John Wooding shares some thoughts on the death of his beloved dog of 16 years earlier this summer.
It felt like the summer of death. So much grief and mayhem in the world. So many examples of the ways in which we have become adept at killing and maiming each other: Syria, Iraq and Egypt, the Gaza Strip, the Ukraine, ISIL, Boko Haram and, now, the scourge of Ebola. On top of all this we lost our dog. The death of a dog cannot mean much in a context of such global violence. But, with the distance of a few weeks, losing Cassie got me thinking about what it means to lose those who you love – the now all too common experience in the world.
Cassie was a constant companion for over 16 years. But she didn’t just die – we put her to sleep, as the phrase goes. But that’s not true. She’s not asleep. She’s dead. She didn’t “pass away,” didn’t simply expire. We had her euthanized. How brutal that sounds with its hygienic and, let’s face it, fascist overtones. Assisted suicide? I don’t think so. She did not directly ask for that. “Put down”? Even worse.
We do not have good words for what happened to her. We do not have good words for what such losses. She is no longer here. No longer the constant presence that filled our life. I will never again feel her head on my knee, looking pathetic and endearing, trying to get me to share my food. I will miss the gentle warmth of her head. I will never again rub her belly or tousle her ears. She will never again greet me when I get home, tail-wagging, eyes expectant. I will never watch her run through the woods, vibrant with the joy of being a dog. I will never again see those ears go up when something catches her attention, never hear her bark or growl when she got a message from the dog planet.
It is the absence of theses things that hurts. In 16 years there were thousands upon thousands of small interactions, moments that pile up upon each other, building small mountains of memories. It is this way when a loved one dies, be they animal or human. Something goes missing and you know you will never find it again. Some might say, “well she was just a dog” but would we say that about a friend, a child, a mother? No, of course not. They are not “just a human being.” Those we love are a relationship, a history. They are familiarity and comfort, they are the continuity of ourselves when so much else seems strange or threatening.
I have walked Cassie in the woods near our house innumerable times. I have watched her bound through the grass when she was a puppy, chasing the squirrels and chipmunks she never caught. I have called for her helplessly when she was gone too long and, when she eventually came back, smiled at the dirt and leaves on her face and her doggy happiness at being out and running free. I smiled, too, for having her safely again at my side. I have watched while she dug holes in the ground; butt in the air, dirt flying from her paws like some manic backhoe. I spent hours fixing the seat belt and gearshift knob in a car we leased after her puppy enthusiasm for chewing left them ragged and beat-up. God knows, we still have the sofa that we had to have covered when she decided to make a meal of the cushions. I have thrown balls for her to chase and never bring back, sticks for her to catch and to chew, and given her a million treats – sometimes as a reward, mostly for just being her.
Like most dogs she was sad when you left the house and ridiculously, insanely happy when you returned. You could be gone a week, or merely taking out the trash – it didn’t matter, the welcome was always the same. Dogs have no sense of time; at least that’s what they say. They also say that dogs can learn about 160 words. Maybe. I have no idea how many words Cassie knew but I sure as hell talked to her like she understood everything. Did she have emotions? I am pretty sure she did – she really could seem happy or sad, or guilty or angry, or loving – at least that’s what I think. Who knows? But her eyes were deep and brown and they watched constantly. They made her seem human. She may never have spoken but in those eyes I swear there were answers to questions I dare not ask.
She slowed down as the years went by; the greeting was still there but it transformed to a slight raise of the head and a quick thump or two of the tail. She didn’t gallop through the woods like a miniature deer any more, but she still ran and sniffed and investigated. Later still, watching her climb stairs, I could see how the old joints were beginning to seize up. She took to hopping down. It was easier for her and slightly comical to watch. But the eyes remained bright and knowing and that never changed right up until the end. In the last few months it took her longer and longer to get herself upright. Stairs became impossible. I took to carrying her up so she could sleep in the bedroom with us, the way she always did. It was the least I could do. In the last few weeks she could hardly move, couldn’t hear or see too well. Eventually she could no longer stand. It was time.
So she’s gone. We played God. I only hope someone will love me enough to do the same thing when I can no longer stand or wash myself, or when I can no longer figure out where I am. Let me go from this world with some scrap of dignity left. I hope we gave that to her.
So why share all this? Does the world need another sad tale of a dog that died? Probably not. But losing Cassie made me see this summer in a different and darker light. We have all watched as the world has staggered from one senseless act of violence to another. It has been made more poignant and tragic in this, the anniversary of that most senseless and stupid of human slaughters – World War I. It feels like 1914 all over again. No wonder we turn back to family and friends, to our dogs and cats, to home and to comfort. It is good that we do. And we can learn lessons from the animals we have in our lives, who are never just a dog or a cat, never just anything — for we share this world with them as we do with every other human being and every other animal. Our love and our concern for them make us better human beings, ones who know that the welfare of others is our concern. And yes, this past summer was just yet another long trail of death and destruction across the globe. And yes, I can explain this, discuss the politics, make the arguments. But, in the end, what does that really do? Losing Cassie made loss real. It made me realize, in a new way, why we need to demand peace and an end to war. So this is all for those who have lost someone dear to them. And for Cassie, never just a dog.