Bruce McCulloch: Dad as Dog – via Calgary Herald/Swerve
Dad as Dog. In an effort to banish the ghosts of his own flawed childhood, this actor, writer and Kids in the Hall alumnus
will do anything to keep his kids happy—including dressing up as the family’s dead pet for Halloween.
Photograph by: Kim Smith, Swerve
When I was a kid, Halloween was going through a bad patch. There were razor blades reported in apples. No one ever saw one, but there were “reports.” Denim-clad packs of almost-teenagers roamed the night swearing at old people, and then they turned into something called “vandals.” The candy—don’t get me started—was made of lard and molasses. It was so tough it could take a bullet. The ghostly waxed-paper wrapper always fused with the candy but you’d gnaw on it anyway. That candy could help a kid clear out the last of his baby teeth. In the old days, there really were Halloween apples. “An apple? I can avoid these at home, thanks.” The widower on the corner gave out caramel corn but you’d have to sing a song. What a sad, festive night.
Back then you couldn’t buy Halloween costumes in stores, so your mom would have to sew one by hand (not happening in our home). So you’d have to make do. A lot of guys on the hockey team went as hockey players. Or, you’d scrounge stuff from around the house. A perfectly good pail plus coat hanger became a Frankenstein head. You’d wear your dad’s old clothes and go out as a hobo. Or, you’d take your dad’s white shirt and write the words “love,” “peace” and “man” on it and you became a hippy. One time, my sister took my dad’s white shirt and cut two holes to go out as a ghost. My dad didn’t realize until days later, when he was at work.
My dad was a boozer and a salesman. The better he was at one, the worse he was at the other. I remember one Halloween when my dad, who was going through a sales slump at the time, was slated to take us out trick or treating. But it didn’t go too well because first we had to play a game called “find Daddy’s car.” Luckily, that year I was dressed as a cop (blue T-shirt, cardboard badge), which seemed to give the investigation an air of credibility. And by the end of the night we found his car and somehow we were back home.
Unhappy families are at their most unhappy when they’re measured against happy ones. When what’s supposed to be a happy family time, isn’t. So, like many of you who grew up in “challenging” or “flawed” homes, my wife and I have vowed to make something different for our kids. For them, there will be no half-cooked turkeys hurled at the wall. No Christmas trees pushed over to make a point. And Halloween would be “spooky” and “haunting,” but not because of us. Halloween is supposed to be a chance to be whoever you want to be, to act out your fantasies for a night. Is that really so bad? It gives all of us the chance to go out in the best costume of all: “a happy family.”
Halloween had been a happy time for my family the first few years. I went out as Robin to my son’s Batman. Then he and I went as Hall & Oates (the late ’70s musical duo for you younger kids). My wife went as a Picasso painting, then dressed as the year 1960. She’s artsy that way—she read almost half of The Artist’s Way. My daughter Heidi went as a few different princesses. But then she didn’t want to be part of the “princess army” anymore. She craved to be more original. But what? She became obsessed, searching through the stack of seasonal catalogues that were shovelled into our mailbox. (We were on the too-much-disposable-income-for-their-own-good mailing list.) Heidi would devour the pages of these catalogues like it was her first porn, cooing, circling her favourites—impractical things with wings. What’s worse, she wanted us all to go out as a family. People who want your money think of everything and these catalogues even create their own characters. I know zombies don’t exist but “candy-corn families” and “futuristic chimney sweeps” really don’t exist. I was tempted to veto her dreams, which I thought would be good practice for when she’s a teenager, but I couldn’t. We were happy.
But last year as Halloween rolled around, there was trouble in the air. Our family pet, Lulu, a white standard poodle, was not doing well. She had a nosebleed that had started quietly enough but was now gaining momentum. Initially, our vet told us that it was “probably nothing,” but I started to suspect it was “probably everything.” The bleeding would not stop. We’d walk Lulu to the park and we could find our way back home using the trail of blood. “Is this normal?” my sweet son, Roscoe, would ask. I told him we lived in a world so crazy that everything was normal. He didn’t buy it. He turned inward and started punishing his toys. And I turned into my dad—pretending things were okay, hoping they soon would be. For anyone who has ever had to wrap a pet in a blanket and rush it into a pet hospital, I will spare you the gruesome details. But three worst-case pieces of news and two operations later, we were on tenterhooks.
One afternoon, my wife and I were picking up Heidi and Roscoe from karate class—the kids lethargic with worry about Lulu and their disdain for karate—when we got the call: “Get here fast.”
Lulu was in trouble. We tried to race there without the kids knowing what was up. “Dad, why are you racing?” asked Roscoe. “Can you believe we have to give these people some money before the bank closes?” I stumbled. Unbelievably, he did believe it. So while the kids waited in the car, my wife and I went in and greeted our glassy-eyed girl. Her tail flinched, but did not wag. She had the impulse but not the strength. I looked at Lulu and knew that it was all over but the ending. My wife and I had a talk with her and then….We had to put poor Lulu down. We held her until we didn’t need to anymore. Not exactly a date night but it was a shared activity nonetheless. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
My father dying was a nuisance compared to this. Moments later, as we emerged minus a family member, the kids lost their minds.
