This is a story of how a family reacts to the death of the family pet.
|My Brother Michael’s Dog
A Short Story
By Frank Sperry
We buried my brother Michael’s dog in the far corner of our backyard behind my Grandfather’s tool shed. We brought him home from the animal hospital in my Grandfather’s fishin car. That’s what he called his Dodge station wagon that was a lot older than Michael, and Michael was almost twelve. The man at the animal hospital said we could leave Panda there if we wanted to and they would take care of him. None of us, not Michael, my Grandfather, or me wanted to leave him there. You don’t leave someone in your family with strangers, no matter how kind they were to him before they put him to sleep.
Panda was a black and white Saint Bernard. He was the center of attention everywhere in the neighborhood because Saint Bernards are supposed to be brown and white, not black and white. He was a big dog. We brought him home from the hospital in a big cardboard box they had at the hospital for dogs that died there. It took all three of us to lift the box from the back of the station wagon when we got home. My grandfather had the idea of balancing the box on the top of our wheelbarrow to move him from the car to the tool shed. We planned to dig the hole there and mark his grave with a wooden marker that Michael made.
Michael was good at making things from wood. He could have been a carpenter before he finished High School and made a lot more money than delivering newspapers. My Grandfather told him there was plenty of time to be a carpenter. Meanwhile, he told him, it wouldn’t hurt him to learn the newspaper business from the bottom up.
It took almost an hour to dig the hole big enough. Michael did most of the digging because he saw that my Grandfather was sweating when he tried and because the shovel was taller than I was. My Grandfather had another good idea about putting my Mom’s clothesline under the box so we could get it lowered into the ground without it coming apart.
After the box was lowered into the hole, and most of the dirt was put back on top of it, my grandfather knelt down and whispered something quietly that I couldn’t hear. Michael made the sign of the cross and then put the wooden marker at the end where he was sure Panda’s head had been.
Michael looked at his home-made wooden marker and saw that it said “ Died July 31, 2003, but it had nothing about when Panda was born. “Grandpop, do you know how old Panda was?” he asked.
My grandfather thought for a minute then said, “He was already about three or four when your Dad got him from the animal shelter for you when you were just a baby. I’d reckon he would have to be about 15 years old”.
Michael took the magic marker from his shirt pocket and right after where it said, “born” he wrote “about 15 years ago”.
Michael went right in the house after that. Michael was a lot like my Mom. They both believed that words and thoughts were better kept inside. My grandfather and I were different. We both went up and sat on the back porch. We talked a lot about a whole bunch of things sitting there Talking and sharing words were always the thing that bound my grandfather and I together. I think talking the way we often did made him feel younger than my Mom and made me feel older than Michael, even though he was almost twelve and I had just turned six.
To be fair to Michael I told my grandfather I might have been much quieter after just burying Panda if I had been with him for twice as many years as Michael had.
My grandfather said he didn’t think it made too much difference how long you knew someone before they died, but rather how many good things you could remember about them. “Michael kind of neglected Panda for the last few years because Panda was getting old and tired and also because Michael was growing up faster than he wanted to”, then he added. “The deepest hurt comes from remembering all the things you wish you had done when you had the chance. All the games of fetch you wish you could go back and play.”
I think once or twice my grandfather tried to change the subject away from Panda, but I kept coming back to it because each time I did for some reason I couldn’t understand, talking about him and the things he did when he was alive helped me picture him running in the backyard chasing birds and not being in a cardboard box under a pile of dirt.
“Mom will be getting home from work soon. Do you think she will have wanted us to wait until she got home before we buried Panda?”, I asked my grandfather.
“No, remember I called her at work from the Veterinarian’s”, he said. “I asked her if she could handle having Panda put to sleep. She was crying on the other end of the phone and couldn’t talk much, but finally she managed to tell me to go ahead and do whatever the three of us decided was best for him.”
I remembered that Michael never really said anything. Before we left the room at the animal hospital and saw Panda alive for the last time he just leaned over and kissed him on the top of his head. My grandfather and I believed in words. Michael believed in kisses.
A little while later I heard a car door close and my Mom came up the driveway and saw us sitting on the back porch. She was wearing her uniform from the restaurant where she worked from before breakfast until after lunch. I jumped out of my chair and went to her and threw my arms around her. She smelled like some kind of food, but it was like perfume to me.
“Is everyone doing OK?” she asked. “Where’s Michael?”, she added.
“He’s in his room. I don’t think he felt much like talking” my grandfather answered.
“Are you sure he’s OK?” she asked again.
“I’m sure,” my grandfather said, trying to sound certain. Then added, “ We kept him busy making the wooden marker.”
“What about Panda”? She asked again.
