CW: mention (no detail) of dog death in children’s literature
When Child 2 was five he started a reading program at school. He was an early reader, like his brother, and the teacher was gently extending his skills. Every day, he had to pick a book from a specially marked box, bring it home, and get one of his parents to read with him. The idea was that he’d read, we’d listen, and if he stumbled, we’d help him sound out words and figure out meanings from context.
He loved the programme. He brought home an eclectic mix of stories that ranged from bullying to eccentric aunts and uncles to animals. With between one and three sentences on each page, they were very early readers that gave context largely through artwork.
About a week into the programme, Child 2 brought home a book called My Friend, Bear. The cover illustration showed a small boy, his brother and mother, and their very large, very shaggy, black dog, Bear. Bear looked uncannily like our flat-coated retriever, Shadow. Uncannily.
Shadow was a dearly loved family dog, but Child 2 had a special bond with him. He would talk to strangers about his brother, Shadow, and I’d have to quickly clarify that we didn’t actually name our child Shadow, and that Shadow was, in fact, the dog. He hung out with Shadow whenever he could, calling him to come outside and play, to come inside and nap, to eat afternoon tea (Shadow never refused this invitation), even to sit in the bathroom while Child 2 sat on the throne (Shadow always obliged). He played with Shadow, he slept on Shadow (until Shadow farted), he loved Shadow. And Shadow patiently and lovingly indulged him. So, when My Friend, Bear came home, both Child 2 and I were excited that we’d be reading about My Friend
Bear Shadow. He climbed up on my lap and we started to read.
Let me say now that it began well.
Bear met his family as a tiny puppy — just like Shadow.
Bear played and tore things and got into trouble with Mum — just like Shadow.
Bear learned to behave himself and follow the rules — just like Shadow.
Bear loved his family and his family loved him — just like Shadow.
And then the wheels started to come off…
Bear got older and slower.
Bear didn’t want to go for walks.
Bear didn’t want to play.
Bear would wag his tail when he saw his family, but he wouldn’t get up to greet them anymore.
Child 2 did a terrific job of reading this book. He carefully sounded out words and figured out meanings from context. He was animated and interesting, but you know what happens next. This train was headed for the ditch.
One day, Bear couldn’t get up at all. He didn’t eat his breakfast, which he had loved. He didn’t even go outside. Mum took him and the two kids to the vet.
[Get your tissues now.]
The vet was very thorough and very kind, but he explained that Bear was an old dog and was in a lot of pain.
Y’all! Bear did not go home from the vet’s clinic.
Child 2 closed the book. We were both silent. Then we looked at each other and our faces simultaneously crumpled. He wrapped his little arms tight around my neck, buried his face into my chest and sobbed — that wracking sob that small children do, with the hyperventilating and the trying to speak between breaths. I hugged him just as tight and gave way to the snotty ugly-cry that I’d been fighting to hold back.
We sat like this, hugging each other and wailing, for a good long while. Until Shadow came to see what all the commotion was. Without planning it, we performed a co-ordinated leap-hug at Shadow, wrapping ourselves around his neck and burying our wet faces in his fur. Shadow, bemused, wagged his tail and licked us till Child 1 came in to see why we were group-hugging the dog.
We explained the story to Child 1 and he shrugged and asked what was for afternoon tea — unfeeling philistine.
I’ve never been able to find that book again (not that I really want to) — not even to link to this post — but that moment with Child 2 confirmed just how much like me he is and I’m grateful to the author, the illustrator, and Child 2’s teacher for bringing that sad tale into our lives.