There are so many, really, how to choose just one?
The time I had to wrestle my tantrumming 3-year old daughter as the plane descended into JFK?
The time I pretended to be asleep so that I didn’t have to weigh in with my squabbling children?
The time I let my son eat Ramen noodles for breakfast? (Oh, wait, that happens every day.)
But for some reason the Death of Ruby stands out as the kind of moment that before I had children, I couldn’t fathom happening. I was a great mother before I had children. I had the best ideas about how to nurture children’s minds and hearts, to remedy what I didn’t get as a child, to rectify the ills of the world. I really had it together as a mother. Before I had children.
Obviously a huge, profound, GINORMOUS thing we’re supposed to do as parents is teach our kids about death, right? I mean, it’s weird because none of us know anything about it (except those of us who have already, um, died), so I don’t know where I got the idea that it was my job to explain the unexplainable, but still.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1993 for good, when I was cast in “NYPD Blue”, I wanted to get a dog. I was through with the manic, single life of Manhattan, when doing an off Broadway play inevitably led to nightly pitchers of beer til 3 am which inevitably led to the ill-conceived hand job with your co-star. Even the ones you didn’t like. New York, for me, was confusion and growth and fifth floor walk- ups. New York was a sweet boyfriend whom I didn’t love in the way I felt I should have (i.e. the way he loved me.) My soul roamed through theaters and new agents and commercial auditions – the landscape of every young actor – looking for adventure and some semblance of sanity. It was a messy time. Moving to LA gave me a fresh start in a place that felt like home, where for the same rental money as my cockroach closet, I could rent the guest house of two gay gentleman in the Hollywood Hills, complete with a patio to call my own. Heaven.
I wanted to get a dog because I figured if I had a dog I wouldn’t be drinking pitchers of beer and giving ill-conceived hand jobs. I figured that at least half the reason for the aforementioned hand jobs was company and someone to come home to. Why couldn’t a dog supply the same thing? (I mean the company at home part.) Why couldn’t a seven-week old Basset Hound puppy named Maggy do the same thing?
I chose a Basset because a) a friend had one named Lucy back in New York, whom I coveted and b) they are hilarious. With all of the intensity of moving to LA, with the gritty world of corrupt police officers I inhabited for “NYPD” – what better antidote than to come home to a Basset Hound puppy? Plus, Maggy’s torso was roughly the same length as my own; we spooned effortlessly. Her legs were stubby and rough. She was, in essence, a canine Bonsai tree.
Maggy brought me comfort and hilarity and community up at Laurel Canyon Dog Park. She also brought me Brad.
Brad also reasoned that after a series of relationships – unsatisfying in one way or another – a dog would do. So he got an eight-week old chocolate lab named Ruby. When Brad and I first met and started dating in the fall of 1993, our primary activity was walking “the girls” who were tiny, needy and unbearably cute. My vow to not do late-night dates was made good; most of our early conversations happened at 7 am up on the magical fire trails which parallel Mulholland Drive. The dogs came everywhere. There were four of us in bed. Through caring for Mags and Ruby, we learned to care for ourselves, to tend to our own romance and practice parenting for our as yet inconceivable children.
Maggy and Ruby were 8 years old when Charlotte was born. Although we loved them no less, when our human child arrived the dogs became, well, dogs again. They still lodged in our hearts, reminding us of a time less burdened, more free, when an entire day was making love, getting coffee, hiking on the fire trail and woops! It was time for dinner. Now we lived in a house with a dog door – they took care of their own business — and we took care of the overwhelming business of keeping this tiny human alive.
They were 12 when Bodhi was born. Bodhi doesn’t remember Maggy at all. She died a year later. She died here in LA when we were in our home in Massachusetts. She died suddenly and without much pain. I got the call in our living room, surrounded by my children and my parents and gasped with tears. The end of an era.
Ruby lived for two years after that, increasingly frail and somewhat lost without her lifelong partner in crime. She became the old dog in the corner, a cloudy-eyed pillow that the children took little interest in. An old granny whose main value was the fact that she was always – and had been always – just there.
She diminished more and more. “Is it time to put her down?” I’d ask Brad and Melissa, who is a definite dog whisperer. “Not yet,” I was told, “we’ll know.” I was taught about kidney failure and stopping eating and as long as she was eating there was life and a desire for life in her. And then she wasn’t eating anymore.
Brad was shooting “Land of the Lost” which had him working dawn til midnight Monday through Friday. One weekend, it was clear that Ruby would not last the week. “Can you wrap early on Monday?” I suggested. “We can have the vet come to the house and do it there?” He agreed.
(This is the terrible mothering part.)
I told the kids that Ruby was sick, as clearly they could see. I told them that the vet was coming to the house to take her to the hospital. The dog was in my office. I told the Charlotte and Bodhi to say goodbye. I did not tell them she was going to be put to death momentarily. I told them she was going to the hospital, and that if she were well enough, she’d come home at some point. We left the office so Brad could have his goodbye (and so the vet could put her down, in the arms of her master whom she’d loved so much.) The kids and I were upstairs when the door opened and closed and Brad emerged, red-eyed but calm. It was done.
Months later – I mean six months – Bodhi, now four, Charlotte and I were in the car. Out of silence, my son asked: “So how is Ruby doing at the hospital?”
My memory is that I was sipping a latte, or changing lanes, or reaching for a tissue. Caught off guard, with no “special parenting” moment prepared, I blurted: “Oh! Sorry! She died. Forgot to tell you that part, buddy. Yup — Ruby’s dead.”
Odd, endless awkward moment as the kids caught up to my words. Whaaa?….
“Yes, she died in the hospital.” (Another lie, further terrible mothering.) “Sooooo sorry….. Forgot to tell you.”
When I want to really hate my mothering, I think about Waldorf schools. Home cooked meals, no screens, time to discuss things in a perfect, developmental way – yup. That’s my hair shirt. Back when my kids were at a Waldorf school, I would’ve imagined discussing Ruby’s death around a peaceful fire, invoking the cycle of life and all that. Perhaps one of the children cries quietly, and I gather him into my outstretched, gingham clad arms.
But that ain’t what happened, and maybe that ain’t what EVER happens. The parenting moments catch us off guard so we have no pretense, nothing but our own shoot-from-the-hip humanity.
I always say that Maggy brought me into the life I lead today. She kept me out of late-night bars, she taught me how to take care of a living being. There were endless days when it was just the two of us, when I would drive an hour to find the right dog food, and hike for miles with my stubborn, sullen hound. She was my transitional object — as tangible as a child’s blanky – that I clutched as I changed some very old habits and moved 3,000 miles across the country. Maggy brought me Brad and Ruby and Charlotte and Bodhi and my in-laws and all of it wrapped up together is Home.
Last Saturday I walked a red (actually green) carpet with my son and my dog Pablo. The spirit of Mags and Ruby hovered nearby, benevolently. Clearly Ruby has forgiven me for announcing her death to my kids in such an offhand, un-ceremonial way. Charlotte and Bodhi, however? Most likely scarred for life. It’ll be on me to pick up the shrink’s tab years from now as they also recount The Worst Mothering Moment Ever.