Before my grandfather could answer, I did. “He’s over there; behind the tool shed; in the ground.” I said, pointing toward the back corner of the yard.
I could tell my Mom was still thinking about Michael, and I added. “Michael did most of the digging cause Grandpop did most of the sweating.”
She had her hand on the doorknob of the screen door all the time we were talking. Finally, she opened the door and said. “I’ll go see how Michael’s doing.” She must have sensed that I was OK because I had my grandfather, but right now Michael needed someone, if not to talk, at least to hold.
Sometimes I believed my Mom believed that I was eleven but Michael was six. Nobody seemed to have anybody’s age in our family down pat. I asked my grandfather once how old he was. He told me “We’ll soon be the same. When you get to be seven, I’ll be able to tell people I’m seven too” I figured out later he meant to say “seventy-two.”
My Mom came back out on the porch and said, “He’s doing OK. He’s working on one of his models”. She announced she hoped everyone was hungry. She said she would make an early supper. She doubted if any one had any lunch today.
“I’m always hungry,” I said through the screen door. “What are we having?”
“Leftovers”, she called back. “ I forgot to tell Pop to take the hamburger out of the refigerator before I got home”. Then she added, “and you’re favorite, Tyler, Macaroni and cheese.”
That surely was my favorite, ever since right after I was a baby and I had just learned to talk and bang my spoon on the highchair tray and yell, “I want more Mackie Cheese”.
I left the porch once to go to the bathroom and before I came back out I went in to see Michael in his room. He was working on one of his airplane models. He didn’t bother to look up or say anything, so I got the message that he still didn’t want to talk, and I left and went back out to the porch with my grandfather.
Later, my grandfather and I were sitting at the supper table by ourselves and my Mom was still trying to coax Michael to come to the table. He finally did. When he and my Mom joined us the four of us all tried to pretend this day was no different than any other. She had changed out of her uniform and now she smelled like a different kind of perfume. It was Mackie cheese.
My grandfather and I were trying to make regular supper table conversation but the subject came back to Panda. Michael had been pushing his food from one side of his plate to the other and then he exploded.
“Can we try to talk about something else, you two?” he yelled into his glass like it was the top of a microphone.
My Mom reached over and touched his hand and said, “Michael, other people let go of things in their own way. Talking about someone who has died helps them get over it.”
“He wasn’t a someone”, he yelled into her face. “He was just a dog. And if you ask me they both talk too Goddam much about everyone and everything”
My Mom dropped her fork onto her plate. Michael pushed back his chair and bolted from the kitchen. I had never heard Michael curse before. All of a sudden my Macaroni and cheese was hard to swallow. My grandfather looked up from his plate and said, “He’s right, Carol. Tyler and I have been talking about not much else all afternoon, except Panda. He should probably be talked out of us by now”. I’ll tell Michael I’m sorry”.
“Why should you have to be sorry,” I said to my grandfather. “He was the one who cursed at Mom”.
“Tyler, that word was like a tight cork in a bottle. It was bound to pop out, sooner or later”, he said.
My Mom had been sitting with her head in her hands. She got up from he table and went to Michael’s room.
“Tyler, let’s you and I see if we can clear this table before your Mom comes back. She probably cleared enough tables today”, my Grandfather said. We cleared the table in less than five minutes cause we stacked the dishes in the sink. Mom didn’t mind washing the dishes. She didn’t have to be the dishwasher at work. When we finished we went back out on the porch. I guess we weren’t talked out yet.
“ I bet no one thought to call Dad and tell him about Panda”, my grandfather said. “I’d better try to get in touch with him”. He went in to the house. I looked through the screen and saw him on the phone. He came back out on the porch, sat down and said, “ He wasn’t home. I left a message on his machine”.
“The best time to catch him at home is in the morning before he gets out of bed”, I said.
My Grandfather spoke again, “I’ll try again tomorrow.” Then looked off in the distance and added, “Your Dad loved Panda. He was like a third son to him”.
I saw an opening to ask about things that had often been on my mind but not asked before. “Why didn’t they stay married like most people?”
“I’m not so sure most people do stay married, Tyler”. A lot of times, like with your Dad, it’s the bottle that breaks the bonds”.
“You and Grandma stay married”, I reminded him.
“For forty-one years”, he said, looking again at something or maybe nothing beyond the fence. “We slept together in the same bed for forty-one years. Then one night she went to sleep and never woke up”
“Did you have anyone to talk to about it?” I asked.
“Not really”, he said. “That was before you were born. You and I are the only real talkers in the family”.
“It must have been hard for you without someone to talk about her dying”, I said.
“Your Mom helped a lot, though. Sometimes just being there in the same place without saying much helps people when they need help”.
“Just like Mom is trying to help Michael, right?” I said.
