Monday, September 6, 2010

Why PETA Hates My Parents

Recently my sister had her dog, Murphy, put to sleep. Murphy was very sick and in a lot of pain, and it broke my brother-in-law's heart to bring him to the vet for his final visit. My sister, however, was not as upset by Murphy's departure: I could never visit my sister's home--and hence my niece and nephew--because I'm allergic to dogs. Now she's adamant that Murphy not be replaced by another dog or any other pet that will make me sneeze. For that I'm grateful. I try to visit as often as possible to convince my brother-in-law, a dog lover, that it was all worth it, though he makes "jokes" under his breath that go something like, "I killed my dog for you."

I wish I gave a shit about his need for a pet, although I understand it. Tom is a man's man who wants to be able to sip a beer, watch the Red Sox and scratch his golden lab behind the ears. I get it....but I don't give a shit. To me, it's more important that I'm able to visit and play with niece and nephew. I don't think my sister gives a shit about his desire for a pet, and I'm sure my mother and father don't either. Sorry, Tom. You're outnumbered. 

Although we had pets growing up, my side of the family has never valued their lives all that much. I consider a pivotal moment in my life to be the night I was watching Snoopy Come Home, the heartbreaking tale of Charlie Brown's dog leaving him for another woman. In this case, Snoopy's original owner: a young girl who's sick in the hospital. There's a prolonged goodbye scene where Snoopy bequeaths all his belongings to Charlie Brown's friends, then they give him a going-away party with speeches and gifts. Charlie Brown is stricken to tear-dripping silence, Snoopy is bawling, everyone's bawling, Snoopy walks off into the sunset. Then Charlie Brown can't sleep and he's pressing his forehead up against Snoopy's empty doghouse, wandering around the house in an existential crisis like a zombie on thorazine. And all the while this sad song is playing about changes and how life is just a random series of meaningless events with sprinkles of happiness doled out between long bouts of misery and loneliness. Heavy shit for a six year-old. My father sees me crying and says, "What are you crying for? It's just a dog."

Wow. Thanks, pop, for making me suppress my honest emotions. I'm a great man now because of it: rounding the corner to forty, unmarried, unloved, and emotionally distant from the world because I don't want my dad thinking I'm a pussy. (He did his best, though. Really. It wasn't that great, but I can't blame him for too much.) His Snoopy comment seems ironic, however, when you consider the heartwarming tale he told around the hearth a few Christmases ago:

When my dad was a boy, he had a dog named Blondie, a big mutt with a black-brown coat and a small tuft of blond hair surrounding her ears. When my dad came home from school each day, Blondie was at the door waiting to greet him with enthusiastic panting and tail-wagging. One day, Blondie wasn't there to greet him. No one in the family knew where she had gone. My grandfather put my dad in the car, and they drove around the block looking for Blondie. My dad yelled her name until his voice was hoarse. They drove in wider circles for hours around the neighborhood. My grandfather, who loved the dog just as much, drove with his head out the window calling out, "Bl-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ndie!" 

But Blondie was gone. They never found her.

Many years later my dad and my grandfather were sitting in a bar together drinking beer, and my grandfather looped his arm around my dad's shoulders and said drunkenly, "You know, I just wanted to say...I feel awful about the day I had to shoot Blondie." 

I'm sure my dad did a spit take, not only because of the news that his dog was assassinated, but because his father had shown him affection and regret. Turns out that while my dad was at school one day, Blondie had jumped up and bitten his older sister, Joan, on the cheek. My grandfather, a crusty Irish sort who liked to solve problems quickly and cleanly, took Blondie out to the woods and shot her in the back of the head. I guess that's the way things were done then. My dad always said that my grandfather was a strict disciplinarian, but what the FUCK? This was during the Great Depression, and it surprised my dad that my grandfather didn't make a stew out of Blondie. Apparently tact prevailed that day.

Maybe my dad cried when Blondie was gone, and maybe his father said to him, "What are you crying for? It's just a dog." Seems possible. Maybe my dad was trying to impart that wisdom on me while I was watching Snoopy Come Home. It certainly stuck on the day that my mom accidentally ran over our dog Maggie.

Maggie was a mutt we found sitting in the parking lot of a restaurant. She had no tags, so we kept her. Good dog, except she used to chase all the neighborhood cars and bark a lot. She used to sleep in the driveway under the back of my mom's car. 

I think you can see where this is going. 

One morning my mom started the car and saw Maggie run out from underneath. Then my mom forgot her purse or something and went back in the house. During that time, Maggie laid back down under the car. My mom didn't realize this. She came out of the house, got into the car and backed up over Maggie. The poor woman was devastated. When she told my sister and me what had happened, my sister burst into tears, but I remained stoic. My father was just to my right, and I could feel his gaze. I don't think he would have been mad if I had cried (I was only eleven or twelve), but I felt I would have been disappointing him if I did so. I just nodded and went to my friend's house up the street. Didn't cry then either. Don't remember if I ever did.

