The first day of July mourning doves lamented and a slight breeze made the trees glimmer with shadow and light. A perfect time to sit with a cup of foamed coffee and Moriarity’s Big Little Lies. Instead, I stood in a small windowless room of the vet clinic, stroking the black fur of a small Shih-Tzu, and crying over his unexpected death. I fostered him briefly until a family took him home and loved him for six of his twelve years. In that enclosed room, I found no comfort in envisioning him on the “Rainbow Bridge.” Mortality–that lurking, inevitable reality—was my meditation.
Why is it that so many dog books end in death? The blubs may preach companionship, but sooner or later the dog dies. Where the Red Fern Grows, Rawls 1961 classic, tells us in the first pages that this story is one of “wonderful love, unselfish devotion and death in its saddest form.” I relished every splendid chapter of Rick Bass’ Coulter: The Best Dog I Ever Had, a paean to his German short-hair pointer, but one of his last sentences pains me: “We tend—despite our best protestations—not to want a happy ending.” C’mon, I want to plead, let the dog live. I still read these books. I hooked a wondrous, heart-breaking ride on Gizelle’s Bucket List with Lauren Fern Watt and her brindled mastiff. Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain kept my reading light on past midnight and Kleenex in my lap, so in love was I with the old soul Enzo.
That recent July day, though, one more beloved dead dog lay wrapped in a blanket, large eyes fixed and sleepy. The technician entered, gently inquired if the family or I needed more time. We shook our heads. She picked up the small body and carried it out.
Once home, I thought about all the dogs who have entered and exited my community: Hershey, Buck, Gabriel, Josie, Cappy, and Jacques. I know too well the smells of veterinary offices and the click of a door opening, the almost imperceptible whoosh of the syringe and the soft escape of air, that last heartbeat, and the words, “I’m so sorry. Take all the time you need.” Yes, the familiar memory is not always the welcome one.
I thought, too, about authors who let the dog live. I smiled to think of Gordon Korman’s No More Dead Dogs. Oh, how I love Wallace Wallace, tired of books where the dog dies, who refuses to write a class essay on (get ready) Old Shep, My Pal. Two other gems perch on my bookshelf—Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. On a July day of grief I needed to imagine magnificent Buck running with his wolf brother, side by side and to delight in that fine old French gentleman, Charles le Chien, Poodle extraordinaire. Let’s hear it for dogs who have not been shot or cancer-ridden or too hobbled to last through the final pages.
On a day weary with sadness, I did not sit on the patio with foamed coffee, but I did turn to books. Hail to the truth-tellers about mortality, but blessed are those books when, by the end, good dogs don’t die. And what do you know? Safe in their living room bed, Angel and Sugar, the remaining two of my eight-dog pack, watch me. My inimitable owners and guardians were there, fully alive. For now.