. Ricky Schroeder. I even sent him a Polaroid selfie, 80s style. He never wrote back and I was devastated.
So who was it going to be for my daughter? Harry Styles? She and her friends were just getting into One Direction and I wondered if she was about to ask me to subscribe to TeenBop or Tiger Beat. Maybe I’d luck out and find out she was thanking Idina Menzel for belting out such a catchy power ballad. “It’s not to Justin Beiber, is it?” I asked nervously.
She scowled. “Eeew Mom. Come on.” She handed me to letter. It began, “Dear Doctor DeGrasse Tyson: I really love your show.”
The kid’s gonna be all right.
Before I get into the details of this weekend, it’s important to understand the massive pile of guilt from under which I was trying to emerge.
One year ago this month, the chaos began. The endless lines of people rifling through our home in an endless stream had already been going on for seven months, but one year ago was when we agreed, from exhaustion more than anything else, to sell the home. All for the promise of a better education for the kids, which necessitated a move out of the district. We set our sights north.
While we looked, we took on a stint in an apartment while we found a new home in the Powerful Terrific Superawesome District (PTSD), the best school district in the county, for the three months it took to find a home. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in a cramped apartment with no decorations, which are kind of a big deal when you are six and eight. The kids were troopers; “I promise it will be worth it,” I said, and they believed me.
Emperor Palpatine and the Powerful Terrific Superawesome District
When we moved into the PTSD, I dutifully went into the office at our local AmazingAwesome school and said I would like to enroll my children.
The secretary laughed.
“You’ll be eighth on the waitlist,” she said. “I wouldn’t hold your breath. You can go to whatever school in the region we can find space in, though.” Which sounded kind of not great, so I decided to drive the kids back and forth to their old school 45 minutes away for the duration of the school year, one of the reasons you found me posting less this year.
“Hang tight,” I said to the kids, “it will be worth it. I promise.” That was right before Kekoa died, which only soured the mood, really.
When May rolled around, I again returned to the office at AmazingAwesomeschool for fall open enrollment, a time where all the new people submit their paperwork to give the PTSD bigwigs time to plan for the new enrollees in the fall.
I got a call from the secretary two weeks later.
“The good news,” she said, “is that your son can enroll.” Pause. “Your daughter is on the waitlist and can go to School Down the Road.”
I waited all summer for this to change, for some kids to move away so I wouldn’t have to explain to my daughter why she was going to some random school where none of the other neighborhood kids were going. The week before school started, the phone rang. It was School Down the Road. I answered, excited to hear that they had found a spot for my daughter at my home school.
But what they told me instead was, “We are full as well, sorry. Your daughter will be enrolled at School Even Further Down the Road. Don’t worry, it’s great.”
No one seemed to get that this was not the point. Confused, I attended a meeting of the PTSD school board, a farce more fitting a Joseph Heller novel than an actual functioning governmental entity, attempting to figure out how this happened. The third highest paid superintendent in the state of California sat up there folding his fingers under his chin like Emperor Palpatine and told the gathered parents how silly our concerns were and that we should be grateful they found a spot for us anywhere at all. You, he intimated, have No Idea How We Important People Do Things.
Resistance is futile.
I am but a humble veterinarian, but even I knew this reeked of rotten anal glands. As we sat there openmouthed at the idea that a man with a PhD in education couldn’t figure out why we were upset at this arrangement, the president of the PTSD – Salacious Crumb, if you you must picture something- guffawed and shrugged his shoulders. We were dismissed.
This school year began with me trying to explain to my daughter that being bounced down the street like an unwanted kickball was no big deal, that it was for the best, and this move was really a good idea. She didn’t believe me, of course. I didn’t either.
Happy Birthday to You
September rolled around, with my daughter struggling to acclimate to fourth grade classroom sizes of 35 in a foreign neighborhood. “Your birthday is at the end of the month,” I told her. “What do you want?” I owed her, at the very least, a fantastic birthday. A weekend trip to Disneyland, perhaps. Or Universal Studios.
