Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (9 page)

David says that's when his heart broke—almost more physically than emotionally. It felt frighteningly, clinically real, so real the shock of it actually woke him. Cracked with the pressure of love.

He was inconsolable. I could barely make out what he was saying, not sure if I should call 911 or just keep him talking to exorcise the dream. What David described feeling was intensely sweet—soul-crushing in its bittersweetness: wanting the boys to go and live their lives without the baggage of their father and his broken heart.

David had a rough relationship with his own father, who died unexpectedly back when our two boys were only beginning to toddle. Nothing had been resolved; there had never been much love or approval felt in either direction. His father was a charming man in many ways, but troubled, and like so many people, David has been determined to have a different sort of bond with his young.

That night, the one thing David kept repeating was this:

They'll never know how much I love them. They'll never, ever know.

I know our boys can tell their father loves them, and I told David,
Of course they know. How could they not?

That's not what he meant. The point for David was that his disconnection with his own father was difficult. He's worked through a lot of it, but he remembers his younger self, the awkward youngster, the aimless teenager, and then the young man emerging as a husband and a father, as someone blocked. He had three sisters and a mother, all of whom he was close to, but no real male connection. As a result he was reserved, around men particularly, for quite a while—some interpreted his demeanor as shy, even hostile, neither of which was true. Having children, and especially boys, changed that.

The immediate trust and acceptance of our little guys allowed David the freedom to be truly himself—to have fun, make jokes, and talk about the serious stuff without risking judgment or rejection. As the boys grew, David was able to grow too, tapping into the confidence they gave him. Sam and Ben have no way of understanding the rich gift they've offered their father, and how grateful he is. And, David thinks, this is as it should be; it's fitting they start their lives without being weighed down by any burden or knowledge of the pain he feels letting go of the instruments of his healing.

There's a device the
Toy Story
movies employ to great effect: When a human child like Andy leaves a scene, the toys can walk and talk. They are constantly arguing and running around getting into all kinds of trouble, but they have a rule that's never broken. When the child returns, the toys automatically stop what they're doing and flop on the bed, shelf, or floor, inanimate—exactly as they were when the child first left the room. There's often a close-up on Woody's face when Andy's around—his frozen smile has the slightest
soupçon de
Tom Hanks
, who provides his voice—and the genius of Pixar is that somehow we know
what Woody's thinking.

This is what David's been doing: preserving the illusion, carrying bags from car to dorm room with good humor and a smile.

Like a classic boomer parent, whether it's a good thing or not (which is debatable—some say we boomers let our kids treat us like doormats), Woody reminds himself over and over throughout the trilogy that Andy comes first. And by the end of
Toy Story 3
he finally sees that Andy appreciates this.
Promise to take good care of these guys,
Andy tells the little girl he's bequeathing his gang to.
They mean a lot to me. Woody is brave, kind, and smart. He'll never give up on you. He'll be there for you no matter what.

Last June at the Cineplex, I'd lost it during an earlier scene: the climax of
Toy Story 3.
The toys have finally realized that Andy did not intentionally send them out to the curb with the trash—he wants them safe in the attic. Unfortunately, there's no chance to celebrate because they are all on a conveyor belt at the dump, tumbling together, headed for a gigantic furnace, and there's no way out. (David's dream chute!) Crazy, but Pixar really makes you believe all the toys are going to die.

What happens at this point is gloriously right: with seconds of life left, Woody and the gang all join hands. (Or hoofs, or paws, depending. In the case of the piggy bank, Hamm: trotters.) The message is clear to me. The kids may be gone, and the end may be approaching, but still, there is something to hold: our spouses, our friends, our pets, our own aging parents, our jobs, our volunteer gigs—whatever it is, we have something.

I've scrapped the original plan to take Sam to New England alone. David will be coming with us this week—no discussion. Next on the agenda: find an allergy-free room at the Marriott.

