Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (2 page)


The Talisman

t's amazing how certain inanimate objects take on an emotional charge. Dog-eared books, heirloom Christmas decorations, and framed pictures are practically designed for sentimentality. But I'm more struck by the unlikely ones. There's this utilitarian­ item at the foot of our cellar stairs: a small, unremarkable, individual-­sized Little Playmate by Igloo cooler. The rest of the family hardly seems aware the Little Playmate is there. To me, it radiates­ protection, like a talisman. I can't pass it these days without a lump forming in my throat. Loading up the car with Eliza's college things at the end of recent summers, I've considered making room for it.

A few days after she was born, Eliza turned yellow. The doctor diagnosed jaundice, caused by an excess of bilirubin in the bloodstream. This is supposedly nothing to worry about. It can happen when a newborn's liver hasn't had a chance to get fully up and running, and it's not hard to fix.

We were instructed to feed the baby more often, keep a detailed log describing the color and consistency of the contents of every diaper, and give her plenty of nude sunbaths. They sent a nurse to install a huge, intimidating “bili light” over Eliza's crib, and gave us tiny eyeshades to protect her little blue eyes during phototherapy treatments.

Eliza was our first, and I couldn't believe we were being trusted to fix the situation
. I kept compulsively poking her forehead to see if the skin still looked yellow where I pressed. This little person I'd fallen head over heels in love with was utterly dependent on us and it scared me.

One morning David found me distraught in the gliding rocker chair, blubbering over our sleeping saffron-hued daughter, and asked what was the matter.

—She's so

Aren't they supposed to be limp at this stage?

—Yes, but David, she needs us so much and we have to take care of her!

Well, we

I know, I know we are, now, but the thing is we can't take care of her forever! It's killing me!

—Susan, I don't think—you do understand at some point Eliza's going to want her own life.

—I know, and that's okay, really, Eliza can have her own life. All I
is for her to be
so of
she should live her own life and do whatever she wants.

So what's the matter?

—Oh, I just can't bear it! What about when she's
her long, happy life, and she's suddenly
and all vulnerable again?
Where will we be
when she's limp and helpless? Nowhere!


She'll be all
and we have no idea
whatsoever who's going to be there to hold her and feed her! Who's going to care if Eliza's poops are the right color? Nobody!


my gosh
are you laughing?


—You are!

—Susan, I swear I'm not laughing.

—Stop it! This is serious, David! We've gone and made this amazing, beautiful person who is
our responsibility
and there is
we'll be able to
when she
really needs
us, because we'll be

I have an actress friend who's extremely good at weeping on cue. She uses a photo of her favorite dog, now deceased, if she needs to cry for the camera. If I were still acting now, I know what I'd try: I'd pull out my iPod, stick in the ear buds, and play one track from the London Cast Recording of
Les Misérables,
because Patti LuPone's defining interpretation of
the simple song “Fantine's Death” gets me every time. I used to listen to it obsessively.

Fantine has had to resort to prostitution to support her illegitimate child. She dies of tuberculosis in the middle of the first act, but not before singing a couple of major showstoppers, and especially not before making sure Jean Valjean promises at Fantine's deathbed to look after her young, fatherless daughter, Cosette, who is living with the mean innkeeper and his wife.

In “Fantine's Death
Fantine is in her hovel, fading in and out of a fevered hallucinatory fantasy in which she thinks she is tenderly readying her absent daughter for bed, surfacing occasionally, just long enough to confirm custody arrangements, such as they are, with Valjean. By this point in the song, I'm usually in a state of perverse ecstasy—agonized maternal bliss. I have learned I can't play this music in the car—I could easily forget myself and run into a telephone pole.

We lived in Los Angeles until Eliza was in her last year of Montessori preschool. Her first year, they suggested we
put together an earthquake kit for your child to keep in the classroom
, so I filled our Little Playmate by Igloo cooler with provisions, and went over everything with my friend Susan who, like me with the twins, was nursing a newborn. The recommended list made me feel a little faint, and Susan had a sudden spontaneous breast-milk letdown.

  • Water
    (Oh my gosh, how many days' worth?)
  • Band-Aids
    (Exactly what good are Band-Aids going to do her if she breaks a leg or splits her head open? How about some plasma and a splint?)
  • A flashlight
    (Yes. Thank you.)
  • Nonperishable comfort food, like granola bars and raisins
    (Sorry, but all Eliza will eat right now is pancakes. May I throw in my special mix?)
  • A small cuddly toy
    (Jeez. Can we please change the subject?)
  • A photo of parents, and a card with the name and phone number of relatives or friends living out of state
    (Got it. Meaning anyone living safely away from the fault line. Meaning still alive. In case her parents are
    Okay. How about I just die right now and get it over with.)

As it turned out, we did have a big earthquake in L.A., but Eliza did not need her Little Playmate by Igloo because we were all at home asleep when it hit. Eliza was five and her brothers were barely two. Ben was getting over pneumonia, which I was beginning to think I might be catching, so I had decided to try knocking it out with a good night's sleep in our sub-ground guest room, accessed by its own separate entrance from the back patio, below the kitchen.

We'd been living in L.A. for over a decade, and occasional earth tremors did not really faze us. If my extended family fretted about the possibility of disaster, I'd use the old comeback,
We're more likely to get hit by a car on the freeway than killed in an earthquake
. In the night we'd sometimes wake up, our bedposts rattling from a little shudder, and I'd think,
We can either get up and find out what's going on, or go back to sleep. Either way, if we're going to die, we're going to die.
That had been my careless attitude BC (meaning “before children”).

