Worcestershire sauce was everywhere. My attempt to organize the shelves with handy, space saving racks had resulted in several spice and condiment avalanches. The bottle fell right as the phone was ringing. I saw it was my stepdaughter’s mom, and being covered in the brown, pungent sauce, I handed her the phone without answering. She said “Hi mommy!” And then promptly handed it back to me. Uh oh.
“She wants to talk to you.” Her tan, skinny little arm stretched out to hand back the phone, and she plopped on the couch to continue her show.
I let the hardwood floors and counters marinade as I ran upstairs and said hello. There was crying on the other end. I’ve never heard my husband’s ex cry. I’ve never heard much of anything from her other than obligatory pleasantries at school functions. My love, my rock, my reason for signing up for all of this, had left for the opposite coast 24 hours ago. Nothing significant happens when he is here.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but we have to put Izabella down today. She’s not going to make it any longer.”
I watched myself in the mirror as I responded. I didn’t want to come off as uncomfortable as I was. All I saw was Worcestershire sauce, in my hair, on my earlobes, soaking in to my yoga pants. When something falls, you always make a bigger mess trying to catch it.
“Oh no…I’m so sorry.” Was my trite and inadequate reply.
Between stifled sobs she asked, “What should I do? Should she be here or not? I can’t get ahold of him. They are keeping her alive as long as they can. I know he’s out of town this week. I think I know what he’d say. He’d say we should shield her from this. What do you think?”
This was a moment my husband and I had often talked about, having thought the time was imminent for the last two years. We had gone back and forth as to whether it’s healthy for a child to experience all the aspects of the passing of a beloved pet, or whether this particular child was too sensitive, too prone to anxiety and melancholy to handle it. Where had we landed last time it was discussed?
I stammered over my words. My mind was racing ahead to the devastation my stepdaughter would soon feel and how I was going to help. Me, the person she’d put 5th in line to do anything with, but the person she was stuck with 50% of the time. I wanted to opt out of the entire thing. The awkwardness, the sorrow, the responsibility, this phone call…
“I…I…it’s totally your call. I support whatever you decide.” Good Stepmom, be polite and don’t over step. Do the right thing, this too shall pass.
“I don’t know what’s best for her. What do you think?”
What do I think? I’m not paid to think. I’m here for the car pool and the awesome lunches I pack. If I open the part of my brain where I try and make decisions on what is best for my stepdaughter it’s hard to shut it, and then I get put in stepmom timeout. Would her father want to shield her? I remembered a nightmare my stepdaughter had two summers ago. We were awoken by the sound of her uncontrollable, choking cries from her bedroom. Izzy had died in her dream and our then seven year old was beside herself with grief. She didn’t shake the emotions of the dream the whole weekend, and she still references it. How could she possibly cope with the real thing and why would we want her to try?
I felt a twinge in my heart thinking about what my stepdaughter would feel. A strong feeling of guilt came next. We had often grumbled as to why the poor animal was still suffering, as we had to juggle plans to intercept the child due to a doggy seizure, emergency pooch medical procedures, or an epic mess only a sick, elderly dog could conjure up. I brought books home that gently dealt with death. We talked a lot about dog years, that Izzy was grandma’s age. I was willing it to just be over.
Of course it also got under my paper thin, stepmom skin when stepdaughter wanted to retell the story of daddy picking out Izzy with his first wife. That wonderful moment they had shared, caring for and loving a little pug before they shared a child. I threw up in my mouth every time she beamed at him and pleaded, “Daddy tell me the story of you and mommy getting Izzy again!” It was the piece of furniture from their marriage I couldn’t put in the yard sale. Now I wish I could delay this heartache, and this highly unpleasant co-parenting scenario, for a few more years.
But the present phone call demanded an answer…
“My opinion means nothing but…”
“Yes it does!” My stepdaughter’s biological mother quickly interjected.
“I think this will be terrible. Horrible, awful, painful. But a terrible thing she needs to go through. She has a right to experience it.” I don’t know which part of my brain that came from, but there it was.
