column By: Tom Carney | June, 17
More than I’ll ever know, I imagine, would-be contributors to this magazine have been stymied by an edict I posted nine years ago near the top of our contributor guidelines: “No dead dog stories, please.”
Why not? Too many “D.D.” stories, as humorist Patrick F. McManus once called them, have as their basic theme something like this: “I’m sad because my dog died, and I want others to be sad, too.” That’s just too easy, too simple a manipulation of the reader’s emotion. Too much of a cliché. Too trite. Overdone.
On top of that, I don’t want to read any more dead dog stories. Simply put, I don’t need that. I don’t need any help from anybody to feel sad over the thought of a dog’s dying. Period.
I didn’t need to be shown Old Yeller when I was 6 years old. When reading passages from The Odyssey to my students, I’d always falter at the spot where faithful, old Argos passes blissfully away once he beholds his master who returned after his 20-year absence. Several years ago during woodcock camp, one of our hunting buddies announced he had a special story to read to us, “The Road to Tinkhamtown.” No, thank you. I bolted from the campfire circle, retrieved my English setter Paddy from his kennel in the truck and took the two of us for a long walk through the darkness. And I sure as heck didn’t need those commercials for A Dog’s Purpose during college football bowl games last winter.
My friend David and I were talking about this recently.
“When my golden retriever Charlie died a couple years ago,” he said, “I felt there was a hole in my heart that would never seal itself. Then I got Molly our black Lab, and she’s become my best pal and constant companion.” She even helps him take his naps by crawling up on his lap and dozing away.
Then he asked the million-dollar question: “I wonder why do we do that, keep getting dogs? We know it’s just going to end up with such grief. Why do we put ourselves through that?”
I had no immediate answer for him. But his question did get me to thinking.
A German poet, I think it was, wrote a simple truth that applies to dogs as well as any other thing one can grow close to: “If not loved, then not lost.”
I never feel more Irish than when I reveal my fatalism through this thought I fashioned long ago and which haunts me every day of my life: Joys are transitory and must not be trusted; loss, that sneak of a pickpocket, endures and remains ever-ready to pounce.
When we stumble onto a few random occurrences of good fortune, our basic human nature flatters us into thinking that all is going well in our lives. Yet, is there a more compelling and effective way we are ultimately reminded of our humanity than when we are visited by loss and his companion grief? And while they obviously cannot compare with the losses of parents, other relatives or friends, the loss of pets – for those of us who have them – certainly counts as such a visit.
Then again, just because loss and grief are constant threats in our lives, does that mean we must capitulate? Perhaps they are only transitory, but joys become the stars that bejewel the otherwise bleak night.
Yes, our dogs eventually break our hearts, but before they do, they share things like puppy breath, tail wags when we arrive home, happy mischief, nuzzling and kisses and moments of success in their training sessions; a dog becomes our partner when we bird hunt, our truck drivin’ buddy, a sleeping pad mate when we camp, our “goin’ to the mailbox” partner, a riverside cheerleader when we fish, a companion on our walks or when we’re sick in bed and the one family member who would never think of criticizing us and who always tries his best to understand us.
“I think I’ve got it,” I told David.
After the anguish of losing a dog, we jump back on that one-way road to loss and grief because the hole we feel in our hearts when a dog dies is not an emptiness; it’s a longing. It’s not the loneliness and aimlessness we feel because we lack the presence of the old dog. Rather it’s a desire to put into play a very special feature of our human experiences, one as elemental for us as are loss, grief and joy: Separate and distinct from anything we might feel towards parents, children, family or friends, some of us embrace another kind of love. It only flows when directed toward a canine pal.
And without dogs in our lives, that love goes begging.