Category Archives: children

Not on my watch

Buddy and me.  I might have been a little overprotective of Buddy.

Buddy and me. I might have been a little overprotective of Buddy. Just a little.

Last night my husband and I had an argument.

Well, a nano spat.

We were about to watch an episode of Borgen, when, remote in hand, he suddenly closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and pressed the fingers of one hand to his forehead, looking stricken. It occurred to me that he might be having a stroke. After all, it’s not as if fifty-nine year old Type-A men don’t ever have strokes and Ken’s life is not entirely without stress.   For example, he is married to someone who, by her own admission, can occasionally be a teensy bit of a demando-guts.  Also, a decade ago, he had a bout of Central Serous Retinopathy, a condition brought on by stress — in CSR, fluid buildup under the retinal pigment epithelium of the eye results, temporarily in his case, in vision distortion. As disconcerting as this was, it did come in handy one Christmas, when two of our semi-adult children were going at each other, hammer and tongs. Finally, unable to stand their bickering and recriminations a second longer, I leaped to my feet, pointed dramatically in Ken’s direction and cried, “If you don’t stop this immediately, your father’s eye is going to explode!” Whereupon they took it outside. (They get along fine now.)

So, bearing in mind my husband’s advancing age and blood pressure issues and aware that, one day, one of us is going to not be OK and could that moment . . . that terrible moment possibly be this moment, the moment everything changes and all is lost? Bearing all that in mind, I asked, “Are you all right?”

To which he responded with a terse, “Quiet!”

I waited, leaning forward in my chair, my eyes fixed on him.  I waited some more. Then, because his demeanor had not altered and remembering that, in cases of stroke, it’s important to act quickly though in what precise way I can never remember, I tried a second time: “Ken,” I asked, enunciating carefully, “Are. You. All. Right. Question mark.”

Sabrina and me

Sabrina and me

Now, I admit I can be overly solicitous on occasion. When my daughter Sabrina was a baby, I was so terrified she would succumb to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome that I used to creep into her bedroom when she was sleeping and hold a mirror under her tiny  nose. If ever she seemed suspiciously still to me — and this was not infrequently — I would wake her up to make sure she was alive.  Neither of us got a lot of sleep that first year.

Once, in a sun-baked and utterly deserted park in Mt. Olive, the pickle capitol of North Carolina, I ignored cries for help from the same husband for whose health I was now so solicitous in order to save Buddy, our aged and very infirm golden retriever, from nothing at all.   This is what happened. At the same moment as a colony of fire ants was inexplicably swarming up Ken’s bare legs, I  spotted a lone car on the distant horizon. And I mean distant. Convinced that this same car was going to suddenly accelerate, cover the half mile or so that separated us in a matter of seconds and flatten Buddy, I left Ken to fend for himself while I  took off after the dog, flailing my arms and crying, “No! Buddy! Stop!”

Just the other day, I tried to get our current golden retriever, Nellie, up for her late afternoon pee. To no avail. This was beyond alarming, especially if you’re me, hence, easily alarmed; Nellie came into this world spring-loaded; she is the canine equivalent of Tigger.  The prospect of a walk, any walk, sends her into virtual paroxysms. What could possibly be the matter with her, I wondered?  Was she sick? Then I remembered the asphalt on her paws from an earlier outing with our dog walker.  Had she licked her paws and, in so doing, poisoned herself? Was she dying?  I consulted my iPad for an antidote to asphalt. Finding none, I gave her a bowl of milk, because, you know, milk. I then made an emergency vet appointment for an hour later and commenced pacing frantically back and forth, wringing my hands.  Was this it?  Was this how Nellie died?  Was I going to lose my baby?   Then  I offered her a dentabone. Turns out, a long-lasting oral care chew was all it took to reinvigorate her. Up she leaped, out we went; she peed. I wept with relief, then called the vet and cancelled the appointment. We went on with our day.

Nellie was born spring-loaded.


Meanwhile, here was my beloved husband, frozen in an attitude of pain, his expression that of someone who has just had an ice pick driven through his forehead.

“Are you all right?” I repeated for the third time.

“Damn it!” he said then, opening his eyes and glaring at me.  “I was thinking! Can’t a person think?”

Not if they look like they’re having a stroke, they can’t.  Not on my watch.


Harry with Sabrina.  Harry appears to be working on a shoe.

Harry with Sabrina. Harry appears to be working on a shoe.

In the dead of the winter of ‘86, when my twins were one and Brina four and a half, my ex and I decided that what we really needed was a puppy.  And not just any puppy.  A Scotch collie puppy.  This was because my ex’s thesis supervisor had owned a succession of Scotch collies and imitating him in every respect seemed to my ex a prudent course.  Accordingly, one cold and snowy night we wedged the diapered duo into their car seats, sandwiched Brina in between, and slip-slided our way down the 402  to a farm outside of Sarnia.  There, in a barn, we found a rattled looking mother collie and her litter, asleep in the hay, and returned to London with Harry zipped inside my coat.