“Exactly” he said, punctuating the word with a tap of his finger on the arm of his chair.
“Did you ever get drunk, Grandpop, like I heard Mom tell you once that Dad use to do?” I asked him. I was beginning to feel like this was my chance to discover a lot of things about my family that I didn’t know.
“I got drunk once when your Mom and Dad got married. The next morning I couldn’t even remember anything, except how I disappointed your Grandma. From then on it was no more than one beer once in a great while”.
“One time my Dad let me have a sip of his beer. It tasted awful, nothing at all like a milkshake”.
“I hope you always remember that, Tyler. Maybe that’s why your Dad let you have that one taste. Maybe he wanted you to discover it was more like poison than a milkshake”.
“Poison can surely kill you, right?” I said to him.
“Right, poison can surely kill you”, he repeated.
“Will my Dad die from poison cause he drinks too much?” I asked.
“ No one except God knows how your Dad or anyone else will die when it’s their time”.
“Grandpop, if your kidneys went bad and someone said you were going to be in a lot of pain, would you want a doctor to stick a needle in you to put you to sleep?”
“I’m not sure, Tyler. It would have to be an awful lot of pain. After Grandma died and before you were born and before I came to live with you and Michael, I didn’t care much how many more years I’d want to live. After being around you for the last six years, I’ve gotten mighty fond of watching you and Michael grow up. You’re both a whole lot of fun to be around. I often feel now that I’d like to hang around till you get finished High School. Maybe even see you and Michael go to college”.
I told him “Michael says he’s not going to college. He wants to work with his hands”.
“Michael will go to college, Tyler”, my grandfather said. “He’ll discover between now and then that all the great things that are built, whether with wood or steel or whatever, are first put down on paper. To learn how to do that you go to college, not to a work place”.
He went on talking and threw out a few numbers like he often did when he wanted to sneak some arithmetic into our conversations. “In seventeen years when you’re ready to graduate from college, I’ll be almost eighty-nine. You and Michael will have to carry me into the bathroom or help your Mom put a diaper on me so I won’t pee the bed”.
“Oh, Grandpop”, I said in disbelief, “old men don’t pee the bed like little kids”.
“Some do, Tyler, some do”, he said. “Whenever their head forgets to tell them they need to get out of bed and go pee in the toilet”
My Grandfather and I went on talking late into the night sitting on the porch while a bright, full moon lit up the back yard like a giant searchlight in a war movie.
Finally my Mom came to the back door and said, “Are you two ever going to come inside and go to bed? It’s nearly eleven o’clock”.
“We’ll be in soon”, my grandfather said.
Yeah, we’re pretty much talked out of words”, I added.
It was strange how my brother Michael’s dog… I mean not all the many years he lived with our family but only that one day when he died that we discovered things about our family and about ourselves that we never knew the day before. How the things we learned and the things we felt changed us all in a way that we would never again be the same.
And just to bring you up to date, as Paul Harvey would say, here’s the rest of the story. My brother Michael graduated three years ago from the School of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He worked his way through college as a carpenter every summer and as a dishwasher in the cafeteria when school was in. He’s now an architect and works in Charlotte for a prestigious firm that designed and built Ericson Stadium.
My mother got married again, to a schoolteacher from Laney High School here in Wilmington where we live. He was a widower who often came into the restaurant on College Road where she worked. He doesn’t drink, and swears he never has.
My father was killed five years ago in a holdup at a bar. He was shot by the gunman when he tried to stop him from robbing the bartender just before closing. My Dad and bartenders were always the ones who closed the bars. The whole family, even my grandfather went to his funeral mass. I don’t know about the others but I was proud of him because his last act on earth was trying to help someone else keep from being hurt or killed I thought it was God’s purgatory for him all rolled into one brief moment.
My grandfather died last year in his sleep. He was eighty-eight. I am happy to report that my Mother told me at his funeral that he never once peed the bed.
As for me, I was a junior at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington when I dropped out last year right after my grandfather died. I loved my Grandfather and missed him so much I needed to take a break from school while I waited for God to send someone else into my life that I could exchange words with as we had done for so many years.
I intend to go back next semester. I’m majoring in Creative Writing. I remember what my grandfather said about all great things first being put down on paper. That’s why I’m going to be a writer. Michael will find his happiness building buildings. I want to build things you can’t touch, like memories about my family and everyone else that I have ever loved. I want to write about unhappy people like my Father, and happier, beautiful people like my Grandfather.
Yes, and maybe also a story about Panda. When I write about Panda I will try to remember that he was my brother Michael’s dog. Still, I’m not sure but I may have loved him twice as much in only half the time. I hope I won’t have to write about times before he died that I might have to go back in time to play fetch.