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  • RBSonnenmoser

Christmas Eve



We lost our dog, Frankie, yesterday.


On December 23, 2022, our beloved rust-colored Miniature Pinscher died.


He was twelve.


He had kidney disease and anemia.


He stopped eating earlier in the week. I syringed some chicken broth into his mouth. His gaze seemed especially mournful.


Then he stopped drinking water.


Near the end, he started throwing up blood.


Finally, we knew he knew. We told the kids. They asked why. They asked if maybe something could be done. They wondered about Santa Claus, the vet. They were talking about miracles. But they were also talking about what they wanted. They wanted him to make it to Christmas.


They wanted him to live, to keep living. Indefinitely.


That’s what, I guess, we all wanted.


We said we wanted him to be able to celebrate Christmas with us, too, but we didn’t want Frankie to suffer.


The night before he died, I’d walked in on him having a seizure. I was glad, immediately, that no one else saw. He was on his side, on one of many dog beds that we’ve created for him out of old pillows and blankets. He looked like he was doing that “dog running in a dream” move for a second or so, and then he’d go stiff—and then the cycle would repeat. When he finally stopped seizing, he looked for a moment like he was gone. But then he moved a leg, just to reposition it. Afterward, his eyes looked different: watery, blacked-out. He raised his head in the way he would if he were looking around or sniffing. But he also seemed not to be seeing.


On the last day of his life, he couldn’t move forward in a straight line. He’d sort of box-step while falling forward.


Eventually, in the last few hours, he couldn’t walk at all. He couldn’t stand.


 

For a few years, our Christmas Eve tradition was to attend a candlelight service at Brookdale Presbyterian and then watch two movies: Help! and Oklahoma! Only now, typing out these titles, and then checking my memory against IMDB, do I notice both end with exclamation points, which seems too strange not to be meaningful, but that’s probably not why we watched them, as a family, every Christmas Eve. The real reason may be more complicated, or maybe less. One theory: We happened to own them on VHS. So it was going to be Help! until someone got Wayne’s World as a gift. Or it could have been A Land Before Time, which my younger brother watched on a loop as a toddler, but, for better or for worse, it wasn’t.


I’m talking about my family growing up—my mom and dad, my sister, my brother. And so I’m also talking about the late 1980s and early 1990s.


After the movies, we’d look for something “Christmasy” on cable TV. Most years, what we found was the Pope celebrating Mass. It always seemed so lonely there, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, with every person so far away from every other. I read recently, in Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow, about some early-humanity kings whose coercive power only extended as far as their own individual voices could reach (i.e. no administrative state, so neither soldiers nor tax collectors), which is maybe part of what explains why people might know to keep their distance, still, from someone like the Pope.


I’m not really comfortable with the available verbs. Does it make any sense to say I enjoyed the knowledge that we would be watching these movies? Can I say I loved expecting that, at around 9:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, someone would put Oklahoma! in the VCR?


I’m struggling with the verbs because the content of a tradition, in this particular context, isn’t as important as its recurrence. Eventually, years later, my family would go to the movie theater on Christmas Eve, and we’d see whatever we could all agree to see, often something that started with Bourne or Harry Potter.


And its recurrence means, what, exactly? That some things don’t change? That there will at least be a couple hours during the year when what’s happening is what everyone pretty much agrees is what’s supposed to be happening, because it’s happened before?


 

There was a back-and-forth yesterday, which I overheard. My wife, Kori, was explaining to Alice, our six-year-old daughter, what cremation was. It’s a strange thing to overhear. Also, though, it’s a strange thing to try to describe. My wife was trying to be comforting to Alice. She was describing it as the process by which Frankie, or some part of him, might be returned to us. Maybe, in the spring, we might find a nice spot in the yard to bury the ashes.


“What does ‘ashes’ mean?” Alice asked.


 

One nice thing about being alive in the 2020s: during the Christmas season the movies I’m most likely to catch on TV are Elf or Love Actually.


Growing up, I’d often find myself watching the dreary middle of a Christmas movie I knew I was supposed to like: Chevy Chase struggling to remember how to act like a human being—or A Christmas Story. These movies are comedies—or, you know, “heartwarming,” low-stakes nostalgia-infused dramedies with lots of supposedly relatable humor—but the emotion they inspire in me most reliably is loneliness.


I’m sure I’m not the first to say this: If you want to track how you’ve changed over the years, keep a record of which vignette from Love Actually moves you. (If none do, that’s telling too.) I still get a vicarious thrill when Laura Linney’s character takes a moment to joyfully freak out—privately, silently—about finally getting to kiss her crush. Only now that I’m older can I recognize her vignette should probably be its own movie. And, now that I’m older, I find something missing in Mark, played by Andrew Lincoln—the guy with the carboard signs—who is in love with his best friend’s wife, played by Kiera Knightley. When I was twenty-two, he seemed to be feeling a lot of the feelings I’d felt. Now, him telling her, via cardboard sign, that she’s “perfect” seems to reveal, mainly, that he doesn’t actually know her that well, and most of what he knows he’s learned by looking at her.


 

Two months ago, I’d taken Frankie to campus. The kids wanted to ride their scooters one last time before the weather turned. We’d bought Frankie a corndog from Sonic. As the kids scooted between the Bell Tower and Colden Hall, I sat with Frankie in the grass. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t walk more than a few feet before lying down.


Anemia, we discovered. We’d known about the kidney disease, but, at the next visit to the vet, it seemed the anemia was worse than expected and the kidneys were functioning a bit better.


A few weeks later, we got the inverse news.


