Not-So Buried Secret
In a live chat, Prudie advises a mother who gave the family dog away but told her son it died.
Photograph by Teresa Castracane.
Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. Emily is currently on vacation, but unpublished letters from a previous chat are below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I'm looking forward to your questions.
Q. Dead-Dog Dilemma: When my oldest son was 8, we decided to get a dog. I've raised dogs before so I had a fairly good idea of what I was getting myself into, until I realized our new dog was the devil's spawn in furry disguise. I won't get into all the trouble he caused. We made a difficult decision to send him back to his previous owner, but my son was adamantly against it. He went on a hunger strike and refused to speak to anyone, including at school. (He inherits the drama-queen gene from both his parents.) So one day we sent him to his grandparents under the guise of a happy weekend outing, and secretly took the dog back. After our son came home we lied and said the dog died. To make it believable we pretended to have buried the dog in the backyard. My son is now 13 and he still goes to the "grave" to mark every anniversary of the "death," which in itself is impressive because he doesn't even remember his own birthday. Anyway, the problem is, we are now moving. My son has been increasingly worried about leaving Scooter behind and has been asking us to exhume his body to rebury him in our new house. He is insisting that he be there to witness the "ceremony" of exhuming and reburying as he feels he never got a proper chance to say goodbye at the original "funeral." Knowing our son, he would be devastated and perhaps scarred for life if we admit the truth. I know it was wrong to lie but we don't want our son to lose trust in us forever because of what happened in the past. What should we do?
A: Apparently you haven't heard that the lie parents tell children when they get rid of a pet they can't stand but the kids love is that Scooter is now "living on a farm out in the country." I understand that melodrama runs strong through your family, but part of the job of parenting is helping your child deal with painful emotions and rein in their drama-queen tendencies. I assume if you had told your son that you knew he adored Scooter but unfortunately Scooter was just not the right pet for your family, eventually your son would have eaten and spoken again. You should have explained the kindest thing to do is what you did: return Scooter to his previous owners. You don't mention getting another dog, which is unfortunate because that would have given your son the experience of dog ownership and helped loosen the grip of Scooter's memory. If you continue in your deception, presumably your son takes a shovel and starts his fruitless search for Scooter. Then presumably you tell some lie about dog decomposition. It's time to fess up. Start with an apology. Say you realize you did something wrong five years ago out of good intentions gone awry. Tell him what actually happened. The truth has some comfort in it because Scooter lived and presumably found another home. Tell your son you know he'll be angry and justifiably so, and that you two have learned a difficult lesson about telling the truth, even if it's hard. Say you hope he'll learn about forgiving people who make mistakes and own up.
Dear Prudence: Homophobic Ex-Husband
Q. I Am the Other Woman: A couple of months ago I had a brief romance with a man who, as I later discovered, was married. I immediately broke it off. Although I was upset and hurt, I decided to forget about it and move on. But his wife found some of our text messages—nothing racy, just a little bit of flirting, asking each other how their day was, etc. This apparently (and understandably) aroused her suspicion and she started calling me. I never answer calls except for known numbers, so I didn't pick up at first. She must have thought I was avoiding her on purpose. She's left me a few messages (one of them with a crying baby in the background—I'm guessing their child) tearfully asking me to call her back because she wanted to know what was going on. I'm also receiving text messages. I really don't know what to say to her. This man and I never slept together but we went on a lot of dates and did stuff couples do when they first start going out. If it were me, I'd want to know if my husband was starting an illicit romance. But I also don't want to destroy a marriage or hurt this woman. Should I tell her honestly that we dated briefly? Ignore her? Lie and say I went after him but nothing happened? What?
A: How horribly distressing to find evidence that while you're home nursing the baby, your husband is out drinking with another women. You have no obligation to respond to her. It sounds as if she's got plenty to nail her husband, who is probably lying to her about everything. You can continue to ignore her, but if you feel that if the situation were reversed you'd want to be told, then the next time she calls, answer. Tell her the truth, that he presented himself as a single, you dated but did not have sex, but when you found out he had a wife, you dumped him. Then leave it at that—you don't want to get into further weepy conversations while she tries to extract all the details.
Q: Mom With Alzheimer's: My mother died in March of this year at age 57 from early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Throughout this ordeal our dad was a brick: He cared for her at home as long as possible, and visited her frequently in her Assisted Living place and eventual nursing home, even when it was clear she had no idea who he was. He encouraged us to do the same, which we did. So we were genuinely happy when he started dating again not long after Mom died. Although a bit concerned by the age difference (he's 63, she's 29), she seems like a nice person. However, we have since learned that 1) they already have two children together with another on the way; 2) he divorced our mother some time ago and married No. 2; and 3) he has rewritten his will to leave everything to her because "you four are all well-established [not true] and she will likely be left a widow with young children." He is correct that, given his age and health, purchasing life insurance would be prohibitive. Needless to say, this is a lot to get our heads around. How do you even divorce an Alzheimer's patient? While he clearly can leave his property to whomever he chooses, we don't think our Mom would want the four of us to be disinherited. How do we deal with our new half siblings? We are ages 35, 34, 31, and 28, so three of us are older than our new stepmother. Your help in getting this all sorted out would be greatly appreciated.
A: You've been through the terrible ordeal of seeing your mother robbed of herself at a tragically young age. Now you have to absorb that your brick of a father was something of a cad. I am sympathetic to people who honor their commitment to a spouse with dementia—who is gone in every way except physically—while also recognizing their own needs to feel vital and among the living. But your father has taken that need to extremes. Starting a new family in his 60s with a woman in her 20s is a shocking development and I understand all of you are reeling. At the least, you like your new stepmother—she's also likely to understand any cultural references you make a lot better than your father does. You can figure out your relationship with your new siblings as you go along. It could be that all of you are so far into your own adult lives and obligations that you don't have time for more than cursory contact with them. Maybe, if any of you have kids, you will welcome this new set of playmates. As for the inheritance, I can understand this is a bitter blow, but it's your father's money to distribute, as you acknowledge. Many people end up with two ailing parents who are financial drains, so consider yourself lucky all of you haven't had to pool your own resources to care for your parents. And do have some sympathy for this brood of children who are going to grow up worrying about how long they'll have a father.
Q. Re: Dead-Dog Dilemma: Keep that secret buried in the yard with the fake dog body! The son sounds like he has some development issues. Tell him it's illegal to dig up a grave, and that the dog was buried in that location because it was his favorite spot in the yard and that it only seems right to keep him there. Then get another dog or a fish for the son. This is ridiculous. Don't come forward with the truth to a 13-year-old, wait until he's in his 30s with hopefully more maturity.
A: This is the consensus response, keep up the fake story. I'm willing to concede a farewell ceremony for Scooter—sans exhumation—may be the right way to go. The parents are in the best position to know if their son is now mature enough to handle hearing what really happened to Scooter and that his parents told a rather cruel fib.
Q. Half vs. Whole Siblings: My ex-husband and his wife are expecting a new baby this winter. My kids are excited but nervous about this new sibling. My daughter is especially wary about being replaced as her dad's "baby." My mom told my kids, within my earshot, that half siblings were different than full siblings, and this made them feel better. I guess my daughter told her stepmother the baby would only be her half sibling, and this really upset my ex's wife. She and my ex had a long talk about how this baby will be her brother or her sister no matter what. Now my kids are confused and even more agitated. My ex wants me to talk to my mom about the "half sibling jibe" but frankly I don't think my mom did anything wrong. Do I need to do anything, here?