Our dog Bianca emerged a dozen years ago out of the B.C. woods not far from my parents’ property. She was about five months old then, and though a mix of something or other, she looked like a pure white German Shepherd. My sister Cassidy, as she does with all strays, brought her home, where she quickly became the most calm, sophisticated, angelic member of our family.
My son Zev, though he’s spent most of his five years in Toronto, far from my folks in B.C., adores Bianca (as well as the family cats: Yoda, Trousers, Oscar and Arrow), and often asks to Skype with them. Now, just as we’ve moved here for a few months, Bianca has been stricken with cancer. Right to the end she’s had that glow, but finally, tonight we’re putting it out.
I’m glad that Zev is staying at his mom’s, and doesn’t know yet. The vet administers the injection. When it’s over we carry Bianca outside and, amongst the graves of pets past, bury her in the moonlight.
I have never been good with death. I guess not many people are, but I’m really bad with it. I remember staying awake at night as a child, obsessing over the idea of one day losing my mum or dad. I still do that. I hate talking about it. The vaguest mention of mortality is enough to derail me for days. Because, when it comes down to it, what is there to say?
Euthanasia is such a complicated word for the most obvious question.
But of course I’m going to have to come up with something. I go to bed, sad for my family and dreading the day to come.
In the morning there’s a message from Zev’s mum saying that she broke the news to him and he has “lots of questions about what happens when I die or grandma or him etc.” I decide not to ask if I am part of the “etc.”
Knowing this was coming, his kindergarten teachers gave me a picture book entitled, Lifetimes. I look at the book while I wait for Zevvy to get out of school. When he does, I kneel down to hug him.
“How are you doing?” I say.
He nods. “I am good.” And we start to walk, down towards the park by the river. “Why did Bianca die?”
“Because,” I say, “she became too sick to get better again.” And then I start to paraphrase Lifetimes, which begins, “There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is the living.” I point out the ducks and the trees around us, guessing at their various beginnings and endings, and their living in between…
“But why did you give Bianca something that made her die?” says Zev.
Oh. Of course. Euthanasia is such a complicated word for the most obvious question.
“Because,” I say, “She could no longer eat or drink, and we didn’t want her to suffer or be scared.”
He doesn’t seem sure about this, but nods, and I go back to pointing out ducks in the middle of their lifetimes until finally Zev says he’s hungry.
Though I’m sure I screwed up the death talk, Zev seems just fine – inquisitive, but not angry or sad. And that night he decides it is finally time to watch the original Superman movie, with Christopher Reeves. For three years he’s been too scared to try. When Pa Kent keels over from a heart attack we talk about dead dads – at least Superman’s. “But it’s ok, right?” says Zev. “Because he has another dad.”
“His other dad’s dead, too, though,” I say, sort of swallowing my words at the end.
“But he can still talk to him,” says Zev. It’s been a long day, and all I can do is nod at Marlon Brando’s ghostly head in the Fortress of Solitude.
A couple days later we have a little memorial for Bianca, so that Zev can plant some flowers and say goodbye. Our neighbour brings over her five-year-old son, who is a particularly sensitive soul. He and Zev complement each other well.
“When my mommy told me Bianca died I cried and cried for two whole days,” he says. His mom nods solemnly.
“When my mommy told me Bianca died,” begins Zev, “I said, ‘But we still have four cats…’” Unsure if this is a healthy outlook or a sign of sociopathology, I just nod, and kneel down to dig a hole for the primroses.
A week later, Yoda dies during the night. The wise and noble black cat had been declining over the past year and finally, last night, offered up his little Jedi ghost. I tell Zev while he’s still in pajamas, and he goes into my parents’ room to look. He pats the small lifeless body and says, “Goodbye, Yoda.” Then he asks if he can have waffles for breakfast.
Superheroes might not be the best examples for the comprehension of mortality.
“Yes,” I say.
“With maple syrup?”
That evening, for the first time ever, and without any sort of prompt, Zev tells me he loves me. He says it a few times, not solemn or silly: “I love you, Daddy.” I try not to let him see that it’s got me choked up.
We finish watching Superman. Lois Lane dies in an earthquake and Superman turns back time by flying around the Earth backwards, really fast.
“No,” I say to Zevvy, before he can even ask. “That absolutely doesn’t happen. Not even Superman could do that. Even if he was real.”
I realize that superheroes might not be the best examples for the comprehension of mortality.
I thought this column was just going to be about learning how to talk to my kid about death – a much less tactile dad skill than I usually attempt. But sometimes when it rains it pours cats and dogs. And now here we are, shovels in hands, and it’s about me teaching my son to dig a grave, right next to the one I dug last week – the one my dad, Zev’s grandpa, showed me how to dig.
My parents have had this property for thirty years. In that time they’ve lost six dogs and five cats, and my dad has been forced to master the art of digging four-legged graves. You’ve got to go deep enough so that living animals don’t come burrowing, and not so deep that you hit the water table. The walls should slope inward, creating more room at the bottom than at the top, to allow room for the legs to fold and tuck beneath. You stand in the grave, and lay the body at your feet.
I have removed the primroses to dig the new hole, and now the neighbour’s boy is back to help re-plant them. Before he can start a new speech about his grief, Zev says, “When we planted these flowers before, I cried for a long time.”
This isn’t true, of course, but I appreciate the sentiment. I’d been expecting him to shrug and say, “We still have three cats left…”
But now the boys just bow their heads. I stroke Zev’s hair then hug him. What, after all, is there ever to say?
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall is Sharp’s fatherhood columnist.