Two Christmases ago, I set out a cup of milk and a plate of Hanukkah cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve (Christmas is complicated for Jewish Mamas).
A short time later, after putting the boys to bed, I found the plate empty, only it wasn’t Santa who ate the cookies. It was Harry. (That little rascal!)
Harry’s been gone for almost two months. While his absence is undeniable, his presence is also indisputable.
As far as the boys are concerned, Harry is in dog heaven. A place where dogs play, eat treats, and run around happy. A place we’re they’re not sick. A place where there’s no cancer or hypoglycemia or herniated discs. A place where dogs are at peace. We even have a book – a wonderful book – called “Dog Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant that helps relay the message.
The problem is that I still don’t know what happens when we die. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife, so when I think about (and talk perpetually about) dog heaven, all I envision are the lovely illustrations from the “Dog Heaven” book. I lack the faith to truly imagine it on my own.
I’ve always told my boys – these mysterious children of mine who ask about death all the time – that after loved ones die, we carry them in our hearts. In our hearts, we can feel them, speak to them, sing to them, pray to them, or simply think about them. They’re always with us, because they live inside of us. They live inside our hearts. I feel this way about all of the loved ones I’ve lost. I even once felt a lost loved one in a gust of wind on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY. I truly believe in our ability to feel those we’ve loved and lost.
But I can’t feel Harry. My heart aches for him, but I can’t feel him. It might be because I keep looking for him. When I walk up to the front door with my keys jingling. When I open the laundry room door where his treats were stored. When I’m away from the house for several hours and feel a sense of worry that it’s time to get home to let him out. When I wake up in the middle of the night looking for him at my bedside waiting for a lift up. When the doorbell rings and I wonder, Where in the world is my naughty dog?
Last week, we had dinner at our local bar and grill where a balloon artist traveled from table to table making balloons for the kids. When she arrived at our table, Dylan immediately requested a red racecar (you can take the kid out of Light McQueen, but you can’t take Lightning McQueen out of the kid!). The balloon artist was new and hadn’t yet mastered the racecar, so she suggested a red motorcycle instead. No problem. (Phew.)
When it was Riley’s turn, he told the balloon artist he wanted a dog. A black and white dog. I knew what he was up to. He wanted her to make Harry. Riley talks about, draws about, sings about, dreams about, thinks about, and writes about Harry all the time. (On the other hand, Dylan, my emotional creature, rarely talks about Harry. This, I’m sure, will bite us in the ass at a later date.)
The balloon artist ended up making a dog that looked more like Snoopy and than a Boston Terrier, but it was good enough for Riley.
“What’s his name?” I asked him.
“Harry.” Of course.
“Mommy, when we get home, I want to take (balloon) Harry for a walk so he won’t get a boo boo and get sick and die.”
Later, on the walk around the block with balloon Harry, Riley told me real Harry was visiting us from dog heaven and was walking right behind us.
“Do you feel him in your heart?” I asked, because I didn’t feel anything.
“Yes,” Riley said. “He’s here.” And then, “God put him in dog heaven.”
A few Saturday’s ago, in the middle of an arts and crafts marathon (i.e. epic mess), Riley, with a magic marker in hand, asked me, “Mommy, how do you spell dog?”
“D-O-G,” I said.
And then he asked, “Mommy, how do you spell heaven?”
“H-E-A-V-E-N,” I said.
“Riley, are you making pictures for Harry?”
I put a basket under the Christmas tree for all the kids’ letters and pictures for Santa. I told them Santa would take them back to the North Pole on Christmas Eve (i.e. that I would put them in an XL Ziploc bag and stuff them in the back of the closet until further notice). Riley put his pictures for Harry in the basket under the tree.
“Mommy, does Santa get to go to dog heaven? Will Santa bring Harry these pictures?”
“I don’t know, but it would be nice.” Then I said, “Maybe Harry will visit the North Pole. Maybe he’ll help Santa’s elves make toys.”
“Harry can’t make toys,” Riley said as if I were the silliest person on the planet for even suggesting it.
“Maybe Harry will hang out with Santa’s reindeers. I bet he’d make them laugh.”
And then it occurred to me that I was silly. I was talking about dog heaven as if it were two miles due west of the North Pole. The thing is, though, I know that Santa and elves and flying reindeer aren’t real. Yet, here I am on Christmas Eve leaving a cup of milk and plate of homemade chocolate chip* cookies for the big, jolly fellow in the red suit, but secretly hoping Harry gets to them first.
Sending love and hugs and acceptance and faith (and chocolate chip cookies) to all of you at this most joyous and often bittersweet time of the year.
*Dogs aren’t supposed to eat chocolate. Perhaps peanut butter cookies might’ve been a better choice. Or maybe dogs in dog heaven can eat all the chocolate and grapes and raisins and onions they want. In any case, don’t feed any of these foods to your furry canine friends here on Earth because they can get really sick. I wonder if Santa has food allergies, in which case the peanut butter cookies would’ve been a gamble. There aren’t any nuts in my chocolate chip cookies, but there are crap loads of dairy, eggs, and gluten. But I digress.