What makes a season? What is the nature of time? How much of time’s passage is a mathematical abstraction, and how much of it, if any, is a living, breathing organism, a life process, stirred and generated in part by our passage through it— a symbiotic relationship, or perhaps even at times a parasitic one, but a relationship nonetheless, in which two forces act, and are acted upon by each other?
The way an injury to us on a certain date can mar the shape or path of subsequent years—that same date becoming as specific to the body of a year as might an injury to one’s kidneys, or ribs. It’s been 10 years since my mother died young, died too early—died in November —and yet each year thereafter, a heaviness enters my spirit around that time, and my dreams are filled with a sadness I seem unable to control.
And last year I found myself injured again—not in anywhere the same fashion, nor with even a fraction of the same grief. But strangely, near the same point in the year.
Less than a full day after the date on which my mother died, a stranger comes driving down our long driveway, lost, and runs over our old blind and deaf Homer-dog, killing her. Neither the grief I feel, nor the circumstances of it, have anything to do with the loss of my mother; it is merely another, infinitely smaller loss, at that same point in time.
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Elizabeth was down in Missoula, visiting friends, and the girls were in school. I was out hunting in the rain, and when I came home at lunch, I didn’t even see Homer, who was laid out by a stump next to Point and Superman’s kennel. Instead, there was a note on the table in the house, expressing how sorry the driver was, how he didn’t see Homer, yadda yadda—and my mind froze, not knowing what the note was talking about, and yet also knowing somehow immediately.
I went out and looked for Homer, called her name, whistled in the high pitch that she could sometimes still hear. Certain she would come bounding around the corner—still spry, for 16 and a half—and shatter, as if with the force of the myth, the stranger’s ragged note.
There was only the sound of hissing rain. The other dogs whining a little in their kennels, watching me.
The note had said she was laid out by a stump alongside the driveway. I went to the stump, and she wasn’t there; and again, it seemed to me that by her-not-beingthere, the myth of the note could be broken; that time itself could be reversed, as if in a river’s eddy, if even only for an hour or two, or for however long it took to get her back upright, standing and alive.
I found her by the other stump, the one at the corner of the driveway, laid out neatly enough, but soaking, sodden in the cold damned rain.
The driver had been gone only a few hours. Homer was not yet as cold as the rain and snow around her. Not warm, but not yet cold or stiff. I kept thinking, desperately, of how she might yet be saved; how I could rush her down to the miracle vet in town who had, on so many occasions before, rescued her from one calamity or another.
I picked her up to carry her into the house. There was a certain way she would lean into you when you bent to pick her up that was meant to assist you in the act; without it, I scarcely knew how to lift her.
I laid her on her bed and wrapped her in an old jacket. Her lips were curled back, as though she had been in pain, and her hindquarters were torn from the gravel, and again I felt desperate, felt that I had let her down.
I had picked up her and her twin sister Ann from along the side of the road in Mississippi, back in late May of 1985—indeed, there’d been a third pup with them, already dead, struck by a car or truck—and though part of me was aware that I had saved her, had given her 16 and a half great years, there was another part of me that knew she deserved much better; that she deserved for me to be there with her, comforting her, and that she deserved a painless death. She was the most loyal and affectionate dog I’d ever had, and I was angry at the carelessness of the pilgrim who had not been more cautious, coming down a strange driveway out in the country; angry at the unthinking disrespect of trespass, but angriest of all that after all those years together, I had been unable to give Homer even that one small dignity of a natural death; that one small comfort at the end. That instead, after all those years of service, she had known in the end only pain and confusion.
She was not yet decrepit. She still enjoyed being a dog: being fed and cared for, and wandering her well-worn route, her territory. Being dressed up in bows and dresses by the girls—surely the only Coonhound in the world to wear frills. Even now, I’m sad and angry about the injustice of it, the unfairness, though I am also struck by the possibility that the odds were stacked against her from the beginning—that she began her life as an orphan, road-dumped, and that there was or is a force in the world that asked her to end it that way, too—though for whatever purpose or reasons, I cannot begin to fathom.
The strangeness of the world and all its murmuring cycles, both beautiful and dangerous: She had died not five feet from where her twin sister Ann had died, also beneath the wheels of an automobile several years earlier, so that it was as though their blood was together again. Ann was buried in a grove of aspen trees, beneath a stone into which we had etched the word “Bravery”—it had been Ann who was always getting into tussles with coyotes, defending hearth and home—and long ago, we had decided that when it was Homer’s time to go, we would lay her next to Ann, with the word “Loyalty” scratched on the stone.
The bridge they build across our hearts: For parts of three decades, that bridge had been crafted, a living and specific thing, like a path or a process. Now that she is gone, the bridge still remains, as ornate and beautiful as ever, though it is no longer living, has forfeited the supple mystery of life, and has instead assumed the durable calcification of myth and memory—the residue of where our love was, the residue of the love we had for her, the residue of sweetness, of loyalty, the residue of a great dog who lived once upon a time.