David, Sam, and Ben, 1993




text message from Ben in Texas:

Mama guess what: It's really hot here and I always wear flip-flops, but while I was waiting at the bus stop near my dorm, all these little bugs climbed onto my feet and bit me. I tried to wipe them off but I think their heads were stuck inside my skin, because when I went to dinner I started feeling itchy all over and my throat was kind of closing up. But don't worry because when I got back to my room I took a Zyrtec and called the 24-hour nurse hotline. I think they're going to give me an EpiPen! Anyway, it's really hot, so is it fine if I buy some more shorts?

They're gone.

I'm determined to keep the wallowing to a minimum this time. The boys' colleges don't hold freshman parents' hands at drop-off quite the same way Eliza's had: I had to find my own souvenir mugs from their campus stores, but I haven't been weeping into my breakfast tea—at least, not as regularly. Thanksgiving is coming. Mostly, I watch David. So far so good.

The experts tell parents with freshly emptied nests that it's best to keep moving. Here's a typical checklist:

  • Exercise! Now's your chance to get in shape. Try something new! (There's a Zumba class up on the avenue, and my friend Rose has set up a group for her birthday next month.
  • Travel! (First-rate house sitter installed on the premises. David will be heading down to New Orleans very soon to start work on
    and scout out Lilly-oriented living quarters.
  • Communication! Every day there's a whole new technological way to stay in touch with your college kids. (New Skype account:
    Cell phone by my side at all times:
    Sign up for Facebook:

Honest, I'm not on Facebook to spy on my children. My friend Amy got me to sign up because it's a promotion tool for writers. Eliza is my Facebook friend, but I think she gave me restricted status because I never see anything even remotely juicy. I'm friends with Ben, but he never seems to post—he tells me boys aren't big on Facebook. I'm sure that's why my friend request to Sam has gone unanswered all these months.

My friend Martha just finished her first empty-nester year. Martha and her husband, John, have quite a spread: their eldest son, Roger, left for college twelve years ago, and their youngest, Philip, took off last year, so John and Martha are old hands. Martha says college boys generally don't make contact unless they actually need something, and I mustn't take their silence personally. Some kids need their space for a while.

I have another friend, Barbara, a shrink. Barbara still has a few children at home, and she's been plotting. When the last ones move out, Barbara wants to become an internist for Doctors Without Borders. Barbara says her motives are not entirely pure—she's stir crazy having stayed put all her adult life and would like to see something of the world before she's too old to travel. But mainly, Barbara says, she's pretty sure the only way she can stop herself from being a helicopter parent to her soon-to-be adult children will be to relocate entirely, preferably to a third-world country where cell phones and e-mails are not an option.

Is it too late for medical school?

Another tip from Martha: Take time to adjust. If at all possible, don't make drastic changes to your living situation right away. This makes perfect sense to me.

I love our home, and I'm still amazed we've pulled off that move from the West Coast. Networking is supposedly the key to success in the entertainment industry, and that's not possible in Philly. Somehow David's always found enough work to keep us comfortably afloat far from show business hubs in New York and Los Angeles, and we feel very lucky we don't need to downsize now in order to pay for college. While I do have a degree of guilt about the energy waste of a semioccupied six-bedroom house, we are happy here and the thought of a move is depressing. We'll make changes, but none that affect the children too much just yet; I need them to know they're still welcome.

I have a house-wide carpet cleaning scheduled thanks to Lilly's nighttime bile eruptions, and because she also took a while to figure out where the dog bathroom was located, especially when I was not at home. Once she got the hang of the stairs, Lilly would go up there looking for me and, not finding me, relieve herself out of sheer frustration. Downstairs we have a sort of skylit greenhouse area you have to pass through on the way to the family room. It's paved in slate, flanked by giant fig trees David gave me for Mother's Day one year, and every time Lilly went through there looking for me she must have thought she was going outdoors, and assumed that the carpeted family room on the other side was where she was supposed to take care of business. She is clearly intelligent, always watching me, figuring out what's expected of her and synthesizing this new knowledge with lessons from her past life, so I think Lilly is past the messy phase. We are definitely due for a carpet overhaul, but I'm waiting till David's safely in New Orleans. We save potentially allergy-triggering household procedures for when he won't be around. Because he'll be home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the fall will pass quickly, so we've decided I'll take care of administrative business up here, postponing my own drive south with Lilly till January when the kids are all back at college.

