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The Love of Dog
As the sun sets, the lessons of grief arise
There’s so much happening in the news — climate crisis and hurricanes, the war in Ukraine, the upcoming American elections — fodder for a dozen posts and important essays.
In a universe of great tragedies, I’m wrestling with a more intimate, personal one unfolding in my own house.
My private world is smaller for a sad reason: my beloved dog, Rowan, is in his final weeks or days. No exit is easy, but Rowan has decided to face his end as he faced life — with a sort of tough obstinance, insisting that we follow the path he chooses.
Rowan came to us in an odd way. As many of you know, one of my friends was the late New Testament scholar Marcus Borg. Richard, Emma, and I spent time with Marcus and his wife, Marianne, in the aughts at their house in Portland and got to know Henry, their beloved Glen of Imaal Terrier. Henry was a smart dog, who displayed an uncanny sort of spiritual intuition. My daughter fell in love with Henry — and after our visits to Portland she couldn’t stop talking about how much she wanted a dog just like him.
The problem was that Glens aren’t common. It took a couple of years to find a breeder who was willing for one of her puppies to be a family dog (and not a show champion of some sort!). After a determined search, I found a Glen litter with a male pup who bore the ambivalent name, “Medium Boy,” meaning he didn’t shine like his older siblings and, apparently, had only a mediocre possibility of being a successful dog at Westminster (his litter was conceived at the great kennel club show). It took a bit of convincing — as well as a recommendation from Marcus Borg as to our suitability to be Glen owners — but the breeder promised Medium Boy to us.
Medium Boy joined our family on July 4, 2010. That would become a bit of an irony later on, since he hated July 4 (on account of the fireworks) more than any other day of the year, except maybe Halloween. We christened him Rowan, after the tradition of naming Glens with an Irish name. “Rowan” is derived from the Irish name Ruadhán, which means “red-haired.” With his reddish-coat, the name suited him.
Rowan was a spunky, determined, and curious puppy. And he gave me a great gift in his first weeks in his new home. Just days before we picked him up, my mother died unexpectedly. In the weeks that followed, I wasn’t able to give myself completely over to grief. I had a puppy to feed, walk, and train. That summer was a curious mix of crying about my mother and laughing at Rowan’s antics. He was my loss-buddy, keeping overwhelming depression at bay.
Over the decade that followed, he became part of who we were as a family. We had many adventures together — tales I often shared on Facebook — and navigated his red-headed temperament as best we could. He proved himself a smart, protective, and loyal companion, even while he lacked the grace of hospitality to strangers. He slept at my feet as I wrote four books and dug up the first garden we planted outside of the Cottage. Rowan greeted me every time I returned from a trip with more slobbering delight than I’d ever thought possible from a dog.
He’s twelve-and-a-half now, almost 90 in people years. About two years ago, he was diagnosed with a digestive disease that he’s fought and rebounded from several times. Most of his litter siblings have passed away. But “Medium boy” outlasted the others. We’ve never counted him out because of his dogged determination to stay here, in his place, with his people. All of his vet tests are normal “for a dog of his age.”
But in recent weeks, we’ve noticed. Rowan is slower. He no longer barks wildly at the UPS driver, and he lets neighborhood walkers pass our front yard in relative peace. Most days, he is quiet, spending time waiting for my husband to come home, sleeping or occasionally wanting me to take him out. The evenings, however, are different. He has begun to “sundown,” a thing that happens with canine dementia, a disorientation and lack of control that starts — quite literally — when the sun sets. It is hard on him and us. We’ve been navigating new medications and alternative treatments to make him more comfortable and get through the strange night hours. We don’t think it is pain. We think he is confused, a bit lost in his most familiar place.
He doesn’t want to give up, though. I can tell. He’s determined to follow his own path, and mark his way to his end. Our persistent Rowan. From puppy until now.
And thus, my world feels smaller, closer to home. I’m paying attention to little things right now. How he walks, changes in his gait, the sound of breathing and small whimpers, the fleeting moments of dog-happy. He’s reminding me of all the joys of the last dozen years — how he’s been with us through half of our marriage, and nearly half of our daughter’s life. Half is a long time. Half makes for many memories. His slow exit is slowing me down, asking for my attention and attentiveness to both past and present. And insisting that I find in myself a kind of grace allowing him to do it his way.
At his beginning, he relieved me from grief; now, at his end, he’s gifting me with grief. When he was a puppy, he helped me forget. Now, as an old dog, he’s helping me remember.
I don’t mean to be sad — or to make you sad — but it is all so bittersweet. If I were God, I would have never given dogs a life so much shorter than our own. I’d have them live the same lifetime as do we, dying on the day that we pass on to Jesus. To take the final walk together. I’d make our lives and the lives of our beloved pets match.
But it doesn’t work that way. And I wonder if one of their most special gifts is helping us practice endings — to recognize the slowing down, to be attentive to the changes, treasure the moment, learn how to accept loss, and to care for others with kindness during the winding down.
If we let it, our most inmost sadness can enlarge our ability to embrace the immense hurt of the world with more wisdom and greater tenderness. Dogs open our eyes and create in us new hearts — hearts that ache when ends are at hand.
And so I watch and wait in this small world, gazing into old dog eyes, trying to give comfort each darkening evening, in this odd farewell. Learning from him still and remembering, with gratitude.
Because of the dog's joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?
. . . And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.
― Mary Oliver, from Dog Songs
Heaven enough for me
would be this world as I know it, but redeemed
of our abuse of it and one another. It would be
the Heaven of knowing again. There is no marrying
in Heaven, and I submit; even so, I would like
to know my wife again, both of us young again,
and I remembering always how I loved her
when she was old. I would like to know
my children again, all my family, all my dear ones,
to see, to hear, to hold, more carefully
than before, to study them lingeringly as one
studies old verses, committing them to heart
forever. I would like again to know my friends,
my old companions, men and women, horses
and dogs, in all the ages of our lives, here
in this place that I have watched over all my life
in all its moods and seasons, never enough.
I will be leaving how many beauties overlooked?
A painful Heaven this would be, for I would know
by it how far I have fallen short. I have not
paid enough attention, I have not been grateful
enough. And yet this pain would be the measure
of my love. In eternity's once and now, pain would
place me surely in the Heaven of my earthly love.
— Wendell Berry, from Sabbath 2006, Poem VII
A stay of execution: one last day,
your day, old Everydog, then, as they say,
or as we say (a new trick to avoid
finalities implicit in destroyed),
you have to be put down, or put to sleep—
the very dog who, once, would fight to keep
from putting down, despite our shouts, a shoe
until he gnawed it to the sole, and who
would sit up, through our sleepless nights, to bark
away some menace looming in the dark.
— Daniel Groves, from “A Dog’s Life” (please read the entire poem)
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