“No,” she said. “I want a party. At our house.”
Considering all the kids we knew resided a minimum of 5 miles away, I decided under no circumstances would I allow this event to be the latest disappointment in her life, so I committed in all my Type A splendor to Make This Party Awesome, a can’t miss event.
“Let’s do a mystery party,” I suggested, and she agreed. Mustaches! And mystery! I’ll photoshop a steampunk invitation! “Can we make it a sleepover?” she asked. “Sure!” I said, unable to say no to such a simple request.
I looked up pre-made mystery party themes, looking for something age appropriate. “A ha!” I exclaimed. “The Missing Kitty Kaper!” Most excellent. “How many kids can I invite?” my daughter asked, and I said, “However many you want,” because as you all know usually half of them have other plans anyway. 6 kids? No problem.
She invited 12 kids.
12 responded yes.
It was about this time that I started to mildly panic, but what are you going to do. If I can handle vet school, I reasoned, I can handle anything.
A couple of days later, while I was sobbing into my pillow about the loss of my beloved cat, a small but insistent voice barged in to remind me that the Missing Kitty Kaper was now short an Actual Kitty, and this was probably going to be a problem.
The Decapitated Brody Cake
There was time, not much, but enough, to get a different mystery party theme ready. This was survivable. With the big things out of the way, I asked my daughter what kind of cake she wanted for her birthday.
“A dog cake,” she said. Of course.
“OK,” I replied. “Let’s go to Baskin Robbins tomorrow and pick one out.”
“Oh, I was hoping you would make one,” she said. “One shaped like an actual dog. One you made with your own hands, Mommy.”
The only thing I was planning on making with my own hands at this point was my signature on a credit card receipt at a bakery, given that I was speaking at ACES International the two days leading up to the party and I had already spent the last three days driving around looking for glue on mustaches and making mustache lollipop molds and all of that stuff I don’t normally do. “I’m not sure I can find time for that, honey,” I said. “Can’t we buy something?”
My daughter looked at me with the same resigned expression she had when I told her about the apartment. And the fact that we weren’t getting new pets anytime soon. And that no one was able to get her a spot in the school we had moved here to be close to. “That’s OK, Mommy,” she said. “I understand.”
So this is why I was up at 1 am the night before the party cursing over a rubbery pile of fondant with an airbrush.
Brody sat patiently while I observed the curve of his haunches and attempted to recreate them with red velvet cake. Easier than a FHO, I’ll give you that. Cut the wrong thing off and you just stick it back on with frosting. All was done, except the head. That would not be made of cake.
I made the head out of styrofoam, but the dog had no snout. Taking a desperate gamble, I fashioned one out of clay, stuck some lollipop sticks in the neck, and plopped the head on. It looked, I had to admit, pretty good, albeit a tad off balance. Then I went to bed.
The next morning, the weight of the clay had dragged his front heavy head off the body, sadly, meekly, cradled in his arms like a post-guillotine Marie Antoinette. The hole in his neck was bleeding red velvet crumbs. It would be an unsurvivable injury, usually, but I had no option but to Frankenstein it back on. Nevermind that clay and fondant don’t mix (Why did Pinterest not teach me that, huh??) and his jowls were all too realistically dripping white goo down his chest, I had to go with it and do my best to patch his melting face back together before the twelve kids arrived.
Just keep pushing up, kid. Thanks.
The Secret Life of Bees
The head was settling down. We were going to make it, I thought, and because life isn’t a Stephen King novel I had no reason to believe there was going to be some sort of last minute climactic twist. There never is.
“I need ice,” I said to my mother, who had come over for moral support/backup. My husband had already spirited our son away for the evening. Time was running short, only two hours before the party, but I was feeling good. That feeling didn’t last. It was on the return from this grocery store run that I saw a strange motion out of the corner of my eyes, which as they focused like a magic eye puzzle resolved into a wriggling brown box. The green electrical box at the end of our driveway had been, this very morning, appropriated by a swarm of bees, a solid, swirling mass of stingers. Two hours before the party.