It is hard to house train a puppy in the winter. It is even harder to house train a puppy in a house with no door opening onto a fenced in yard.  It is harder still to house train a puppy with perambulating one year olds whom you dare not leave alone while you are escorting the puppy outdoors lest they fatally injure themselves or their twin.  Because Alice and Will fought from the moment they achieved sufficient muscle tone to deliver a reasonable facsimile of a wallop and didn’t stop until they were teenagers, when they went all twin-y.    Looking back on it, I must have left them alone the occasional time, figuring that screams would alert me to any true danger.    Perhaps I instructed Sabrina to look after them, knowing full well that she was still on the fence as to whether we should keep them.

Harry was beyond long suffering.  The kids would sprawl on him, sucking their thumbs and twiddling his fur. He would lie on his side, looking put upon, but resigned.  Occasionally his lip would flicker, revealing massive fangs and he would say, without conviction, “Grrrr.”

Collies are herding dogs, which worked because my kids were a wayward flock, always trying to scatter or make a break for it. Collies are also watch dogs.   If a leaf fell in the front yard, Harry barked.  If a car drove by, Harry barked.  If, God forbid, a person should walk down the sidewalk, Armageddon!   Harry barked when he was awake and he barked when he was asleep and, if I had had a gun, that’s the way he might have gone down — barking. Only I didn’t, so he didn’t.  One more argument for gun control.

Harry liked to couple the pleasures of barking with lunging, usually at windows.   He broke through the pane glass window in the front of the house on four separate occasions and was saved from hurtling to his death from an upstairs window by a astonishingly resilient screen.  I would appear at the glass repair shop, carrying a window with a collie-shaped hole in it.    Harry was famous at the glass shop.

The first time my ex and I spent a night away from the children, we hired an older woman to babysit.  When we returned home, the kids roasted the sitter.  She was mean.  She had thrown a book at Alice.  She had locked Harry in the back room the entire time.  I didn’t believe them.  Then Harry, who was not a small dog, climbed onto my lap and leaned all of his weight against my chest, pinning me to the chair.  He lifted his fabulous needle nose to the sky and began to keen.  We never hired that sitter again.

One Canada Day, Harry was listless.  He lay on his side looking pooched.  “That dog’s sick,” my neighbour said.  “You’d better have him seen to.”  It was a national holiday; the regular vet was closed.  I took him to the emergency vet, who stuck his finger up his bum, announced, “This dog has gas,” gave me a bottle of Pepto Bismal and charged me $100.  Another time, Harry swallowed a bouncy ball, which lodged in the opening  between his stomach and his intestine.  The operation to remove it cost $800. The vet let the children in to visit Harry, who was lying on the floor of the animal hospital with IV tubes coming out of him.  They ran up to him, his flock of unruly sheep, and fell to their knees, embracing him and cooing.   Harry’s tail thumped.  “Operate,” I said.

Harry contracted Lupus at age seven and died too soon.  Writing about him, I remember him.  Remembering him, I miss him.  Harry was two good dogs ago, but I guess the pane glass window wasn’t the only thing Harry put a collie-shaped hole in.  He put one in my heart.

Oh, Paulie!

Will at about the age of his disappearance, wearing a Kermit the Frog head.  His twin Alice looks on, askance.

Will at about the age of his disappearance, wearing a Kermit the Frog head. His twin Alice looks on, askance.

When my son Will was a toddler, he was kidnapped.  Or he ran away. In any case, one sunny summer afternoon my ex and I glanced up from our work in the garden to find Will  nowhere in sight.  We panicked.  While I stayed back in the yard with the girls, breathing via a paper bag, my ex careened around the neighbourhood, flailing his arms and shrieking, our collie, confused but psyched,  in hot pursuit. Neighbours joined in, some on bicycles to broaden the search area.  I called the police.

Then, about a half an hour in, Paulie, the dozy pre-K grandson of our next door neighbour, jerked to sudden life and decided to share. “I saw where Will went,” he said.

Now Paulie was a pathetic child – strangely boneless with a thin face and lank hair. Rheumy eyed and snot encrusted, he looked like he subsisted entirely on a diet of Cheetos.  But it wasn’t just Paulie’s desperate appearance that rendered him piteous.  It was everyone’s palpably low regard for him.  My children, being children and therefore  without mercy, thought him very weak tea indeed, but so did his family.  “Oh, Paulie!” they would cry with thinly veiled contempt.  Paulie couldn’t do anything right and he knew it.

But not that day.

“Really, Paulie?  You saw where Will went?”  His mother dropped to her knees before her wretched child, seizing him by the shoulders.  A thought bubble appeared over her head:  “Is it possible that my limp rag of a loser son might actually be the one to save this day?”

