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A hard life lesson at 10

"What really happens? Grandma, I want to know what really happens,” Moses implored.

Six months ago, her back legs gave way, she had to be carried up the steps when she went outside to do her business. Three weeks ago, a diagnosis of cancer. Two weeks ago, she went on her last family vacation still attempting to rise up and join her running companions the moment she saw the laced-up sneakers. They were giving her seven different pills wrapped in slices of ham for the pain. Two days ago, she attended Moses’ 10th birthday. “On Tuesday, Mattie will die,” the birthday boy announced. “So be nice to her and give her a pat,” he added. Mattie quickly received 27 pats, which she accepted with her usual quiet grace and gentle demeanor.

Now there was only one more day until she would be put down, put to sleep, taken out of her misery, before she was dead. “I don’t want her to die,” Moses said over and over, or as if want could decide, as if want had jurisdiction. And now this boy, who in the course of his play life, had vanquished squadrons of plastic teddy bears, legions of knights and herds of dinosaurs, now this boy was confronted with the real deal; the real deal that he didn’t want and couldn’t understand.

“I’m so confused,” he told me. He had, on the one hand, a story where Mattie is in heaven, happily playing with other dogs and looking down on those below, watching out for him as she did all of her doggie life. On the other hand, Moses had doubts. “Is that what really happens? Really?” And I wanted with every fiber of my being to offer grandma comfort. I wanted to end his sadness, cease the steady flow of tears and the shuddering quakes of his small, tense being. I want to add solace to the story.

But I didn’t. As a child, I was never adverse to a small lie or two and frequently crossed the line, sometimes even missed the line entirely that exists between fiction and truth. There were weeks when I told my fifth-grade peers that I was moving to a ranch in Wyoming. Then there were the collie dogs I claimed to raise in the confines of a small city apartment. My imagination often did overtime confronting the rougher battles I waged with the fears and tensions I experienced growing up.

And yet, now I have to err in the direction of what I know as truth. I didn’t say, “I know that Mattie will be happily at play in heaven. “ Instead what I said was, “I don’t know.”

What does happen when one dies? What do any of us know? You decompose. You exist no more in flesh and blood. You become a photograph, a memorial, a funny story, a set of dishes taken out for special occasions like Christmas and Passover. “Remember that time Mom got us so lost…,” I can just hear how my children will resurrect that misadventure! Already the family is recalling the time Mattie barked furiously — Mattie who never barked only wagged — and then Moses thought he saw a stranger in the house and everyone got so scared. “Remember that!”

With lemonade and rice crispy treats, I talked to Moses about faith and science, about their differing and valued perspectives.

“I don’t want belief,” he says. “I want to know.” After all, he is only 10. And then he cried more, helped the family plan a ceremony and watched as his sister made a movie.

And I offered up as solace a promise for him to make to Mattie. “Tell her, “ I said, “that you will one day, when the time is right, give the gift of family and love to a new dog. And you will pass on what she has taught you to that new dog. Tell her,” I urged.

“OK, “ he said. And I saw him slip down to the floor, wrap his thin arm around her thin neck and whisper, “Mattie, I promise …” And I see her effort to thump her tail and lick his cheek. And who knows, maybe she gets it. Maybe, she knows about a boy’s good promise.

On the next day, the family took their beloved dog to the vet. Moses watched the process and saw her quiet passing. He wept and wept. “It’s the first death in my whole life,” he said taking in an enormity that surpasses the measure of his 10 short years, leaving its mark, not to be erased or underestimated.

And then just like that a boy is back to the other realm and missiles of wooden blocks are rained down on competing armies of metal soldiers. “Your team is dead, Grandpa Jay,” he says without a single tear, as Grandpa Jay puts his soldiers back on their feet.

Ruth Charney is a Greenfield resident.

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