Friday, December 10, 2010

I Believe in Dog

(for Kelly, who recently lost her dog Hailey)

I was seven years old when I first understood, and promptly questioned, the concept of heaven. Mémère was reading me a bedtime story about people who died and went to heaven. The story made heaven sound, well, heavenly. I needed to know all about it and quickly posed a barrage of questions.

“Will Mommy go to heaven if she dies?”
“Will you go there if you die?”
“I hope so”
“Will I go there if I die?”
“Certainly. But that will not be for a long time.”
“Will Skippy go there when he dies?”
“Because Skippy is a dog. Dogs cannot go to heaven.”

This didn’t sound right. No. This didn’t sound right at all. How could such a wonderful place exist without dogs? Heaven sounded like a nice place to go, but who would want to go there if there were no dogs? I cried. I worried about Skippy. Where would he go? Was there a dog heaven? Would he know anyone there? He didn’t have any dog friends that I knew of.

The sadness dissipated and was replaced with anger. I was mad. It was unfair that Skippy couldn’t go to heaven. He was just as good as any person I had ever met. It was unfair that I had to go a place for eternity where there were no dogs. I thought heaven was supposed to be perfect, but the no dogs policy was clearly a huge flaw!

Skippy has been gone a long time now. So has Shadow. And Kiowa. The dogs I have loved and lost. It makes my stomach cramp to think of it, but I know some day I will lose my beloved Gosh as well. I can’t claim to know anymore now than I did when I was seven regarding where they have gone after death. Did they crumble to dust? Certainly. But did part of them live on? Certainly. Maybe they haven’t gone on to heaven or an afterlife, but they will always be present in my thoughts, memories and actions. My dogs have helped shape my life. They are my family members and my friends.

I wish I could believe in heaven. That is, a heaven that includes dogs. There would be sunny nooks for lounging, an abundance of tennis balls, and plushy, squeaky toys would grow on bushes. All of my dogs would meet up there and form one pack that would eventually welcome me with wagging tails, happy barks and slobbering tongues. I would get to be happy with them once again. But I am far too cynical to believe in such a post-life Utopian existence. I will simply have to be content with the simple truth: I get to share my life with dogs. That, on its own, is extraordinary.

I believed it when I was seven and I believe it now. Life is not complete without dogs. And my dogs have made my life, well, heavenly. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Folsom Prison Blues and Other Lullabies

I am fairly certain that every childcare book on every bookshelf in America says that singing to your baby is an excellent thing to do. I submit that the authors of these books have never heard me sing. Nor would they want to. However, one day I decided to take their advice and broke out an a cappella version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for my baby daughter, Devi. It was horrible. I am positive that my voice sounds like a squirrel trying to impersonate Minnie Mouse and the whole exercise made me entirely self-conscious and uncomfortable. Not at all the warm, fuzzy musical experience that I was hoping to offer to my daughter.

I went back to the books and was reassured to read that babies don’t particularly care if their parent’s singing voice is displeasing. In fact, it can still be comforting because it is a voice they are familiar with. This was excellent news as it meant that my rendition of “Twinkle, Twinkle” hadn’t irreparably damaged my new relationship with my daughter. But this didn’t help me get past the fact that I felt completely weird singing in a silent house to an infant. Since I was pretty sure that singing to my baby was an obligatory part of being a mom I had to figure out a way around the weirdness.

Maybe if I had music to sing with I would feel less self-conscious about singing aloud to someone. After all, I always had music on in the house and I had turned it off to try to sing these lullabies in the first place. I looked through my music collection and, not surprisingly, found that the closest thing I had to baby music or nursery rhymes was the Charlie Brown Christmas CD. Breaking out the Christmas music would only make me feel weirder.  So I chose something that would be easy for a baby to listen to, that I knew all the words to and that I could sing along to. I chose Johnny Cash.

I am aware that songs about prisons, cocaine and shooting a woman named Delia might not be everyone’s first pick when choosing music for an infant. But I needed music that I was comfortable with. Besides, Devi was too young to understand words yet and it couldn’t possibly be any worse than singing her a song about falling down out of a tree in her cradle.

I sang. And she listened. I didn’t feel self-conscious anymore. I didn't care how bad I sounded. I felt relaxed and she seemed to enjoy the singing. Folsom Prison Blues. Ring of Fire. Sunday Morning Coming Down. I was on a roll. I was enjoying myself and I felt like I was really bonding with my child. I started to introduce a half-hour of singing and dancing into our everyday routine. I would put on Johnny Cash or the Smiths or the Cure or any other depressing songs I happened to know by heart and I would sing to her as I danced her around the kitchen. Smiling. Laughing. Singing.

It turns out those books are right. Singing to my baby was an excellent thing to do.

Devi is three and a half now. Sometimes she will ask to listen to Johnny Cash in the car and she will smile and say “You used to sing this to me when I was a little baby”. Ten years from now, when she can understand the lyrics it will sound more like “You used to sing THIS for me when I was a little baby?” But maybe someday, if she has kids, she will find herself walking around the house with an infant, singing Folsom Prison Blues and will say “Your grandmother used to sing this to me when I was a little baby”. The words in the song won’t matter. The fact that I cared enough to sing to her will.