Back inside, Larkin sat entranced before the television screen. I put her on my lap, grateful that the division of tasks between Molly and me — of talents, really — would spare me the final session with our hippie vet, Gus, and the last sight of Bert, dead on the steel table. My far less taxing job was to stay with our daughter and help steer her through the moment.
I thought about what a four-year-old does and doesn’t understand. Larkin’s birth had been bookended by two hard deaths — Molly’s brother, six months before Larkin was born, and my mother, six months after. We told Larkin about these events, and she learned early on to say things like, “Uncle Wes died, Mom, and you were sad,” or “Don’t worry, Dad, you’ll see your mom again. You’ll see her in your heart.”
Such utterances are mostly lexical; a toddler says them, says the words, without necessarily grasping their implications. But they create a vessel, a concept begun in the act of saying, which gradually fills with comprehension. As we watched the rest of Joseph, I studied Larkin. When a song would end, I thought I could see an awareness of something badly amiss creep back onto her face, only to be erased by the next song. Thank God for music. Finally, though, the movie was over. Larkin turned to me. She frowned, and her face reddened again and crumpled in on itself.
“I want Bert!” she said.
“I know, honey. I know.”
“I want Bert! I want Bert! I want Bert!” Over and over she wailed it, a dozen times at least. I want Bert!
And there it was. The most primal declaration, more so even than “I love.” It was what I’d struggled and failed to say before, out on the patio. I want, I want, I want. The words come from the deepest place in us, where emotion is appetite, and “missing” someone cries out a painful incompleteness: something lacking, something ripped out or torn away; a ghost limb; a desperate craving. Put it back. Make me whole. I want.
I hugged Larkin. Later, Molly and I would make it through night number one of Life After Bert — cooking up a storm in the kitchen, listening to old pop tunes, drinking plenty of wine and paging through our Bert photo album. But for now, my mission was to hold on tight to my sobbing daughter, accompanying her as she discovered the wildness of grief. Let the old dog go, I thought. Let the inner animal howl.