If there’s one thing swarms of bees like, so I’ve heard, it’s 12 screaming little girls. No one had mentioned that our new home was built on the ruins of an ancient cemetery, but I was beginning to harbor suspicions.
We came up with a contingency, a hastily scrawled BEES sign at the end of the driveway, the parents driving as far up as possible while I herded the kids directly inside. 1,5,7,12, all arrived without issue.
Then a thirteenth child appeared, apparated, really, on the doorstep. “Hi!” she chirped, this child I had never heard of through any of the multiple RSVP venues I had provided. “What’s my character for the mystery party?”
Thirteen children. This really was a Stephen King novel. The omens were everywhere.
The cake looks terrified, and rightly so. Every good horror show demands sacrifice.
My goal, at that moment, was survival. The next 12 hours were a bit of a blur, really. I remember it in impressions rather than paragraphs.
- did you know WETA recorded a nine year old’s slumber party to get the right sound for the Nazgul? There is no other explanation.
- When the lady at Claire’s tells you “Blindfold Makeover” is a great game for kids, don’t believe her.
- The amount of sticky sugar in a drink is directly proportional to its likelihood to be spilled.
- No matter how many options you provide for food, someone, somewhere is going to think it’s all gross.
- Even if they tell you they are fine watching you pop the head off a Golden Retriever cake and butcher the remnants into kid-sized bits, don’t believe them.
Want to know how crazy it was? Brody, a dog who never once misses the opportunity for love, asked to go outside- voluntarily- and refused to enter the house until midnight. He checked out of the Overlook Hotel, but as the caretaker I had no choice but to remain, listlessly scrawling REDRUM on the bathroom mirror while I waited for them to finally fall asleep. Which, by the way, they never did.
The kids went home the next morning, hungover on sugar, staggering out like a bunch of freshmen after their first frat party. I was incapable of movement. No one had died or required emergency services, which was about as much as I could have hoped for. Eventually it was just our family once again, surveying the wreckage littered across the savannah of my living room. I needed a nap, even more than I needed a drink.
Around 4 pm, when I was lying in bed starting blankly at the ceiling, I felt a nudge on my shoulder. I reached over, expecting Brody’s ever present head, but it was my daughter.
“Thank you,” she said, “for the best birthday party ever.”
I’ve been guilty of Pinvy, that slightly aggrieved feeling that comes over you when you see these insane events people with too much time on their hands put up on Pinterest. “Why,” I wondered, “must we insist on one upmanship all the time? Who cares? It’s a kid party.” And I believed that, until it was my kid who asked for this one special thing.
This was a party not for the world, but for one little girl. It was atonement, a sacrifice made of sleep and frosting. It was over the top. It was exhausting. It was, above all, worth it.
In my thirty something years on this planet, I’ve never seen my father cry. I think part of me assumed for a really long time that men simply just didn’t feel things as intensely as women did, which of course is not true at all. As a society, men are pressured from the get-go to bottle up any sort of sadness or grief, hammer it down, force it inward. The very word “man up” sums it up: outward signs of sadness are feminine, wussy, and will get you devoured.
I don’t think it’s inherently this way. My seven year old son wears his heart on his sleeve: laughter, tears, frustration, the opposite of stoicism. I look at him, going through his first boot camp experience with a Marine for a football coach and see it beginning already, the pressure to stuff it all down. I feel sad about that, which as a woman is perfectly socially acceptable to express.
My job puts me in a unique position of guiding a lot of men and women during a really rotten time. When it comes to losing a pet, I’ve seen it all in terms of reactions. Everyone is different, and no one can really predict how they are going to react until they are in the situation. I honestly think the intensity of the experience takes a lot of men by surprise (women too, but they seem to be more comfortable experiencing it). Then, when the time comes, they are so worried about being embarrassed in front of me that they feel they can’t express what they are feeling and just be in the moment with their beloved companion.
