|In memory of Viedo (above) and all my departed friends|
When I was roughly three years old, we lived "hard by a dark forest," as it's expressed in "Hansel and Gretel." We had no television or phone and I can't even recall a radio, though there certainly must have been one. My dad had a mule named Dinah, and ducks made a home of our yard, teaching us to look very carefully where we stepped.
Other than that, no animals, and fewer people. For the most part, my sister Martha was the only fellow young human I ever saw.
Then one day my dad brought home a puppy, a mutt whelped by my uncle's mutt bitch. He was a scruffy, healthy, tawny-furred little thing, tail wagging so emphatically it shook the little guy's entire back half.
Martha and I would roll around on the ground with him, and he'd lick our faces, and when he did, it tickled, and I'd say "That tippies," which was my best effort at pronouncing "tickles," so naturally we named him Tippy. I loved him immediately, even though I was too young to know that a friend, my first, an "angel unaware," so to speak, had dropped into my solitary life.
Before Tippy could stop being a puppy, he was run over and killed. That was the saddest day of my life up to that point, and how could it not have been a great influence on how I would see the world for at least the next 62 years?
What do you mean "Tippy's gone and he's not coming back"? You gotta come up with something better than that. That makes no sense at all. He loved me! I could tell!
Maybe my brief moment with Tippy helps answer a question I often ask myself: "Why is it that I don't even want to consider living without a dog?" They're a lot of trouble. They put big crimps in our travel plans. Their maintenance is expensive. They're downright needy. In fact, this piece would be a lot better and I could finish it more quickly if my current dog, Beasley, would stop bugging the snot out of me for a meal she's not due for another 15 minutes. Could you please learn a little patience, Beas?!
|Annoying little baby Beasely|
Let's start by clarifying that dogs aren't God. Much has been made of the fact that "dog" spelled backwards is "god," but that would only apply to English speakers, as far as I know. Dog spelled backwards in Japanese is "uni"; in French it's "neihc," neither of which translates into "god" in their respective languages. Furthermore, it matters little that "pup" spelled backwards is "pup."
But while they are not God, they may be intimations of the Divine. Dog owners are fond of saying "dogs love us unconditionally," echoing the Christian view of God. But God allegedly knows us right down to the smallest feather on our pet sparrow, and loves us unconditionally despite this knowledge. Dogs love us like that because they don't know us very well.
If dogs could look beneath the human veneer of civility or normalcy enough to catch a mere fleeting glimpse of the brutality, cruelty, selfishness, perversity, treachery and arrogance (to name a few) of which we are capable, their love would turn to icy fear and they would almost certainly flee to the wilderness and throw their lot in with the few wolves we've allowed to survive. [Author's note: My readers have since convinced me that the above is untrue, that dogs love us even if we're creeps. Okay!]
On the other hand, dogs teach us much on the subject of love, even divine love, perhaps, who knows? You don't have to have seen Moulin Rouge to know that "the greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."
When we got Viedo (who was mostly a Golden Retriever with enough German Shepherd to give him an attitude), he was just a big-pawed, very excitable, very clingy pup, about two months old. What a royal pain in the butt this guy was, but not one of his 823 annoying acts was committed out of malice. He was just being Viedo, a young dog running on instincts trying to figure out the place he aimed on making a home, testing the character of the other members of his new pack.
He completely ruined my first summer with him. He never took his eyes off me, never gave me a moment of rest or solitude. He followed me from room to room. Sometimes, in his quieter moments, he'd just sit and stare while I was reading, but if I so much as turned a page, he took it as a cue for PLAY TIME!!
So Viedo certainly loved me. He loved me from the moment I first looked at his beautiful self between the bars of his prison at the animal shelter. He loved me through that whole crappy summer. So I was loved, but I don't think I loved him in return.
I wish I had remembered this bit of wisdom someone told me about the God she believes in: "God doesn't wait for us to become lovable. God loves us where we are." I remembered this barely in time to love Viedo before he became lovable, but maybe more importantly I transferred that philosophy to knuckle-headed well-meaning Beasley from the first day.
