Saturday, September 16, 2006


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.


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
it listened


Razovsky said...

Beautiful entry, Gary. And sorry to hear about Pepper. I have great memories of sitting in the kitchen of your previous house, as Pepper loped giantly around the backyard. He was the kind of dog that you wished was human, so you could go drinking with him.

As for reading poems at the graveside, at my father's and brother's unveilings (on the same day), I had arranged with the rabbi to read one of my Razovsky poems. But it was pouring rain so hard, and all those gathered seemed so sad, that I just couldn't do it — I suddenly panicked that the poem would be misunderstood, or non-understood, or too funny or too negative, and I signalled to the rabbi that I wasn't going to read it. I just couldn't have all those people standing in the downpour listening to one of my weird, ambiguous poems.

But thanks for your thoughtfulness in this posting.


happenin fish said...

There's something so profound about the loss of a dog. I've been very fortunate to not have had much experience of grief. But my first and still saddest experience of loss was the death of our Golden Retriever, Shandy. It was sudden, and she was only 7. I was 14 at the time, and I'd always imagined the greeting she would give me when I came home from University.

A few months after Shandy died, my father moved out of the house. And I was shocked to discover that Shandy's absence had a more palpable impact on the tone of our house. [Later, I learned I would have to measure my relationship with my father using something other than volume.] But the silence that Shandy left behind was very difficult for me. Shandy was so much like my mother and myself in temperment: vocal, emotive, and nervous about physically challenging tasks like going up and down stairs with no backing.

I don't think there's anything ridiculous about memorializing the death of a dog in poetry, or any other way. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Byron because of his "Inscription on the monument of a Newfoundland Dog", just for the fact that he wrote the poem. But the poem suggests that our dogs are often far more deserving of memorial than the humans we honour.

It's just sad. And your poem and post are indeed beautiful. And I'm very sorry for your loss, and for the sadness your family is feeling.

a.raw said...

this is beautiful, gary. thank you for sharing.

connolly said...

I think that's a lovely poem, gary. People who have pets expose themselves in ways people who don't never quite understand. It hurts on a level you've done a lot of trying to figure out and I feel for your dilemma and those of your kids. I can't stand to watch anything die, and never have -- I think it's basic to being alive, and the first reaction we have is to protect others from that inevitable premonition.

I like the protective instinct, and think the "death is a gift" crowd are just trying too hard. It's bad to be dead; I think I'm as sure of that as I can be sure of anything. Children get it without getting spooked, most of the time, perhaps because they haven't been taught to be afraid of their feelings yet.