I’m not a psychologist, just someone who has tried to learn what I can to make a hard time just a little bit easier. So, with a combination of my own experience and my research into how grief works, here is my completely unscientific Dude’s Guide to Losing a Pet.
If you are a guy who is losing a pet
1. I swear, pinky swear, that I will not think less of you for crying/cursing a lot/wearing sunglasses for the whole appointment.
I once had a soldier, in uniform, come running into the office with his dog in his arms. When his beloved companion died, he cried, and I had to choke back a few tears myself as he told me about what his dog had helped him through when he returned from Afghanistan. He is about as tough as it gets, and I am SO GLAD he allowed himself to experience that moment, even if it only lasted a minute. He’s still a badass, by the way.
2. You may not expect it to hit you as hard as it does, and that’s OK.
That’s one thing I’ve noticed, and it’s not every time, but I’ve had many men (and some women too, but less often) say to me “I just didn’t know it would hurt this much.” You are not alone in that. All it means is that you didn’t realize how big your heart is.
3. There is no one right way to grieve.
I think many people have this expectation: you either grieve by reading Rainbow Bridge over and over while sobbing over pictures of your pet (this is my way of doing it) or you don’t grieve at all. And it just doesn’t work that way, does it? Some people need to talk about their pet, write blog posts and seek support from others. Others need to keep a tag that they touch in passing here and there but prefer not to talk. Some people like to go to the beach and think. And others like to smack a punching bag around.
When my grandfather passed away, my father became the busiest bee I’ve ever seen. He did not cry, but he lifted furniture, drove people back and forth to the airport all week, grocery shopped, swept, refilled everyone’s drinks. He became the Uber Host. I am told by people who know better than I that this need to have something to do is a very normal grief response. So if you find yourself suddenly needing to refinish the floors after your dog passes, go for it.
If you know a guy who is losing a pet
1. Offer to be there when the time comes.
When I go to a home visit, often the person is alone signing paperwork, and while they are sitting there pondering how sad they are, a friend will pop in. “Oh, not yet?” they say. “Should I go?” And every single time, the person says, “Please stay.”
He may not ask for you to be there, but I have seen the shoulders relax when you arrive. Offer to come. It stinks to go through it alone- which I had to do with Kekoa, because my husband had to leave with the kids.
2. A simple “This is the right decision” means more from you than it does from me.
And for whatever reason going out for a beer afterwards is a common thing as well, if you’re a beer person. When my husband’s BFF Kevin died, his friends went straight from the ICU to Kevin’s favorite Mexican restaurant and had a margarita in his honor. (I, on the other hand, was unfit to be seen in public for days.)
3. If I catch you doing the “buck up! It’s just a dog” talk I will hunt you down.
If a guy trusts you enough to share his grief, for the love of Pete please don’t minimize it and reinforce every stereotype out there about bottling up sadness. Give a pat on the back, an “I’m sorry,” the aforementioned beer run, charge up the Xbox, whatever you want as long as it’s not that.
I’m not a pro grief counselor by any means, just a vet who tries to be somewhat sensitive to people’s differences in a rough time. I’ve seen a lot of talks about pet loss but they all seem geared towards people like me who already kind of know we’re going to be a hot mess and are OK with it, but my work lately has really got me thinking about all the amazing, animal loving guys who seem to get left to their own devices. If I’ve missed something helpful, please do share- I’m always looking for ways to be a better support.
There are few situations I dread more than a young couple with a new pet they refer to as “our child”. I’m not talking every young couple with a pet, mind you, but specifically those that refer to him or her as a kid. Though you might expect these to be the most involved and conscientious owners, and oftentimes they are, just as often you see them about a year or two later with a stroller and a decidedly changed attitude. And then you don’t see them at all.
Note to Allison: You Personally Shouldn’t Get a Dog. Don’t Speak for Me.
