After losing our pet Bichon Frise last week, I intended to share my own recollections on a family member with whom all three of our sons grew up. But instead I’d like to share the feelings expressed by the family poet laureate, Alex Shortall.
Since this has already been a tough week, particularly for Carol, I will reserve my thought and memories for a future post.
Alex’s heartfelt expressions are framed by literary excerpts he thought were appropriate to our loss.
Many years ago, when the first cement sidewalks were being laid in our neighborhood, we children took the paw of our dog Mickey and impressed it into a kind of immortality even as he modestly floundered and objected. Some time ago after the lapse of many decades, I stood and looked at the walk, now crumbling at the edges from the feet of many passers.
No one knows where Mickey the friendly lies; no one knows how many times the dust that clothed that beautiful and loving spirit has moved with the thistledown across the yards where Mickey used to play. Here is his only legacy to the future – that dabbled paw mark whose secret is remembered briefly in the heart of an aging professor.
The mark of Mickey’s paw is dearer to me than many more impressive monuments – perhaps because, in a sense, we both wanted to be something other than what we were. Mickey, I know, wanted very much to be a genuine human being. If permitted, he would sit up to the table and put his paws together before his plate, like the rest of the children. If anyone mocked him at such a time by pretending to have paws and resting his chin on the table as Mickey had to do, Mickey would growl and lift his lip. He knew very well he was being mocked for not being human.
The reminder that he was only a poor dog with paws annoyed Mickey. He knew basically a lot more than he ever had the opportunity to express. Though people refused to take Mickey’s ambition seriously, the frustration never affected his temperament. Being of a philosophic cast of mind, he knew that children were less severe in their classifications. And if Mickey found the social restrictions too onerous to enable him quite to achieve recognition inside the house, outside he came very close to being a small boy. In fact, he was taken into a secret order we had founded whose club house was an old piano box in the backyard. We children never let the fact that Mickey walked on four legs blind us to his other virtues.”
– Loren Eisley, “The Night Country”, Chapter 6: Paw Marks and Buried Towns
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Today at 3 p.m. I felt one of my oldest childhood friends shudder and die in my arms. At the veterinarian’s office, they have a special room where families go to spend their last few moments with a beloved pet, and when you’re ready, you flick a switch which summons the doctor who brings The Injections, first one white to relax the muscles, and then one pink to stop the heart. I couldn’t stop thinking, how many families have cried here together over an animal which is probably too distressed and sick to be aware of their presence? I’m not sure if Zoe knew whose company she was in at that moment, being blind and deaf and panicked, and had she seen me, would she have recognized me?
At the end of it, her head rested softly on my lap, staring straight ahead but seeing past everything, and I wanted nothing more than to close her eyes for her and let her sleep, but dogs don’t have eyelids the way we humans do, and the stubborn things stayed open. My dog’s ears were floppier than mine, her nose wetter, her body crippled and twisted by what was likely a stroke, and the hair on her face was a bit cleaner and sparser than mine. In the next day or so she’ll be ashes, returned to us, and then returned to the earth. I have a few photos of her on my phone and in my room, and her toys still lay around the house, my own childhood toys mangled and gnawed from her days as a vicious pup, but no dust or pavement will ever hold her mark. Her paw print is more an internal impression, which is me remembering how it felt to have her next to me.
Her mark is unique. It is the feeling of her chin on my thigh, her fur between my fingers, the shift as she rolled aside to let me scratch her belly, and watching her eyes slowly close in a peaceful slumber, knowing that in a few hours she’d be awake again, ready to walk or eat or watch my mom prepare dinner in the kitchen. I know now that she will never wake again, and that’s okay. She put in her fifteen years as a loyal and steadfast friend, the first animal I ever loved as all animals should be loved. She taught me a lot about what it means to be human, but also that being human isn’t so much special or better than being anything else. I wouldn’t trade my life for that of a dog, but neither would I choose it.
I love you Zoe. Rest in peace. I’ll meet you in the ether when the light flickers out.
Please send my mom good vibes in any way you can. She loved that dog more than anything, and fought hard to keep the candle burning. She will miss their walks dearly.
A bad boy who lost a good pup
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What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
– Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”, Section 6