It's a sort of faith, I guess, in which you say, sadly in human language, "Dog, you're not lovable at 3 a.m. while you try to track down and eat a baby toad instead of taking a leak which is why I dragged my tired self out of bed in the first place, but I love you because you will be lovable in time."
|Young Beasley in meditation|
This may be the most important thing they teach us, but there's more.
They also teach us hospitality. Just last night, Beasley was sleeping belly-up on the floor, so I had to go sit next to her. I said to my wife Mindy, "Look at the trust this animal has. She is deliberately exposing her most vulnerable part, giving easy access to her viscera. She is convinced I would never hurt her. Incredible."
"It's hard to imagine what it's like to be any pet that suddenly finds herself in a strange environment surrounded by beings who might as well be space aliens, whose language or customs she doesn't understand," Mindy said. "Everything is completely strange and new, and they have to adapt moment by moment."
This highlights the degree to which pets, I think dogs especially, are at our constant mercy, especially emotionally. Only the stupidest and meanest of us will let them starve or die of thirst, but they need more than that. Think of all they didn't ask for: Didn't ask to be domesticated in the first place. Didn't ask to come into your home or for there to be cats in the house. Didn't ask for a collar or a godforsaken leash.
We are morally obligated, then, to be hospitable. They read our body language, facial expressions, eyes, tone of voice much better than most humans, so, while of course they must be periodically corrected, how dare we look at them with contempt or resentment or with the soul-withering cold eyes of indifference?
Like every teenager who's ever been pissed off at her parents, the dog might well bark, "I DIDN'T ASK TO BE HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE!!"
Without hospitality, we become wicked step-parents, depriving a living thing of joy for her very short time on the planet. Hey you! Give the dog to someone who'll love it!
Which leads to the final lesson dogs teach us, one I learned far too soon. I don't like to say this with Beasley staring at me from six feet away (luckily, she can't read English or Latin), but they are a memento mori, a reminder of death, of life's brevity. If a fourth-grader, for example, gets a Saint Bernard puppy, she can watch it go from a floor-wetting, shoe-chewing brat to, by her senior year, a creaking, groaning, limping thing trying to make one more long journey to his food dish.
With dogs, we watch the whole thing play out, and there's no denying it. One day we resent them for making us walk them when it's too hot and we have other things to do, the next day a vet is giving them an injection in a front paw, and they become very still. We can hold their limp bodies. Sometimes we dig their graves, and filling that grave is unspeakably, heart-crushingly difficult.
Adults are often self-conscious about how much it hurts to lose a dog, but what else can we expect? Viedo, for example, not much loved by anyone else, gave Mindy and me his complete love and devotion. We saw from experience he would gladly risk his life for us. He kept us grounded during Hurricane Charlie, finding it a good time to play fetch, what with the three of us all crouched in a narrow hallway while little tornadoes ravaged our yard. He joined us in countless rituals almost all of which he created.
Why then should we not weep like children, expressing incredulous grief and outrage at this loss, when a being that has become a part of us finds himself unable to take another step?
It's hard for people to admit that a pet's death is sometimes more painful than the loss of a beloved human. Those who haven't owned pets will never understand.
Let's close on a positive note. Beasley, who is really staring at me now, creepily even, believes in resurrection. Daily resurrection. She's not all that bright, probably. She seems to think Mindy and I die at night. When we awake in the morning, she comes running from the living room and attacks the first one up. Lots of pawing and licking and yawn-squeals, and mini-barks, massive tail-wagging, running through her repertoire of commands without our asking her to (a quick sit, a handshake, an almost down), some jump-ups about which she immediately repents. Then she repeats that for the last one up.
A new life has begun. My pack members were dead, now they live! God (or Dog) bless this new day! And, usually a little bruised and shaken by her joy, I learn again: This is how to greet the day. Every day is a gift worthy of Beasley's wild excitement, and there aren't many of them, and I thank her for the reminder.
And Viedo, who is gone, comes back to Mindy and me all the time, in dreams, sure, but more than that. Our relationship with him will never end. And without ever meeting Beasley, Viedo passed on to her a friend who knows how to love her sooner and more faithfully.
He left us all, human and animal, better off for his having lived. That's what it's all about, Big Guy. Good boy, Viedo. Good boy.