Case in point: Allison Benedikt, the author of the recent Slate piece “The One Thing No One Tells You Before You Have Kids: Don’t Get a Dog“, her story of dog ownership gone awry that unsurprisingly begins with her boyfriend surprising her with a border collie/American Eskimo mix she hadn’t asked for. And it went OK, until she got pregnant and suddenly realized her dog was not a child, it was a dog, and she didn’t really want one after all.
I have no problem with people who refer to their pets as children/furkids/what have you, as long as they do so with the understanding that their pet is, in fact, not a human child surrogate but an actual animal. Loving your pet like a kid: fine. Expecting your pet to act in proxy for a human until an actual human comes along, then resenting them for not being a human: not ok. And therein lies the difference.
The problem I have with pieces like Allison’s is that it dismisses her pet with a shrug and an “oh well, this is what happens when you have kids, amiritelol?” And the answer to that is, it doesn’t have to.
The Truth About Dog Ownership After Kids
When you bring a new baby home, the dog slips down a notch and experiences neglect the likes of which you promised wouldn’t happen but happens anyway. This neglect applies equally well to your spouse, yourself, other children in the house, your career, everything. This is not a unique phenomenon. But guess what? Your dog forgives you.
Your dog is not a human. I repeat, your dog is NOT A HUMAN. This means several things:
1. Yes, Allison, they will continue to do things like shed and lick themselves and all the other things they did before. On the plus side, no diapers.
2. If you pressured yourself to participate in doggy weekly playgroups and aromatherapy sessions and are feeling guilty that you no longer want to do that, that’s on you. Your dog doesn’t care. Because he’s a dog and doesn’t get guilt. Give him a brushing (see 1) and a bone and you’re all good.
Parenthood Isn’t The End of the World for you Or your Pet
Seriously. People have been doing it for thousands of years; yes, things change afterwards, but you deal and get through it. If you have an epiphany afterwards that what you really wanted was a human, not a dog/cat/whatever, that’s on you, not the pet.
If you truly are in a situation where it can’t work; severe allergies or safety issues or the like, do the right thing and find a good home yourself instead of placing the burden on a shelter (in which case it might be the end of the world for your pet).
If there is one thing I could tell anyone before they have kids, it’s actually very simple: Don’t get a dog unless you want a dog. Because surprisingly enough, they’re going to stay one long past the time you bring home baby.
Every once in a while I find myself remembering just how similar we are to our primate relatives; how, when the trappings of modernity are removed from our dextrous fingers we regress to our most primal of behaviors with nary a glance backwards. You don’t even need to travel to a different continent to explore indigenous tribes or venture out with an anthropology researcher intent on dissecting human behavior. You just need to go camping.
Preferably with a large group of young boys.
When my husband decided to join Adventure Guides with our seven year old, I said, great. Once a month camping adventures with just dads and sons, how sweet. He came back from the first trip, an oceanfront camping adventure with 1000 of their closest friends, the closest to shell shocked I have ever seen him, and this includes the first time he met my extended family.
We had timed our joining just so, as the very next trip was the annual wrap up at which mothers and sisters were also invited. “Hooray!” said my husband, son, and daughter. “We can all sleep in a tent in one big puppy pile!” I tried my best to smile encouragingly, but inside I knew this was one of those take one for the team moments.
Kinda like that.
My first hint that this was not going to go according to plan was the fact that despite the fact that mothers were invited, the vast majority of them demurred. Of the 10 or so families from our tribe, the only women were me, the leader’s wife, and one other woman who pulled up in an RV with a full kitchen and the only fruit to make it onto the campsite.
Eight Million Boys With Guns
The way Adventure Guides works is, you have your little ‘tribe’ that sticks together, but on trips the 10+ tribes in your nation all show up to camp at the same time and
enjoy camaraderie get their first lesson in saber rattling. In short, there were roughly eight million (gauging this solely on sound pollution) little boys thrown together in this remote wilderness location. You touch down, and while you are setting up your tent your child begins their slow re-enactment of Lord of the Flies by disappearing into a throng of squirt gun wielding savages for the next three hours. By the end of the first day, at least ten percent are naked except for mud. My daughter hides in the car.