The children's rooms are their jurisdiction. I've pretty much felt at peace with keeping my nose out until a recent tour of Martha's home. Martha has a strong interest in interior design, and it shows. She and John live in an early twentieth-century stone house similar to and not far from ours. I cannot figure out what they have done with their junk—there is nothing showing anywhere. Was it like that before their children left? Even the bedrooms are impeccable. How does she do it?

Our kids chose their colors years ago. In Sam's and Ben's rooms, honking neon yellow walls clash with moss-green carpets, but what distinguishes their areas most particularly is the colossal amount of boy-crap. It's best to keep their doors closed. I did tiptoe in earlier this week to haul out several loads of garbage (half-empty water bottles, crumpled chip bags, mummified marshmallow Peeps still nestled in forgotten Easter baskets—interestingly, the condoms the Easter Bunny put in last year's baskets seem to be missing).

I've determined it's not quite necessary to fumigate, but even with most of the hazardous waste removed, every surface is covered—snarls of unidentifiable charger cords; teetering pick-up-stick towers of dried felt markers and broken pencil stubs; vast mountain ranges of books. Mantels jammed with mismatched souvenirs from David's film locations: tiny bearskin-hatted Buckingham guards standing sentry by leering, furry-haired Swedish trolls.

I've asked my fastidious friend Martha how she maintains order. Did she perform major purges herself, after each boy left? Or did she ask them to get rid of their own junk when they packed, and if so, how was this accomplished without threats and violence? Martha says their boys' tidiness was mostly self-motivated. She'd simply point out the shortage of spare hangers once a year or so. Roger and Phillip would leap promptly into action, and a discreet, manageable assortment of discarded clothing and toys would appear in the hall.

For my boys, clothes hangers are obsolete medieval artifacts. Ben and Sam would laugh at me.
Who needs hangers with all this great floor space?

Maybe I should have apologized in advance to their roommates.

I've found a good distraction for David. This week he's been kind enough to help with the heavy-lifting phase of our only significant household change: the computer room is becoming my new office.

The concept behind the computer room was based on parenting experts' advice that children's risky Internet activity should take place in an open common area. Our kids' workroom is an airy space, stationed strategically on the ground floor. This location provided me with plenty of pretexts to breeze through pretending not to check up on them, which helped the children develop spectacular hand-eye coordination—they became quite skilled at switching off those screens whenever they heard me coming.

The computer room had originally been the study for the former master of the house, and when we moved here we installed enough countertop for three computer stations. There's a glass cabinet of shelves stocked with supplies (paper, poster board, modeling clay, glue) and a deep closet under the stairs filled with communal toys: board games, train sets, costumes, and least-favorite stuffed animals. All our kids were stuffie lovers. They still have wicker chests filled with special favorites in their bedrooms. I think I'll let the children decide their stuffies' fates—I haven't yet recovered from the tragic demise of a little fluffy white toy rabbit when I was four. As the family's financial manager, and because I began writing more and more as the kids got older, I've been lusting after the computer room's prime location. David has helped me cart down my file cabinets. Next I'm going to reclaim the closet space.

The front hall is now stacked waist-high with boxes hauled out from under the computer-room stairs: a vast collection of matchbox cars; a large dress-up bin overflowing with purple feathery boas, rainbow clown wigs, and little-bitty Batman capes; dozens of never-used birthday craft kits; an ancient, flattened Monopoly set from my childhood, barely held together at the corners with dried-out masking tape. Several decks of “W” playing cards: our former president's beaming face Photoshopped onto an assortment of 1940s pinup girls (George in a tutu; George on a bearskin rug; George at the beach, spilling out of his halter top).

