It takes a lot of courage to love an animal. How many human relationships do we enter into in the full knowledge that we will lose them in ten, twelve, fifteen, maybe twenty years (if we’re very lucky)? Yet when we bring pets into our lives, loss is part of the contract.
One of my specialties as an academic is Romanticism, and one of the things that I appreciate in Romantic poetry is the idea of Romantic irony: that sense that everything is fleeting, that we stand up in the world and love something beautiful in the full knowledge that beauty and our own lives are impermanent. That knowledge invokes a bitter-sweet melancholy that “dwells in beauty / Beauty that must die.” When I teach Romantic irony, I use the analogy of pet ownership. Don’t we, in some ways, love our dogs and our cats more because we know we can’t keep them forever?
I saw my dog, Robinson, for the first time when he was seven days old and I could hold him in the palm of my hand. He was two months shy of his 15th birthday yesterday when he died with his head on my lap while I stroked his ears and told him he was the best dog in the world. The last few months of his life were tinged with a bitter-sweetness. He was faltering and frail. When I took him for his short walks, even his shadow seemed fragile under the street lights. When people asked me how he was doing, I said “hanging in there.” He was eating well, all his bowel and bladder functions were normal, he seemed to enjoy his little walks, though getting up from the floor was increasingly difficult and he was increasingly blind and almost deaf. The deafness was in some ways a blessing – last year was the first Halloween that he didn’t get sick from fear of the noise.
Then, Friday afternoon, he tripped on something on the boulevard and fell over. He lay on his side and really didn’t seem to want to get up again. When we got home he went to his bed and curled up tightly, back arched and nose tucked in, as if to say “leave me alone; I don’t want to get up again.” He woke me in the night, wanting to pee, and as I watched him slip and stumble on the deck in the wan moonlight, I realized that this was enough. I was not going to wait until he stopped eating or lost control of his bladder. I was going to set him free.
Robinson was the fifth animal I have taken to be euthanized. Every time, it has been a profound and beautiful experience, though painfully sad. Every one has been a little different. Robinson gave two great, deep, sighs and flopped over, so relaxed that I realized he must have been suffering more than I guessed.
And today, I am grieving, grieving as one does for someone or something that one has loved deeply and with a full heart. And grief is cold, and grief is bitter, and grief is an aching emptiness that goes from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. But grief is also the tribute that I pay to Robinson, that I give him to show that his life mattered, that his loss leaves a void in my life that will never be filled again. Grief is the repayment that I give to the universe for the beauty of Robinson’s life, the joy he gave me, the pleasure I took in our walks, in watching him play, in his companionship. I cried yesterday until my head ached and my eyes swelled almost shut. I am crying now.
But my grief now will not stop me from entering into another short-term contract of life with another animal. I already know that I will want another dog. Probably another beardie, like Robinson, and his uncle Cholmondeley, who died around this time of year four years ago and for whom I can still cry sometimes. I have lived with a dog or dogs all my life and cannot imagine life without them. I have two cats, whom I also love, but a relationship with a cat is not quite the same as one with a dog. I understand those people who have lost an animal and say they can never go through that pain again. I understand, but I am not one of them. Loving an animal takes a lot of courage, but it is a profound gift that I want to reach out for and take with both hands and a full heart.