In the wilds of Tanzania, chimpanzee alpha males are known to herd juveniles into a circle, surround them, and pelt them with figs. OK they don’t. I don’t know why these men are throwing balance balls at little children but they seemed to like it.
The newer fathers worry at first. “Where’s Tyler?” they ask. Everyone else shrugs. “He’ll turn up,” the fathers say, then go back to cooking meat (which is, along with chips, the sole foods brought to this weekend event.) Tyler does turn up eventually, three hours later with a skinned shin, one shoe, and some green gooey substance on his face. This is how it goes all weekend.
The Red Tenting
Like other chimpanzee communities, while venturing out from your tribe is tolerated to a certain extent where resources are not at risk, there is a certain level of tribal warfare bound to happen when boundaries are at stake. In this case, this was played out over a game of Laser Tag.
“It’s all in good fun,” says the crew-cut leader of our competing manpanzee tribe , comprised of 50 beefy 10 year olds wearing warpaint. Our tribe, consisting of 15 six year olds, bravely gets into position. The referee blows his whistle. I start humming “The Rains of Castamere.”
It was looking grim from the get-go.
“KILL THEM!” yells Crew Cut, who had now revealed himself to be the reincarnation of Walder Frey, and within two minutes our tribe is massacred. No mercy. There are no survivors. They are sprawled across the field in various levels of snot-nosed distress, grass stains spreading like green blood. At Grandma’s house back home, Brody howls.
Fight bravely, little manpanzee.
I am watching this testosterone laden display of aggression with horror from the safety of a far away picnic table. I now know how Jane Goodall must have felt the first time she saw a chimpanzee eat the young of another tribe. My friend with the RV silently offers me a Bloody Mary (it was a virgin one, I swear), which I down in one gulp.
You can always count on the medicine man
It’s a miracle there are not more severe traumas at events like this, where kids run around in the pitch black fencing with marshmallow forks, a fact I attribute to sheer luck and the number of surgeons who attend this event. I was awoken at 6:30 the next morning by a boy on the far side of camp yelling “DaaAAAAaaaaaD! Some kid’s hurt real bad!” Bummer for that kid.
It wasn’t even 7 am.
About 30 seconds later, my daughter pokes her head in the tent to inform me that it was my son who was hurt real bad, and the adult on scene requested we come over with our car.
I zip over to find my son screaming on the side of the road, attended by one general practitioner and one surgeon who inform me he is not dying but did manage to fall off his bike and tear a decent sized V-shaped flap of skin off his inner thigh in some strange bike accident that to this day no one can accurately reconstruct.
“If you took him to an ER,” the surgeon said, “they would put in a few stitches.” He shrugged. “But if you don’t, it’s not in an area where a kid can’t have a scar.” So in addition to great memories my son is now permanently branded with a “V” on his groin to remind him of this strange and bizarre rite of manhood, the “suck it up you’re on a man-trip” scar. To their credit, these doctors were not of our tribe, reassuring me that even in the vast wilds of tribal warfare, you can always count on the Medicine Man to put politics aside when life is in danger. Or at least when life screams like it is.
To sum up: ‘Character Building’ is a loosely defined excuse to justify death by dodgeball, laser massacres, and benign negligence. Got it.
The reason moms aren’t invited but once a year, I am told, is because of the stress and panic these events bring on in mothers. It’s true. Just ask Catelyn Stark. (sorry, I really am done with Game of Thrones references now.)
Over the course of my career, people have asked me lots of questions I once couldn’t answer.
- Why didn’t you become a pediatrician?
- Isn’t being a veterinarian stressful?
- What drives you to go to remote places like Tanzania and Nicaragua?
I can now answer them all with confidence.
