poodle.jpgPhoto by Chris John Beckett
Deep down, dogs are poetic: attuned to the numinous and the mysterious
All through the week, our old dog Pepper became more and more ill with the lymphoma that had been diagnosed a month before. By mid-week she was gasping for breath and her heart was beating frantically. At about 2:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, my wife Beth and I made the decision to go to the emergency clinic to have Pepper put to sleep. We woke our teenage sons: Aaron, the younger one, wanted to come with us. Ryan, our eldest, preferred to stay home with his nine-year-old sister Rudi, who we’d let sleep. We thought she’d be too upset.
Pepper was my old friend, and I felt sad. At the same time, I thought of all the humans I knew who had suffered and were suffering, and felt lucky that it was the dog and not my wife or children who had become ill. I didn’t cry until Aaron started to cry, holding the dog and whispering to her, consoling her as the vet found a vein and then stuck the needle in.
We carried Pepper home in a large coffin-like cardboard box that the clinic provided, and stowed her downstairs until we could bury her in the backyard. In the morning, Rudi asked why Pepper had had to die in the night without her. “I should have been there. I could have helped her not to be so scared.”
The next day it rained until suppertime. Then Ryan and I went out back with a shovel and dug a hole. Afterwards, Aaron and Rudi went out to enlarge the hole. They wanted to make sure that everything was exactly right.
Before we took Pepper outside, Beth opened the box to let Rudi see Pepper for the last time. Together, they spoke to her and patted her. They told her how they would miss her. That they loved her. They told her what a good dog she had been.
When I am dying, it would be comforting to be told that I had been the human equivalent of a good dog. Loving, compassionate, faithful, understanding, dignified, but also goofy, curious, fun, protective, a friend. Let’s leave out obedience. Pepper never placed much value on obedience. She was more like a cat, winding her life around the family based on her own priorities and concerns—which, happily, included each of us.
We carried Pepper out to the hole and lowered her in. Then—as is done in Jewish burials—we took turns placing spadefuls of earth on top of her. There is that sound of the earth falling on top of the coffin, or in this case, the dog.
All that day, I wanted to write a poem for the funeral, something that would speak for us and make sacred this scene: my family gathered around the grave of this sort-of member of the family. At the same time, the impulse to write a poem and to invoke pet-loss solemnity seemed ridiculous.
I had written a funeral poem for a pet only once before, when Aaron was five and dealing with the loss of his goldfish. “Dad, you’re a writer. And you play music. Please do something,” he pleaded. So I wrote a poem—a blessing, really—for his fish, Sharky. Then we all stood in the backyard while I read the poem and played something elegiac on, of all things, a baritone saxophone.
Soon after, my grandfather died and we gathered again in nearly the same spot to plant a fruit tree in his memory. We told the kids that the tree would grow “grandpa peaches” for years to come. My grandfather was always amazed that he’d lived long enough to have great-grandchildren. And he marvelled at that idea, that since he’d known his own grandfather, he’d therefore known six generations of his family, on three continents, with birthdates spanning 150 years.
In the Jewish tradition, mourners gather at the grave a year after the funeral and “unveil” the headstone. Until then, the grave has no stone. At the unveiling for my grandmother, I read a story that I’d written in memory of her. It was one of the few times when I felt that my writing spoke for others about something important, and didn’t call attention to itself. It performed a function, it was “useful” at the ritual moment.
A few days before Pepper died, my father-in-law came over to say goodbye to her. He is a big man but he got down on the floor so that he could speak softly to her. Pepper was barely conscious. He told her that for all these years she had had a job in our family and she had done it well. Her job, he said, was to love us and to be our friend.
Beth had brought Pepper home from the breeder’s a week before Ryan’s third-and-a-half birthday, an occasion we were celebrating in order to make him feel special on the milestone of his little brother’s first birthday. The breeder was eccentric—when she fed bottled milk to her puppies, she did it topless, she told us, because she wanted her dogs to experience the warmth and security of “fur on skin” contact—but she had lovely dogs, and she had just called to say she had a puppy that was particularly gentle and sensitive. The perfect puppy for our family, she said. Beth and Ryan went to her home “just to look” at the puppy, but I knew that they would return with a dog. Ryan named her Pepper because he knew that his mother had had a dog named Pepper when she was a girl. “You must still miss him,” he said to her, and he was right.
I searched for something appropriate to read at Pepper’s funeral, wishing that I could speak as earnestly and unself-consciously as my father-in-law. The closest thing I found was Mark Strand’s wonderful “Five Dogs” sequence, from his collection A Blizzard of One, which has some beautiful dog-centric writing in it: “And I stood in the midnight valley, watching the great starfields / Flash and flower in the wished-for reaches of heaven. / That’s when I, the dog they call Spot, began to sing.” Despite much evidence to the contrary, I’d always had a sense that deep down, dogs are poetic, that they are attuned to the mysterious and the numinous. And though Strand’s poem reflects this beautifully, it wasn’t quite personal enough for our ceremony and so instead, we just shared our memories of Pepper. I remembered Ryan at age four sitting beside Pepper, reading her stories. And all those walks. In midwinter, in the dark of the woods at night, endless hours along the Bruce Trail and through the Royal Botanical Gardens, wandering, both dog and human, lost in our own thoughts.
Not that Pepper was always thoughtful. Yes, she demonstrated extraordinary patience as the kids dressed her up, attached her to wagons, tucked her into their beds, tried to ride her or made her wear silly hats and sunglasses. And yes, she would wait patiently outside a store when I went in to shop. But she had issues with other animals. Our lovely, quiet dog was what our family called “a killer poodle.” She’d slipped her leash a few times and gone on rampages, barking and charging at other dogs. Once she’d killed a groundhog in front of a busload of Japanese tourists at the Lilac Dell at the botanical gardens. On some level, it delighted me that she was instinctive and inscrutable, a family member from another species, reminding us how difficult—and how easy—communication can be. I think of Rudi, curled up with Pepper on the couch, talking and talking about what concerned them most.
I’m sad about the loss of Pepper, but this sadness isn’t only about losing our dog. I am also reminded that we have lost those times in the life of our family. My boys aren’t three and five any more, using plates as the steering wheels of imaginary airplanes. My daughter isn’t a gurgling infant discovering her toes. It’s almost ten years later, and though I delight in what my children are now, I have lost what they were, except to memory.