Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Finding room for Murdoch

It must be the change in seasons, but I am going to bed earlier and earlier. Ben is loving it, because basically we both get into our jammies about the same time, and by the time we start reading books before bed, we are both comfy.

Last night, after a leisurely dinner of sushi rice and potstickers and fresh corn on the cob, we wandered toward bedtime by “playing trains.” The twin goals of this game are to engage Mom in races around the track and to create the longest possible train without it falling off the track at every turn. When Ben invited me to come in and play, I was still cleaning up the kitchen, so I put him off. When I did walk into his room, he said, in his most inviting voice, “You want to play trains, Momma?” clasping his hands in front of him, bending down at the waist, raising his eyebrows and smiling toward me. How could I resist?

I paused a moment to enjoy his invitation. He jumped into the smiling pause with, “Look, your train is all ready for you!” He pointed to a train headed by Thomas the Tank engine, followed by the Chinese dragon car (my favorite, actually) a Troublesome Truck, Big City Engine and his tender. How could I resist.

Ben’s train was pulled by Murdoch, and had about ten cars hooked on, followed by Douglas and Donald, the Scottish twins. When I suggested hooking battery-powered Percy to the front of my train, so that I could just watch him and soak in the moments around the train table, he demurred. This session of trains was to be strictly manual power, no cheating here.

Round and round we went, creating crashes (where “luckily no one was hurt!”), rearranging the track to make a bridge here, a tunnel there. We occupied the better part of an hour. I suggested it might be jammie time, an idea resisted to the bone by Engineer Ben. I parked my train on a siding, and Ben continued playing while I got ready for bed. When I came back into his room, he was naked from the waist down, still running the train around, but at least working toward jammie time.

I bargained with him: if he got ready for bed we could play some more and then read. Washed up, brushed of tooth and combed of hair, his flannel Thomas jammies properly in place, we had a few more rounds, then adjourned (not without tearful resistance) to bed where we began reading Polar Express, then moved to The Little Engine That Could, then to the latest Toys R Us circular from Sunday’s paper to look at the train layouts on pages 12 and 13. Finally, he made the request to get under the covers.

I turned out the lights and turned on his moon, and settled in for a short time of back rubbing (his) and fighting to stay awake (mine.) “Where’s my Gordon?” the question roused me, and I mumbled that I thought it was in his backpack. From his bed he sprang and like a courser he flew to the doorknob, where his back pack hung. Back to bed with Gordon.

“I want Donald and Douglas,” came the next request, and up again to fetch them from the end of his very long train. Just when I thought I was set and he might be drifting off he said,
“Gracious, where’s my Murdoch!”

Gracious? Where did he learn that one?

“Honey, you don’t have room for anymore trains, do you?” I asked, apparently rhetorically, because he was already up and after Murdoch and, of course, his tender. Now there was certainly no more room for Mommy, so I got up from my reverie, tucked him in, and did our last ritual.

From the doorway I called, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

He called, “See you in the morning bright.”

Parenting isn’t for everyone, but as for me I can say I am glad and grateful.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

My sister's letter to Rottweiler Rescue, Stanley's first rescuers, and Arlene's response

I tried to write what I felt about Stanley, but nobody does him justice like my sister did in this letter. You can find the rescue at Rottweiler Rescue of Michigan

Hi Arlene -

It's been a few years since we've contacted you, so I'm sorry that this contact bears such sorrowful news. Seven years ago, you gifted us with a wonderful little spirit named Stanley. Stanley died on Monday, we think of dilated cardiomyopathy. He had developed a little cough, wasn't eating well and had lost weight. When he finally showed the symptoms he really went down hill, and it probably was too late. We are heartbroken at our loss of Stanley that has come too soon.

He was such a lovable goof, a total marshmallow inside. Whenever new neighbors or friends would see Stanley, they were afraid, because he looked so tough with that terrible scar and his dobie markings. But after getting to meet him, they loved him. He totally blew the Doberman image. Six years ago (a little over a year after we adopted Stanley), our son was born. Stanley adored our son, Cameron, and was his brother and protector.

Three years ago, we adopted a rat terrier (we named her Tinkerbell) from Petfinder. We were careful to reinforce Stanley's "top dog" position in the household, but to no avail. Stanley fell hopelessly in love with Tink and she with him. They were best friends and playmates, but she wore the pants. But Stanley didn't care. He was a somewhat nervous guy before Tink came, but after she came along, he felt better. Our local kennel was kind enough to kennel them side-by-side whenever we had to leave them there, because, they said, "Stan just does better with Tink."