Once my mother ran over a cat and kept going. We were on our way to pick up my dad at work (his car was in the shop), and we were running late. Mom was sweating that; Red Smith doesn't like to wait. My sister and I were young and in the backseat, probably making noise and driving her batshit. On a wooded road a cat darted out from the woods and mom drove over it. My sister and I, horrified, looked out the back window of the car and saw the poor thing flopping and twitching in the road. 

"Mommy!" we shouted, "You just ran over a CAAAAAAAT!"

Mom was in tears. "I know, kids! I'm sorry! I'll buy you ice cream later!"

At least mom displayed some feeling about these matters. She may have been prone to mowing down helpless animals, but felt bad enough to buy us treats to cold-freeze the trauma.

Red Smith? Not so much.

When my folks were newly married, before my sister and I were born, they lived next door to a family that owned a dog that barked a lot. One morning, around 4am, the dog was barking incessantly and woke my father. He couldn't get back to sleep and decided he might as well go into work. The sun had not fully risen when he pulled up to the stop light just ten yards from the house. He sat there waiting for the light to change, the only car in the early-morning quiet. He glanced to his right and there, sitting on the curb, wagging his tail, was that goddamn dog from next door, the one that had woken him up on that day and so many others...and my father thought: He looks like he wants to go for a ride.

So my dad leaned across the passenger seat and popped open the door. Lo and behold, the dog did indeed want to go for a ride. He jumped onto the seat, slapped his front paws on the dashboard and panted with delight as my father roared away toward the rising sun. He worked at a chemical plant about twenty miles away, but this morning he drove an extra ten miles to Route 9 in Framingham, right next to Shopper's World, and let the dog out by the side of the road. 

Done and done.

When my sister and I were kids we had a cat named Mittens who had gray and black fur with four white paws. Mittens.

Mittens was with us for many years doing what a cat does best: spreading out on the sofa in the exact spot where you want to sit; grinding its asshole into your face when you're sleeping; shooting you that contemptuous look when you serve it dry cat food. We loved Mittens. Her purr vibrated warmly in your lap. When she stretched and dug her claws into your stomach, she did it with love. We had Mittens for over a decade. We watched her give birth to eight kittens. We gave all the kittens away (or so our dad told us).

Mittens finally began to show wear and tear. She was sick all the time, coughing and spitting up a lot, shitting in places she normally wouldn't shit. And then, one day, Mittens wasn't around. My mom said she let her out one morning around Halloween, but she never returned. My sister and I were worried. We had my father take us around the block looking for Mittens. We called out her name until we were hoarse. My father, who loved Mittens as much as we did, stuck his head out the window of the car as we drove around looking for her shouting, "M-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-TENS!!!

No Mittens. She was gone. My sister and I gave up hope day by day, and I noticed that we were getting ice cream more often. 

Two months passed. 

On Christmas Eve, 1983, we were sitting in the living room opening presents. The Chipmunks were mouthing off to David Seville, my mother was preparing the hors d'oeuvres for the swarm of guests that were arriving within the hour, and my father was pretending that his new set of golf tees was an appropriate gift. Then suddenly, during the hiss between songs on the 8-track tape, we heard a strange sound. It cut through the air and we all froze. "Jingle Bell Rock" started playing, but we heard it again unmistakably: someone, or something, was scraping at the front door. 

My dad walked to the door, opened it...

...and in strolled Mittens. She hopped onto the couch and nuzzled her head into my sister's open hand. I ran into the kitchen screaming, "MOM! MOM! MITTENS CAME BACK! MITTENS CAME BACK!! IT'S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!!!"

My family gathered in the living room and stared at our beloved miracle pet who was now curled up on the couch as if not a day had passed, as if she had been here all along. She purred away in my sister's lap. 

After the euphoria passed, we were all quite shocked. No one more so than Red Smith, who had taken Mittens out to his favorite spot on Route 9 in Framingham, let her out of the car and drove away. Quite possibly the dog from next door was still sitting there waiting for him. What a disappointment it must have been to see my dad--after so many years of waiting for his return--and then watch him zoom off again, leaving behind a fat, old cat with IBS. Mittens probably sat on Route 9 for about five minutes before she thought Fuck this and started her two-month journey home. 

It wasn't until years later that I deciphered the resentful glance Mittens gave my dad as she strolled through the front door and plopped defiantly back onto the couch, as if she was saying: 

Screw you, Red. I don't go down easily.

Good for her.

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