For a while, he seemed on the mend. We gave him some steroids. His appetite returned. He ate some special kidney-friendly food. I cooked him an Impossible meatball every afternoon. He resumed his usual activities: patrolling on the back of the couch, bluff-charging the cat, having massive accidents in the kitchen. He could go on a half-mile walk without trouble.


But that day on campus, he’d seemed so weak. I feared he was near the end. I said my goodbyes. I whispered all the things. That night, I told the kids that Frankie might be near the end of his life, and that we should say all the things we needed to say to him now, while he could still hear us.


It turned out I made them cry, on this day in October, somewhat prematurely.


 

Help! and Oklahoma! don’t share much in common, but I suppose you could say that, in both, the music does one thing; the rest—acting, writing, etc.—does something else.


To me, as a child, Help! was funny in the way that people in real life were sometimes funny. The four members of the Beatles were, I thought, mostly trying to make each other laugh—and someone, the director, I supposed, had captured these moments and cobbled them together as a film. Interspersed between the mildly funny sketches that sort of hang together to make a plot are, essentially, music videos. Many of them are quite good. An indelible one, for me, is the band performing “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”


Oklahoma! is, of course, the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical written during the second World War. I mention that context, mainly, because it seems like it might have had something to do with some of the movie’s pretty-dark-for-a-musical elements, including the use of opium to figure one’s way through a love triangle, the looming threat of sexual violence embodied by Jud Fry and then, upon his death, the impromptu trial of Curly that feels like a celebration of laissez-faire prairie justice, a.k.a. looking the other way because the victim wasn’t much liked.


They are odd choices for movies to watch on Christmas Eve. But I’ve always thought about this tradition, which maybe only lasted three years total, as essential somehow to who I am, the story I tell about myself, the story I tell about my childhood. Watching these movies on Christmas Eve wasn’t a choice any other family in the world had thought to make.


 

In January of 2014, about four months before our son, Teddy, would be born, we drove to an animal shelter in Nebraska.


We were asked what sort of dog we might be interested in meeting. Then a volunteer walked us over snowpack to a building on the multi-acre complex. There was an entire building, a ranch-style house, for “small dogs.”


Suddenly I was in a sea of Chihuahuas. Hundreds of them. I knelt to greet them. When I stood up, there were dogs, I discovered, in each of my coat pockets. They’d climbed in.


We asked to see some Miniature Pinschers. We were taken to an empty room, and then, a few minutes later, we were at a party with ten very energetic animals. Most of the Min Pins were leaping. They’d come over to say hello, and then they would do a vertical leap, a kind of pogo-stick bounce. They all had impressive hang-time.


One I could see was a little shy. He was hanging back a bit.


When I held out my hand for him to sniff, he turned away. He didn’t seem afraid, exactly. I wondered if maybe this was an unfamiliar ritual. I wondered if maybe he didn’t trust his sense of smell. Maybe he didn’t trust men.


Kori sat on couch in the room of Min Pins. The shy, rust-colored dog saw this and ran over to her. He leapt into her lap. He buried his face in her armpit. Then he hopped down and started to spin. (We call it “spinning,” but others, upon first seeing it, often say something like, Oh, looks like he’s just chasing his tail, if he had a tail. But really rapidly. Sort of an unearthly rapidity. With a bit of a Tilt-a-Whirl dynamic.)





“What should we call him?”


“How about Frankie?”



 


Two of the vignettes in Love Actually reach their dramatic climaxes at the same time. Or, more accurately, they alternate in quick succession with each other.


In one, the writer Jamie Bennett, played by Colin Firth, is being led through the streets of Aurelia’s home town. He’s being led to the restaurant where she works, so he can propose to her—in Portuguese.


In the other, Liam Neeson’s Daniel and his step-son Sam, played by Thomas Sangster, are rushing through the airport, so he can confess his love—or at least say goodbye—to Joanna, played by Olivia Olson, who is leaving for America.


One of these sequences—the one with Colin Firth—is played for humor. Aurelia’s sister gets the entire town to march to Aurelia’s restaurant. There are jokes about Aurelia’s father selling Aurelia to an Englishman. There are jokes about Aurelia’s sister’s weight. Once Jamie gets to the restaurant, the subtitles show that he’s still a Portuguese learner. His diction is imperfect—and therefore funny. But the point, of course, is that he learned her language—and she his—so that he could finally express how he feels about her in a way that she’ll understand.


And that cuts the treacle—or maybe the high-melodrama—of Sam’s dramatic dash through the airport.


I don’t know why Sam running from airport security causes me to cry, but it does—as does Sam gesturing to his step-dad. Strangely enough, I don’t cry at the scenes in between: the one where Sam gives a meaningful look to Joanna and the one where she kisses him on the cheek. I only cry when he’s running and when he gives his step-dad the “she’s the one” gesture.


Both scenes are sweeter and funnier and more honest, strangely enough, because they’re slightly different tonally—and because one keeps interrupting the other.



 


Today the kids helped Kori make the cookies they’d leave out for Santa.


And tonight we had a glass of sparkling cider, each of us. The kids are older now. So they could try out some real glasses—champagne flutes. I asked them if they knew what a toast was. They didn’t. So I offered up a short one, for our departed dog.


Tomorrow will be sadder without him.


He was the only one in the family who Alice would agree to kiss.





He loved “walling” both kids when they were babies, which is the way we, in our family, describe standing guard while an infant lies on the floor.




There were times, of course, where he was all we thought about, the member of the family that deserved every ounce of our energy.


And there were times, of course, where he was one of us, just hanging out, with whatever we were doing.






He loved us.


We loved him.



 






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