Arlene, we can't thank you enough for letting us love and care for Stanley. He was our child and our companion. He was even Eric's co-worker (he used to go to work with Eric). Eric is at the head office in Philly this week and he told his boss that they have lost a dear employee.
I am particularly having a difficult time, because I wish that I had recognized how serious things were before he got so bad. I miss him so much. He deserved a longer life and I feel angry that he didn't get it.

We want to make a donation to your rescue in honor of Stanley. We will also be asking our friends and family to make donations as well. Is there a way we can establish a lasting monetary memorial in his honor? Please email your thoughts on this, because we want to make sure that people who didn't get to meet Stanley know what a wonderful, strong, forgiving, loving spirit he was.

He loved life Arlene. And we will love him, always.

Arlene's response

Emily and Eric,

I am so, so very sorry to hear about Stanley's passing. You put it perfectly, he was a wonderful little spirit. And no puppy ever had such a rags to riches story of coming from one of the worst hoarder/backyardbreeder situations Ingham County has ever had and then finding a family of his very own where he was treasured and cherished and received the deepest love. A dream few puppies ever have come true.

I'm not sure knowing sooner would have been of any merit for anyone. Dilated cardiomyopathy is a relentless foe of Dobermans and had you known earlier there's no guarantees you could have extended his time here or not. But what knowing earlier would have done is made you sick with grief, and in turn Stanley, as sensitive and intuitive as he was, would have been sick with grief over your's and Eric's sadness. No matter how hard you tried to conceal it from him, he would have felt it deep in his heart and soul. This way everyone got to live cheerfully and to the fullest right up until the end. And Stanley never had to have a moment of anguish wondering what was wrong with his beloved family.

I would be honored to set up a Stanley Memorial Fund. I still have his baby pictures and I can put them up as well as the super photos you just sent me. If you have other's you'd like showcased, please send them.

Stanley will never be forgotten by anyone whose path he crossed, even for the briefest of moments. His tender heart touched everyone and brought out the best in them.

with deepest sympathy,

Stanley Smallwood (1999 - 2007)

You touch
the right one and a whole half of the universe
wakes up, a new half

--William Stafford “Choosing a Dog”

While the saga of Ellen Degeneres and her dog broke into headlines, with people alternately condemning dog rescues and the people who break their contracts with them, my sister’s dog Stanley was getting sicker than anyone knew. He died Monday in my brother-in-law’s arms.

Stanley woke up the new half of my sister’s universe.

Stanley was born to a notorious puppy mill in Ingham County, Michigan. Because he barked too much as a puppy, the breeder put a large rubber band around his muzzle and left it there for many days. It was there when the place was finally raided. The authorities asked recues to help step up and find homes for the broken and sad survivors.

The rubber band caused a permanent scar on Stanley’s elegant, long face, making him look even more sinister than a Doberman usually looks. His tail, improperly docked by the breeder, was non-exstent. Wagging his tail, which was frankly his waking state, his whole hind half wagged.

My sister Emily and her husband Eric had been through the horror of terminal illness and suffering with their first dog, Jordan, who was a dog I had rescued, twice. I had given him to my sister, and insisted she take him and keep him. He opened up the first half of the universe for her, as she moved with him to a more independent life, started college, and fell in love with Eric. Jordan was the best dog in their wedding, and sat beside them in his bow tie while I read them their vows in my back yard. After Jordan died, Emily and Eric would pull the car into the garage after work and weep because they couldn’t bear to face the house without Jordan.

It wasn’t long before Emily started scanning Petfinder, and found Stanley. When she chose him, the new half of the universe opened. Stanley was there when they brought my precious nephew, Cameron, home from the NICU. He was with them as they moved to Port Huron. After I moved, he was always glad to see me, bounding up to me wiggling all the way: a giant break dancer in brown and black, and usually with a colorful bandanna my sister liked him to wear. The bandanas always coordinated with the season—this week he would have been wearing something halloweeny.

Adoption is the way we make families. I know there are some people who believe that we shouldn’t use the word “adopt” when we take non-human animals into our family. As the adoptive mother of my human son, I am sensitive to language. But it never struck me as demeaning the adoption of humans to use the word with non-human animals. We should be just as careful about the adoptions of four-leggeds as we are about the adoption of humans. Non-human animals have always been a part of my family. Fur-covered four-leggeds are just as much a part of my universe as my son Benjamin.

And so it was always for my sister and her family. Stanley the Effervescent was a member of her family. I truly believe that touching Stanley made other choices possible for her: parenting, finishing school, growing whole. It helped her heal the terrible wound left when Jordan died. In an odd way, it helped her be able to survive the loss of Stanley.