“Come on, Paulie!” his grandmother  chimed in. “Tell us!  Tell us where he went!”

As if around a blazing fire on a cold night, all the grownups in the vicinity instantly gathered round.  Suddenly Paulie was the center not merely of attention, but rapt attention.  He reacted to this the way  fainting goats react to panic – he froze, agog.   I removed the paper bag from over my mouth and sobbed convulsively.  “Paulie, please!”

Emerging from his brief myotonic episode, Paulie shuddered convulsively.  Then he turned thoughtful.  “Well,” he began.  He paused and began again.  “Well, he came down those steps.”   He pointed to the front steps of our house.

“Yes,” said his mother, ”and then?”

“He came down the walk . . . .” Paulie indicated the walk the front stoop to the sidewalk.

“And then?  What did he do then?”

Paulie furrowed his brow and screwed up his mouth.  He cocked his head to one side and glanced down at his battered flip flops. His eyes widened as if he was seeing his toes for the first time.

“What did he do then, Paulie?” his mother implored him. “Do you remember what Will did then?  It’s very important!”

The grownups joined in a rousing chorus of encouragement.

“Atta boy, Paulie!”

“We believe in you, Paulie!”

“You can do it, Paulie!  You can save Will!”

Paulie sucked in air, exhaled and surveyed the adults crowded around him.  Like Obama after his second Inauguration, he was pretty certain he wasn’t going to see this again and he wanted to take it all in.  Finally, he spoke.  “Then Will split in two and half of him went this way and the other half went that way!”

“Oh, Paulie!” everyone cried, turning away in disgust.

That was when the police showed up, followed shortly thereafter by Will. He appeared in the front door, theatrically rubbing his eyes and claiming to have been asleep under a desk in his father’s office the entire time.  Years later he confessed that he had, instead, watched through an upstairs window as the drama unfolded. Which we, being not entirely stupid, always sort of suspected.

As for Paulie, he had been, however briefly, the center of attention, a shining light, a hero in the making, a human being worthy of regard and a source of pride to his family.  In a life which, I suspect, would afford Paulie few such opportunities, he saw his chance, boldly seized it and then played it for all it was worth.

Free range children … and dogs

Queenie I through VIII

Queenie I through VIII

When I was a child, we roamed the neighborhood in packs comprised of kids ranging in age from ten to two.  “Whatever you do, don’t let Stevie get run over!” a mother would advise as she assigned a toddler still in diapers to our insouciant care.

There were boundaries beyond which we were forbidden to venture, but our geographical range was surprisingly large and fraught with possible danger, bounded as it was on one side by a raging river in which we could quite easily have drowned and dotted with ravines in which dangerous strangers might lurk, their pockets bursting with candy.  That this latter danger was not idle speculation was attested to by the occasional disappearance of a child, sometimes without a trace, sometimes with – famously all that was found of one little girl were severed fingers under the bridge.

Notwithstanding all this, we were left more or less to our own recognizance for most of the time we weren’t in school —  constructing rickety tree houses out of scrap lumber bristling with rusty nails, playing in discarded refrigerators and narrowly avoiding falling into empty, abandoned cisterns.  None of these things were deemed scary.  You know what was?  The plastic your Dad’s dry cleaning came home in. That stuff could kill you.

Of course, all this was possible because the neighborhood was chock full of stay-at-home Moms – depressed, pill-popping women struggling with the “problem that has no name” . . .  and probably some gals who were happy to tend to their roses and do their vacuuming in a shirtwaist and pearls.  The fact of the matter was, no matter where you were within the assigned boundaries, some Mom was close at hand and more or less ready to rise to the occasion of saving your sorry ass bacon, provided that was still an option.   The assumption was that childhood was not without risk.

The same was true of dogs.  When I was growing up, dogs roamed freely.   They chased cars.  They ran away.  They bit people – frequently children.  Sometimes they got rabies – always exciting.   My childhood is replete with dire narratives about children getting rabies shots every day for upwards of three weeks – in their stomachs!

Dogs also got run over at a great clip.  Our next door neighbor had a serial Schipperke named Queenie.  When Queenie I got run over, she purchased Queenie II.  When Queenie II was hit by a car, she acquired Queenie III.  When Queenie III lost her brief battle with a Mustang convertible, Queenie IV appeared on the scene. And so on.  By the time we moved away, we were eight Queenies down and counting.    Years later we learned with sadness that the poor woman had committed suicide.     Certainly she had reason to be discouraged.  How many Queenies did it take to convince her to end it all?

Now children are closely guarded, their ‘free’ time free in word only, and dogs are kept inside or on leash.  Certainly there is  less carnage in the streets than there used to be; fewer scenes of rifle-toting fathers putting the foaming family pet out of its misery.  And that is good.  But there was something about roaming free that makes me happy to have been born when I was.