Quite a workout, going through all this stuff and deciding what to do with everything. The activity wakes my circulation and even cheers me a bit, although it's a little upsetting for Lilly.
(You can't lie down close to her, there's too much in the way. It's exhausting.)
I keep having to wrestle with an exuberant tunnel that refuses to behave—twenty feet of blue canvas stretched around a giant spring that keeps exploding, like Snakes-in-a-Can, causing Lilly to dive for cover.

Mostly, I'm in denial about the castle.

We found this Fisher-Price Great Adventures Castle at a Toys“R”Us in Maine the summer after the earthquake, when David was filming
The Langoliers
at Bangor International Airport. It has everything three-year-old boys could have wished for back then: a moat and drawbridge, trapdoors capping each turret, and a fully functional cannon on the balcony. For years the castle occupied center stage in a bedroom Ben and Sam shared. It was such a favorite we kept going back for more accessories over several years: an add-on Boulder Blaster for hurling plastic rocks; a giant dragon-shaped Arrow Shooter on wheels. Each addition came with a fresh installment of little knights with moveable arms, brandishing swords, axes, flails, and shields.

I've been keeping the knights in a storage box from Kmart, and it may be my imagination, but I could swear they're glowering at me now through the clear plastic lid. I get the impression my sons' tiny warriors aren't bothered much by Woody and Buzz's
Toy Story 3
–type retirement anxiety. These chaps are professional soldiers, and something tells me if the lady of the house is plotting their disposal, they won't go down without a fight.

No. I have to be ruthless, like Martha. Everything must go. I actually believe I mean this, and the horror of my decision evokes an instant real-life flashback, like an extremely effective acting “sense memory” exercise:
I am about four years old. I've been sleeping with Fluffy Bunny every night for so long he's almost a part of my body. I'm in the bathroom at a friend's house, and … Nooooo, Fluffy Bunny just toppled into the unflushed toilet. I'm going to die.

I retreat to the kitchen for Kleenex, trying not to inflict myself on David, who's fixing his breakfast. His cell chirps. Another text from Ben!

Hi Papa, I don't want you to worry but can you check what CNN is saying? We're in lockdown, there's a bunch of SWAT guys with a tank outside the window, and they told us to sit here on the floor in a corner of the classroom. So that's what we're doing, but we're just wondering if they've caught the campus shooter yet. And how's everything at home?

gets the adrenaline flowing. We spend the next hour watching CNN clips of the action on campus, and updating Ben. Shots have been fired; no injuries reported, and we're relieved to hear his girlfriend, Jilli, is now safe in her dorm after being caught in an every-man-for-himself-type stampede on her way to class. Jilli's been wearing an orthopedic boot because of a stress fracture—not entirely convenient when making a fast getaway. She says she could actually see the tip of the guy's gun barrel bobbing above masses of panic-stricken students running every which way. Lovely.

CNN runs out of information to report, and they fill the time by pointing out the iconic UT clock tower, which, as it turns out, was once the setting of a historic campus shooting I'd never heard of: back in 1966, an ex-Marine enrolled at Ben's college went on a rampage, killing thirteen people and injuring more before he was gunned down on the clock tower's observation deck by an Austin police officer.

Why did nobody mention that on the tour?

Nothing we can do but wait and see how this unfolds. Ben signs off, agreeing to keep us posted, and David heads out to the gym.

How can he just leave at a time like this? I inherited a fierce disaster complex from my father, and for some unknown reason David doesn't always feel the need to participate. I turn the volume up so I can keep track of things, and try to resume my sorting project in the hall. I think Lilly can tell something's up. She refuses to settle and keeps trying to pick her way through all the rubble to get closer to me.

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