- This trip
- Not as much as watching that Laser Tag massacre
- Peace and quiet
Yesterday, I went on a field trip with my daughter’s class as a chaperone. I was reminded, yet again, of why I became a veterinarian. The teacher is an angel on earth and I do not, for one second, think I could do what she does.
I watched one nine year old dissolve into an inconsolable heap of tears because she lost during a game of Red Rover. I watched another child, who was walking barefoot on the park grass, get called over by her mother and told to apply hand sanitizer to her feet at once. At least 3 boys came near to destroying some ancient archaeological artifact or another. It was chaos.
On the way home, my daughter showed me a poem she had written for school. Apparently part of the grading involved being critiqued by a classmate (blue). And my daughter, being MY daughter after all, had to have the last word.
And dangit, I want to cry but I also laughed my head off because I KNOW she wrote that response with the exact same eye-rolly sigh that I use. SO my kid, in so many ways.
Being a mother to humans is a confusing and often frightening endeavor that often leaves me feeling either inadequate, elated, or exhausted. It’s a sine curve with an amplitude of a million, which is why on Mothers Day so many of us buy a flower arrangement with the vague disquieting sense of guilt that “this doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
Being a pet mom is so much simpler, at least the way I do it. They eat, they go outside, we hang out, no one gets called by the principal. They are a stabilizing force in a world that’s always trying to destabilize you. I came home after that exhausting day, collapsed (barefoot) on the lawn, and let Brody console me with doggy kisses (with his probably gross tongue.) It’s a little more straightforward: Hi, I love you, yep. And for that, I am so grateful. I’m grateful for both experiences, actually; each so different and it makes me appreciate the other all the more.
They love us in their own special way.
May your highs be every higher and your lows, well, not so bad, and through it all a pet to call your own and make you glad.
–Old Irish Proverb I just made up
Up and Away, by the amazing Brittney Lee
May moms of all shapes, sizes and types have a wonderful Mother’s Day!
After several months of leading the kids around our new and blessedly quiet neighborhood hoping to find some children running about, the spring temperatures have brought them out of hiding like little hibernating bears. We have both two little girls and a little boy within the block, and now the kids self-eject from the house as soon as their little feet can take them in the morning to go bike riding. As an added bonus, the little girls have a 12 week old Golden Retriever who comes by on his walks and visits us.
I like the springtime temperatures as well. It’s gotten Brody and I out of our own winter hibernation and back on a “great outdoors routine,” exploring the trails that run around and behind the neighborhood. We saw a deer bound by on the trail last week. It was beautiful.
There was even a muddy creek to wallow in. Life is good.
Several days after that last hike, the girls were over and playing with my kids and with Brody. The younger one was petting Brody and said, “What’s this bump?”
I knew before I even looked.
Ticks are sporadic in San Diego, and the only other time I ever found one on Brody was last spring, when we were also hiking in a backcountry-ish area. He went on tick prevention while we were hiking that area, then when we stopped heading that way, I went back to Trifexis (which is an oral flea and heartworm preventive and works just great for what I needed.)
I always do a once-over after hikes to look for parasites or foxtails or any of the sorts of things that can annoy a Golden, but Brody is hairy and rather than just put on tick preventive like I should have, I figured that so long as I wasn’t seeing anything, I might as well finish off the product I was using.
Grasses, check, deer, check. Bad vet who should know better, check.
And of course- OF COURSE- it would be the neighbor kid who found it.
A part of my brain whispered to me, “lie. Say it’s a sebaceous adenoma. She’s six, what does she know?” but I figured it could be a teaching moment, so I told the truth. What a sucker. The news of course sent the girls screaming with hands waving in the air in the way only little girls can do, this despite my calm reassurances that they would be just fine and so would Brody. I removed the tick, confirmed no others were present, had the kids wash their hands, and figured that was that.