So you can carp all you want about rescues and their rigid belief that non-human animals are important. It is only when we allow ourselves to be touched and adopted by our four-legged family members that we understand how much of ourselves can be possible. It’s part of being fully human. Stanley has a soul just as surely as my son Benjamin does, just as surely as my dog Sam does, just as surely as you and I do.

Stanley’s bounding, leaping, wagging soul will always be a part of my family.

Rest in peace, you good dog, you.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Picture Day

Tomorrow is picture day at Peachtree School. Ben’s hair just wouldn’t make the grade, even with combing and olive oil dressing, so after school today we stopped by Rush’s Barber Shop.

We used to go to Royal Cuts way over on Ellsworth, where Benjamin got very stylish cuts but the barbers were young and not too patient. So there were lots of tears, sobs, and gnashing of teeth. One barber even took off his belt and handed it to me so that I would beat my son. I declined.

Mr. Rush, on the other hand, talks to Ben in a grandfatherly voice, keeps encouraging him, and slips him a Brach’s caramel now and then. He’s truly the first no tears barber we have known. Ben’s pediatrician, a magician in his own right, recommended Mr. Rush.

So when we got there today and found the door locked, my heart sank. Mr. Rush came out of his back office with a big old smile, and let us in. I told him we could come in early tomorrow instead, because tomorrow was picture day. He said he knew I work during the day, and it was fine. He said, “I was going to meet someone, but it can wait. Picture Day is very important.” He said it with capital letters.

With that he stooped down to Ben’s level and invited him into the chair.

I think he knew I felt just the right amount of guilt and gratitude that he was breaking an appointment in order to make my son look sharp.Picture day brings out all kinds of feelings I thought my old hippie self would never feel. Like guilt and gratitude for a gentleman barber who spent just the right amount of time cutting my son’s hair. Like this pride that swells up over my son’s manners as he thanks Mr. Rush without being prompted. And, yes I admit it, I like him to look sharp.

I even wanted to iron tonight. Not just the shirt, but the jeans just in case a sitting pose shows a wrinkled hem of jean. Iron. The last time I ironed was ironing the front of a blouse to wear under my court suits. Then I discovered synthetic shells. So it’s been maybe fifteen years or more. Tonight, the shirt, the jeans, and even the cotton vest got ironed.

Last year, Ben’s first picture day, I went into debt buying all the pictures and all the gimmicks they could offer. This year, I am a little wiser, but I know I will spend freely.

After all the Little Man looks so damn sharp, and with that million dollar smile, who could ever resist? Tomorrow we’ll show you the outfit—tonight it’s just too late. Ben’s been sound asleep since before I started ironing, and after I got his stuff done it felt so good I got out three old linen shirts of my own and ironed them.

Next thing you know, I’ll be cutting my hair.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Smooth sailing ?

Ben has turned the corner on toddler bi-polar amazing rages. They have nearly ceased. Two nights ago he had a small one, then right away said to me, "I'm sorry I got mad, Mamma."

"It's OK," I said "sometimes we get so angry we can't talk about it. So we cry it out and it's OK." I had been ignoring the rage, not because I necessarily practice enlightened parenting: it's a survival tactic. For us both.

"I love you, Mom," he said.

The Pout after the Storm July 2007

Never have I been "Mom." It's such a grown-up kind of word. Not the universal baby word of MaMa--two repeated syllables which all infants in just about all cultures use for mother. Mom, and enough insight to talk about his anger.

Anyone who says two was terrible never had a three year old. But I can see the light at the end of his tunnel now. It's not Thomas or Gordon, it's Himself Emerging.


I kind of like the ring of that.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Today was mild and raining, and the colors haven't really started yet. Still, tonight, it's crisp, chilly and damp: the fall is upon us. It put me in mind of three years ago, when Ben was a baby still, and we saw the end of his first fall from our back door in Port Huron. The lilacs were long gone, and we watched the last of the leaves get blown off by an early snow.

The fall

The last of the leaves
came down this morning
in a blinding swirl
of snow and brown.
My son, dark
as baker’s chocolate
and I, white as oatmeal,
stand at the back door
and wonder
about the fall.

I scoop him up
and run out into
the whoosh of wet
and spin him around.
An orange maple leaf
sticks to his dark head,
a brown one slithers
across my gray hair.

His small white teeth
shine in the purple light.
We laugh together;
fat flakes darken
our shirts, wet our faces
like sweet tears.
Our dark snowy
day begins.
He looks at me
and I hold him
at the end of the fall.