The ex-wife let out a sigh and asked, “OK, can you meet us here right now?”
At first I tried an urgent tone and said, “Kids get ready immediately we need to go somewhere. Right now.” We hadn’t covered what was acceptable for me to say, and I was already in unknown territory. I also knew my 6 year old son would only complicate the situation. He did anyway. He laid down and refused to move until I detailed our plans and he deemed them fun enough. I didn’t have time to force him out of his pajamas because I needed to get out of mine and wipe the sauce off. We had a wild play date the night before and we were all still play date hungover. Stepdaughter stopped halfway upstairs because she was keen on hearing my answer since the question had been posed by her younger, more defiant brother.
“OK guys, come here. I’ll level with you. [Stepdaughter]’s dog Izabella is very sick. We need to bring [Stepdaughter] to her fast. She needs to be there for her right now, before it’s too late. I need you to be a good brother, and support her.” They nodded and we got ready faster than we have ever dressed before.
While I was brushing her hair my delicate, perceptive bonus daughter said “I’m shaking and I don’t know why.”
I was too, and I didn’t know why either.
“I think you are very brave, and if you feel like crying, cry all you want. If you don’t feel like crying that’s cool too.”
I had no idea what I was talking about, but she smiled at me in the mirror. One of the rare moments we actually made eye contact in three years together. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. I can handle this major crisis in my stepdaughter’s life with grace.
“I hope Izzy is OK.” she said.
Poop. My subtle handling of the situation is too subtle for a 3rd grader. I felt like I needed to be clearer so she wasn’t shocked, but this was not my place, not my dog. In fact, I hadn’t even decided if we would be a pet family. I hadn’t weighed the pros and cons of allowing my son to have a pet, yet here I was dealing with the aftermath of parenting decisions that were made long before me. I guess I vowed to have and to hold, in sickness and health…including your ex-wife’s dog.
“I think you should prepare yourself that maybe this is the end.”
“OK…” She frowned and put on her headphones to watch a cartoon as we pulled out of the driveway.
Had I said too much? Why….whhhhhhhy was my husband always gone for the big issues? Death, life, sex, politics…these are things I’ve learned to keep my wicked stepmom nose out of. Would I get a lecture about boundaries if I said the wrong thing? What if she brought up the afterlife and our vastly different religious views reared their ugly heads? Where will she go if this is still our custody week? She doesn’t want to grieve with me. I’m just her awkward, play games, bake cookies, and meet all needs nanny. I’m going to have to hug her, and I’m not a hugger. She’s going to sense it. She’s going to hate the whole situation. She might need me to stay in her room tonight. Worst sleepover ever. She’s going to resent me because I represent everything she wishes was different. Her dad being gone, her parent’s divorce, having to share attention with a little brother, and now somehow, her dog dying.
Her mother met me in the parking lot. She was a mess of tears and dog hair and physical exhaustion. As I watched her lead my stepdaughter into the animal hospital I tried to mentally prepare for what she would be like on her way out. I ran through a checklist of all the things we would need: tissues, movies without sadness or animals, salty snacks, pictures of Izzy handy in case she wanted to reminisce, pictures hidden in case she wanted to forget. I typed a few notes in my phone and realized how much I was sweating. My stomach hurt, and I still smelled like Worcestershire sauce.
That night we talked about Izzy fondly, when she felt like it. We cried a little, we stayed up past bedtime playing, and we skipped brushing our teeth because the new rule is ‘if your dog dies, you don’t have to brush your teeth that day.’ I worried after I tucked her in that she would wake up and be very upset. I worried whether I handled the events even remotely right. I worried if I showed her enough love and support like a real mom would, and not just an ‘I’ve been in the picture for 3 years mom.’
The rest of the story goes as you can expect if you have ever loved an animal from the time you were 1 till you were 9. Stepdaughter missed a little school, she did a few things that were out of character for her while she was struggling to deal, and returning to her mother’s home where the absence of Izzy is palpable was devastating. But my stepdaughter is strong and smart and so very capable of handling whatever we throw at her. And I guess I am too.
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