They tell you the worst place to be in an earthquake is on the bottom level of a house, for obvious reasons. The night the big one hit I woke abruptly in my guest-room quarantine zone under the kitchen to a real nightmare—walls cracking behind my headboard; plaster speckling the quilt. A monster truck was driving through the kitchen overhead, and I did not roll over and resign myself to death or even take a second to think. I shot out the door onto the patio in the pitch-dark.

It took a few seconds to get my bearings. House alarms and car sirens were echoing through the San Fernando Valley. The patio was bucking under my feet like a ceramic trampoline, and I sort of staggered in circles trying to stay upright while the beautiful Mediterranean tiles we'd installed on our roof a couple of years before plummeted down around me from three stories up, smashing left and right.

I was focused completely on my family upstairs in the house. I knew the first thing to do in a situation this extreme is to immediately—DO NOT PASS GO—shut off the gas supply in case of a leak, so the house won't blow up. In this particular situation, because I was closest, gas shutoff was definitely my job.

Our valve was in the front yard. Shutting it off required a wrench, which we kept (as instructed) right by the valve for just this kind of emergency. But lately the boys had been toddling around out there—they were obsessed with that wrench—so when I blundered along the side path and out the gate to the front and scrabbled around for it in the dark—no wrench.

I let myself in the front door to find the spare. We kept a toolbox in our garage, which was all the way at the other end of the house. Our burglar alarm has voice commands, and the backup battery must have kicked in because the buzzer was going, and a robot man's voice was coming out of all the alarm panels.
(Front. Door: Open. Of-fice. Win-dow: Open
Bal-cony. Door: Open.)
It was about four thirty a.m. and pretty dark, but I could tell a lot of pictures had fallen on the floor, and there was quite a bit of broken glass. I will never understand why I didn't cut my bare feet that night, but I managed to crunch safely over everything to reach the bottom of the stairs and call to David:



Is everyone all right?

Yes! Are you?

Oh, thank God! Yes! I'm going to get the wrench to shut off the gas.

Good girl!

I have never forgotten that exchange. It meant the world to me.

The story from David's side was quite something. He was fast asleep when a freight-train sound came booming across the valley. He had no clothes on, and when the shaking reached our house and the beams of our four-poster began to rattle, he leapt into action, still partly asleep. The floor was bucking under him the same way the patio had for me, so he couldn't get his footing and skinned his knees on the carpet, then made a dash for the boys' room, running straight into our new live-in nanny, Yolanda, who was coming out of Eliza's bedroom across the hall.

Sometime after the twins were born, sleep deprivation raised legitimate safety concerns. Yolanda began helping us part-time, and we had only just asked her to move in permanently. This was her first official night. She was in the country on a work visa from El Salvador, which has had its share of deadly earthquakes, so this was not Yolanda's first, nor was it the worst she'd been through. She kept her cool like a true veteran—didn't even bat an eye at David's lack of clothing.

When David got to the boys' room, Ben was standing in his crib. Knowing one child was alive, David asked Yolanda to grab Ben so he could get Sam, who was in the other crib, motionless, almost stiff, under a heavy dusting of plaster. This is when David remembered with a jolt why Yolanda had been sleeping in Eliza's room—Eliza, going through a needy stage, was currently spending her nights with us in the master bedroom on a little pallet at the foot of our bed. So David tucked Sam under one arm and sprinted back for Eliza, ignoring Yolanda's pleas.
(Go find Mrs. Susan, Mr. David. I'll stay with the niños.)
There were three children to deal with, and anyway what could he do for me, two floors down under the house?

In our bedroom, the alarm clock had landed on the floor and was blaring, along with Robot Alarm Man.
(Bed-room. Win-dow: Open.)
Eliza was very still, on her pallet, also covered in plaster. A large painting and a lamp were piled on top of her, but miraculously, like Sam, she too was asleep
and, still holding Sam, David somehow pulled her out from under everything.

With one child under each arm, David then stationed himself on the floor in the master-bedroom doorway. (We were told a doorway is the safest place. It worked out okay that night but it's actually not such a good idea, we learned recently from an earthquake forensics expert. Doorways are weak. The best place to be, if possible, is tucked on the floor next to a large sturdy piece of furniture, like a desk or bureau—
to it, not
or you could get squished depending on how heavy the beams are when they come down. If you're tight up against something solid, when the ceiling beams come down they'll be more likely to tilt on landing, forming a triangle, and you'll be inside a safe little pocket of protected space.)

This was the scene when I called up the stairs about finding a wrench for the gas: Naked David with plaster-coated Eliza and Sam sitting in the doorway to our bedroom; Yolanda and Ben in the boys' doorway across the hall. (Yolanda praying
Santa María, Madre de Dios …



Is everyone all right?

Yes! Are you?

Oh, thank God! Yes!

I love reliving that moment.

Because our house was deemed unlivable by the inspectors, we camped at a friend's for a time, and subsequently moved to Philadelphia. David was beginning Sean Penn's movie
The Crossing Guard
, a big break and an extremely challenging part, and he felt he'd worry too much if we stayed in California. He wanted us off the fault line permanently, and I agreed. Those few adrenaline-shot laps around the patio in the dark with sirens blasting and tiles raining down were my moment of truth. The kids, and safety, would always come first.

Our dog and cat had to deal for a while. I'd like to say we knew we could count on their inborn self-preservation instinct to get through, but the truth is we were in shock, with three little children to protect, and nobody can actually remember thinking about the animals during the earthquake and its aftershocks. I am so grateful we never had to face the awful
Sophie's Choice
decision some Katrina survivors did, trapped on their rooftops, contemplating a rescue boat that could not accommodate anything besides humans.

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