My grandmother’s funeral was an awkward affair. I was in the sixth grade and it was on a school night. The preacher my aunt got to do the service said things about her personality that were so general it was clear he had never met her: “She was kind.” “She enjoyed reading.” “She loved her family.”
Afterwards, I got in the car with my mom and my dad, who loosened his tie and let out a sigh of relief. “O.K., it’s over. Who’s ready for a milkshake?” he said. I was caught off guard. Weren’t we supposed to be, like, mourning or something?
“You can still be in mourning and have ice cream,” my mother explained. She told me this was tradition — that when she was a little girl her father took her and a handful of her cousins out for milkshakes after the death of an elderly relative instead of subjecting them (and cleverly, himself) to the tedium of the at-home funeral formalities.
This was my indoctrination. That night we stayed out late telling stories about my dad’s mother over chocolate shakes and Chicago hot dogs at a diner not too far from the funeral parlor.
As the years went on, we had death milkshakes on a couple other occasions: when my mother’s friend died of cancer, in her forties. And when a close friend of mine died in a car wreck. It wasn’t that weird. You have to do something, anyway.
Make no mistake, though: We didn’t only drink milkshakes when somebody died. We just also drank milkshakes when somebody died. They were good for when you were sick, or had just gotten your braces tightened at the orthodontist, and — we discovered in high school — especially soothing after a breakup. Growing up in Indianapolis, our milkshakes of choice were from the Steak ’n Shake, a chain of roadside burger joints with old-timey black-and-white decor and servers who wore paper hats.
For decades the Steak ‘n Shake only had three kinds of milkshakes: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. But around the time I started high school they began expanding their artillery to include more flavors, as well as gimmicks like “side by side” milkshakes, where you could get two milkshakes in the same cup like a soft serve swirl, and mix-ins like Oreos and brownie bits. They started doing seasonal flavors like egg nog and peppermint at Christmastime, and peach in the summer. And they cooked up something called an “orange freeze” — a cool, dairy-less wonder that I got exclusively when I had sore throats. I loved them all. Chocolate had been my favorite milkshake flavor for years, but once Steak ‘n Shake upped their ante I was all in. I tried something new every time I got a milkshake.
I went away to college, and on my birthday the guy I had started dating left a milkshake with cookie dough bits melting on my doorstep and a note that read, “I was going to put this in your fridge but your door was locked! I hope you come back soon?!?!”
I came home that summer, and it was clear that our dog was dying. The hard thing about pets dying of old age is that they do it for a long time. They gradually deteriorate, but they still seem happy enough, and you love them so much, so you let it go for a while. Then at some point you realize that your pet is no longer just your companion. Your pet is a dying creature, and it is your responsibility to put her out of her suffering.
By June our dog had to sleep on her lamb’s wool bed in the garage because she had lost feeling in her back legs, and would pee in her sleep without realizing. She was skinny, and her eyes, which had always been droopy, had sagged so low that only a sliver of her eyeball could peek out. She was nearly blind. It was a wake-up call.
Her name was Madeline, after the French children’s book character. She was a yellow lab. She was the kindest dog to ever have lived. She was friends with everybody, even cats.
The day we agreed we were going to put her to sleep was a Saturday. Our next-door neighbor, a nice veterinarian with blonde curls and glasses with bright red frames, said she would come over and administer the shot and take care of the body for us. As grateful as I was for her help, I started crying as soon as I heard her unlatch the gate to our backyard. She was the grim reaper wearing a cardigan.
My mother, father and I had been sitting in the grass, petting Madeline’s fur. I felt her soft ears one last time. We always said they were like velvet. My dad said his line, which seems mean but isn’t, really — he used to say it when she was a puppy, and she was really bad, always chewing on things and breaking through the fence. She turned into a sweetheart around three years old, but he still said the line to her sometimes just for tradition’s sake. He looked in her droopy eyes and said, “I’m the only one who loves you…and I don’t love you very much.” He said it now in a bittersweet way, because now everyone loved her. We loved her so much. Too much. We kept her alive for too long that summer because of it.
Afterwards my mom, dad and I went out for milkshakes. The list of options had ballooned even more this summer. But I thought of Madeline’s cream-colored fur, and her pureness of heart. I ordered a plain vanilla milkshake.