This past week, our old poodle got sicker and sicker. It had been suffering from lymphoma. By mid-week, it was gasping for breath and its heart was beating frantically. At about 2am on Wednesday, we made the decision that we had to put it to sleep. We woke one of our sons – the one we knew would want to be there and could cope with it – and went to the vets.
The dog was my old friend, and of course I felt sad, but I was aware of all the humans I know who have suffered and are suffering. And, frankly, I was relieved that it was our dog and not my wife or children. I felt lucky that I have known little loss or grief in my life. I didn’t cry until my son started weeping, holding the dog and whispering to it.
We carried the dog home in a large coffin-like box that the vet provided for us and stowed her downstairs. As soon as she woke, Rudi, my 9 year old daughter wanted to know where the dog was, and was distressed to think that Pepper had died in the night without her. And that we didn’t take her with to be there.
The next day it rained all morning and afternoon, but by suppertime, it stopped. Ryan, my eldest son, went out back with a shovel and dug a hole. Then my younger two, Aaron and Rudi went back to enlarge the hole. They wanted to make sure that it was right.
My wife opened the box and let Rudi see the dog. They both spoke to her and patted her. We carried it out to the hole and lowered her in. Then –as is done in Jewish burials—slowly put 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 make meaning, something that would speak for us, help my kids, and I guess make sacred this scene: my family gathered around the grave of this sort of member of the family. Or reflect how any passage from life to death is big, is connected with something completely fundamental. Of course it is. At the same time, I felt that the impulse to write something, to involve pet-loss solemnity was ridiculous.
I had once been asked to write – by Aaron when he was five and dealing with his first loss, that of his goldfish “Sharky” – a funeral poem. It was very important to him that we do something ceremonial, something ritualistic, something that would give appropriate meaning to his loss. “Dad, you’re a writer. And you play music. Please do something,” he pleaded. I wrote a poem, a blessing really, for his fish and I stood in the backyard and played something elegiac on a flute for his fish. Soon after, my grandfather died and we gathered again in nearly the same spot to plant a fruit tree in his memory.
I am ambivalent about how language, about how ceremony can express our feelings, but, particularly when standing with my family, and enacting our own family rituals, it seems right, if a bit ridiculous. At the unveiling for my grandmother (in Jewish custom, the mourners gather at the grave a year after the funeral and ‘unveil’ the headstone; until then the grave has no stone) my mother asked me to read a poem/story (“Freezer,” in my Doctor Weep) that I had written when she died. It was one of the few times when I felt that my writing spoke for others about something important and without calling attention to itself. It performed a function, it was ‘useful’ and meaningfully right for the ritual moment.
I looked at Mark Strand’s wonderful “Five Dogs” sequence from his A Blizzard of One book. Some beautiful dog-centric writing there.
For instance, here’s the first poem
I, the dog they call Spot, was about to sing. Autumn
Had come, the walks were freckled with leaves, and a tarnished
Moonlit emptiness crept over the valley floor.
I wanted to climb the poets' hill before the winter settled in;
I wanted praise the soul. My neighbor told me
Not to waste my time. Already the frost had deepened
And the north wind, trailing the whip of its own scream,
Pressed against the house, "A dog's sublimity is never news,"
He said, "what's another poet in the end?"
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
Still I didn’t find anything appropriate to read and instead we just shared memories of our dog. I remembered Ryan at age 3 ½ sitting beside the dog, reading him stories. And all those walks. Losing the dog was also a reminder of how we have lost those times in the life of our family. My boys aren’t little 3 and 5 anymore using plates to be the steering wheels of imaginary airplanes. It’s ten years later, and though I delight in what they are now, I have lost what they were, except to memory.
A SMALL GRIEF, BUT STILL GRIEF
I dug a hole in the grass
my son took the spade
and dug the hole deeper
big enough for his sister
then she made the hole
big enough for him
we gathered around it
unsure of what to say
but we spoke anyway
the hole said nothing