I left Brody in the backyard away from the kids while I stood in front of a ceiling high stack of as of yet unpacked boxes, cursing myself for not labelling “OVERFLOW ECTOPARASITE TREATMENT MEDS” in large block letters. Eventually I found it, a box with at least a six month supply of myriad tubes and collars for just such an occasion. Tick meds in hand, I went to plunk it on Brody.
When I came back into the living room, I found my daughter giving the wide eyed neighbor kids a lecture about ticks using all the dramatic tricks she learned in theater. She was projecting. She was using her hands to illustrate their arachnid ways. She was telling them, with great relish, about the one other time Brody had a tick last year and how traumatized she was by the whole experience.
In short, she just ensured the entire neighborhood would now know us as the Nasty Tick People.
I sat at home mortified for the next day, and when the girls came by with their dog, they stood apologetically by the front door and said my kids could come for a walk with them but Brody could not, so their dog wouldn’t get ticks.
“Is he on meds?” I asked of the now 13 week old pup.
“No,” they said. “He’s too young.”
I bit my tongue, knowing full well that when their dog goes for a walk down the very same trail we walk and ends up with a tick, because that’s usually how it happens, we’re going to shoulder the blame for it. In a flash, I saw my new life flash before my eyes. Denied a contribution to the PTA bake sale. Well coiffed blond women scooting their chairs so very slightly off to the left when I sit down next to them. Neighbors squealing in horror and crossing over to the other side of the street when we run by.
My husband thinks I should talk to the other mom.
I have not met this neighbor. I have no idea if she’s the shake it off kind of person or the kind who would tell me “It’s fine, don’t worry,” with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. I decided it was best to take the ‘ignore it and just tell the kids to tell her Brody’s on meds’ approach.
“Did you talk to the mom and tell her you’re a vet?” my husband asked.
“Somehow,” I said, “I don’t think that will improve the situation.” Do I want to be the Gross Tick Neighbor or the Bad Vet Neighbor? Don’t answer that.
Ah well. Onward and upward. Lesson 1: Moving on to topical flea and tick preventive in the new casa. Lesson 2: Gave me a good opportunity to talk to my daughter about “stories not to share on the first day at the new school.”
In other news, the little girls came by today with their puppy, bearing the tell-tale greasy spot of a recent ectoparasite treatment. My methods of getting people to get up to date on treatment may be unconventional, but they are very, very effective.
-With love, the Nasty Tick Lady
Raising kids is a lot like raising dogs. There’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of poop, ridiculous amounts of cleaning, and no small amount of frustration. Regardless, the benefits far outweigh the costs, and with a little consistency and training, it’s all good. Training being the key component.
My son likes Legos and chihuahuas, two things I kind of like but wouldn’t really say are my “thing”. He is his own kid. I realized he was fascinated with mechanical devices more than biological creatures, so I built enough mystique around the Keurig: “oh no, it’s MUCH TOO HARD for a kid to work” etc etc until he insisted- insisted!- that I teach him how to use it, and now he delivers me coffee every morning.
My daughter likes Barbies and Golden retrievers, which, for those of you who know me, you will know must be genetic. So when she came home with an assignment to “write a presentation on the ‘How To’ topic of your choice,” she announced she wanted to do it about dogs.
“What are you going to instruct your class in?” I asked.
“How to groom a dog,” she said.
So she sat down and typed up her outline. “Get the dog wet, shampoo the dog, dry the dog” and so on and so forth.
I looked at the presentation software they were supposed to use.
“Did you know you can put pictures in here?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “That wasn’t part of the assignment.”
“But you want to go ABOVE and BEYOND, right?” I asked. “I mean, you want to knock this out of the park! Right?”
“Oh!” she said. “I do. Absolutely.” She paused. “But I don’t have any pictures of me grooming Brody.”
I paused, looked at the ceiling as if deep in thought, and then said, well, if this is really important to you, I bet I could find a camera.
And that is how I conned my kid into not only washing Brody, but blow drying him, brushing him out, cleaning up, and thanking me for the opportunity.
Maybe I can pay the teacher off to repeat this assignment once a month through the end of the school year.