In fairness, though, I think there were also blood-sugar issues. I had to explain to my children that, “Lulu went to heaven.” I don’t believe in heaven and am a terrible actor at the best of times. The kids just stared. Then lips started to quiver. You can imagine, or have lived through, the rest. Not knowing what to do, we drove straight to a drive-thru. A happy meal that wasn’t. My wife, wearing sunglasses and crying while she ate an ice-cream cone, babbled, “The calories don’t count if your dog just died.”
The days that followed were a sad blur. When a parent dies you’re allowed to grieve for a year. When your dog dies, you get the day off work. And you feel guilty, too. Why would I grieve more for my dog than my dad? Why would her bowls, blankets and toys seem more precious than Dad’s treasures? But it was worse for my children. As Halloween drew nearer, Heidi didn’t have any interest. Her teacher gave her a book to help Heidi deal. Unbelievably, it was called Saying Goodbye To Lulu, kidlit by Corrine Demas. It features a rag-tag dog named Lulu. What are the odds? My wife and I tried our best to read the kids the book. We would tag-team, changing readers when our voices cracked. It took a few nights but we got through it. For anyone in the market, be warned: this is a work of dark cruelty; the dog dies wrapped in the little girl’s favourite sweater and is later buried in the backyard. In a box. With a sock from each family member (for some reason). But this brought up the obvious for Heidi—that she, like the girl in the book, didn’t get to say goodbye to Lulu.
A few days later, I came home and noticed that the mood in the house had shifted. No longer was there a feeling of loss looming in the air. Did I get a job that I don’t know about yet? No. My family was excited because Halloween was on after all. Heidi was going out as some sort of fairy and Roscoe was going as a ninja. Or an owl. The kids had a great idea of what I should be. “You’re going to be Lulu,” said Heidi. As a parent you get used to being a prop. Your kids dress you any way they see fit. My Doors T-shirt had been replaced by a Dora the Explorer one a long time ago, but dad as dog? This was too much.
Nervously I countered, “You know who would make a great Lulu? Mom. She’s more of a traditional actor than I am. She’s even done mask work.”
“No way,” my wife replied. “I’m going as Frida Kahlo.”
Like so many things in a dad’s life, you just have to bite your cheek and do it. What will I say to the neighbours whose names I only know because we’ve received their mail by accident? “Don’t mind me, I’m dressed as a family pet that up and died on my kids.” Or, “It’s the darndest thing. Remember that trail of blood ’round the neighbourhood?”
My wife instantly had her computer out, hunting for dog costumes. But nothing seemed right to the kids, who vetoed one after another. Then I realized I had to return to my childhood. We’d have to make our own.
The kids were excited as the costume came together. It was exactly as you’d imagine: a cotton-puff-covered, off-white tracksuit, and a white tuque outfitted with homemade ears. The last morbid detail was a felt collar that dangled Lulu’s old dog tags. The other development: we were having a Halloween party so that everyone could come and, well, say good-bye to Lulu. Up went the ghosts and the bouncy house. As the hour approached, I outfitted myself for the worst gig of my life.
“At least I don’t have any lines,” I thought. I pulled on the costume, and the grim mission was underway. I became my dead dog.
“Ding dong.” It was go time. The moment the first two princesses arrived, Heidi wobbled into the kitchen and projectile-puked rainbow sludge all over the kitchen island. (My wife and I now laughingly call it “Puke Island.”) “What goes around comes around” isn’t a saying about karma; it’s about the stomach flu. Roscoe had had it earlier in the week. We were worried that we’d have to cancel the party, but he pulled through. But now Heidi had it. (Here’s a secret: when your child gets sick, you kind of blame the parents at school who don’t make as much money as you. And also, you start to worry that your child will give it to the kid whose parents make more than you. Or maybe that’s more about me?) My wife and I stared at the offending puddle. Our worst nightmare had come true. What do we do? In that moment it flashed what my father would have done—pretend things are okay so maybe they will be later.
We sprang into action. My wife threw towels on the floor and I took Heidi into the TV room that conveniently still has a dog gate. Bars to keep us in and people out. Outside, the bouncy house bounced and goblin cookies got gobbled while we sat sequestered. Outside, my son was busy showing off his ninja skills even though he was dressed as an owl. Outside, my wife worked desperately to make the monkey on Frida’s shoulder stand up. But, inside, I was happily hanging out with Heidi, sipping ginger ale and waving to the visitors outside the bars.
This is all I ever really wanted a family for—to watch Little Bear and cuddle. And for the first time, Heidi started telling me about what she wants to be in life, a conversation I never had with my father. As the party wound down, Heidi made her final farewells. Then she turned to me, stroked my ear, touched my dog tags and said “Goodbye, Lulu.” My heart both sank and swelled. Finally, she had gotten to say it. That night, I woke up with “the feeling” in my throat. As I rushed to the toilet to throw up, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, dog paint still smudged on my face, and I smiled. I smiled because we had gone out for Halloween dressed as a happy family, and in doing so, we became one again.
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