On Dogs, Death and Poetry.

My best friend called today to tell me that her dog passed away, and though I don’t know if or when she’ll read this post, I wanted to write something and post a poem I’ve read many, many times, to let her know I’m thinking of her and Misty and sending them both thoughts of easiness, kindness and peace.

I’ve always loved dogs, and I think it’s remarkable, the attachment we feel for our four-legged friends. Hundreds of books have been written about “man’s best friend”, and I’ve been given a great many of them over the course of twenty-three Christmases and birthdays. Some of the stories in these books make me think we often do a better job loving our pets than we do our human companions. Perhaps this is because, with dogs, we’re able to give as we receive, able to love our pets with the constant, generous and unfailing devotion they show to us. For many reasons it is difficult, not to mention often inadvisable, to feel so unreservedly about other humans, and as we learn this (often the hard way), I think maybe we come to value our pets more, rather than less.

When I was much younger, probably around six or seven, I used to usher myself into the experience grief by imagining how I would feel when my dog died. I don’t know why, as a seven-year-old, I was interested in feeling that kind of sorrow; I don’t know whether I was trying to prepare myself for the inevitable loses I foresaw in the future, or whether something in the intense, hollowing sadness I felt appealed to me, however terrible, as a sensation, a broadening of experience, something I’ve always been interested in—early evidence of the writer in me, I think. It’s somewhat amazing to me that more than a decade and a half later, with all of the hard and sad experiences I’ve had since I was seven, including my own dog’s death while I was away at boarding school, that the death of a pet still packs such an emotional wallop.

It doesn’t matter that the losses I’ve experienced since I was a child far outstrip those I felt—or imagined for myself—when I was seven (though I wonder sometimes if they really do, since the losses of childhood seem to remain in a category of sense and memory altogether their own); understanding how complicated the world can be makes the simplicity of a dog’s affection all the more precious, and the loss of one all the more saddening and difficult.

To me, this poem (which is in an anthology called Good Poems, collected by Garrison Keillor) captures this kind of love perfectly:

Dog’s Death

She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, “Good dog! Good dog!”

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest’s bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there.  Good dog.

~ John Updike

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2 thoughts on “On Dogs, Death and Poetry.

  1. I’ve never had a dog, but that poem brought tears to my eyes.

    And I couldn’t agree more about how invulnerable we feel in relation to our pets and how guarded we must be around each other. So true!

  2. Pingback: Slim Paperback One: Slapstick « The Art of Reading

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