The Primal Howl

By Rand Richards Cooper, February 2012

The diagnosis came in June: old dog, new limp, X-ray, bad news. Bert had bone cancer, a lump growing in his left foreleg. We could amputate, the vet said, but that probably wouldn’t stop the spread. And did it make sense for a 12-year-old Bulldog anyway? Molly and I knew that pet owners can talk themselves into almost anything, and we didn’t want that for Bert. So we opted for pain meds and no heroic measures. We’d know when it was time to put him down, the vet assured us.
“It could be five days,” he said when we asked how long. “It could be a few weeks.”
This prognosis proved errant. The thing on Bert’s foreleg grew bigger, but still he played, wagged, ate with gusto. The new puppy we’d promised our four-year-old daughter, Larkin, arrived on the scene, injecting a large dose of puppy joy. The Old Man loved it. Summer passed, and he seemed to thrive — cancer or no cancer.
He’s the Lance Armstrong of dogs, we joked.
In truth, his disease was getting bad. But, like most changes in life, the badness deepened incrementally and its progress was hard to see. Bert got up a little less, limped a little more. At some point during the fall, he became incontinent at night, so we covered the mudroom floor with newspapers and moved his bed to the doorway. That became the new normal. At least he wasn’t pooping in his bed, Molly and I told ourselves. The mudroom, that’s sorta, kinda like doing it outside, right?
Basic fact of human nature: for better or worse, we adjust.
A few days before Thanksgiving, however, something happened. From then on, the bad leg was useless, flapping and splaying at weird angles. Gamely, Bert persisted, hobbling like John Cleese in the Ministry of Funny Walks. We carried him outside now. Sixty-three pounds of Bulldog, six times a day — that was hard. But the strain wasn’t really on our backs; hauling him around like a sack of potatoes violated the dignity we accord creatures in our care, these companionate animals. One day, I left Bert outside to pee and came out minutes later to find him lying in the garden, sunk down in the dead leaves like a garden ornament, looking up at me.
It was time.
We had hoped that when it came, Bert would be semi-comatose — “ready,” as the vet had said, not looking up with alert brown eyes. But we can’t fine-tune the exit from life, not even for our pets.
There remained the question of how to tell Larkin. What do you say to a four-year- old about the imponderable mystery of life and death? Of course, calling something “imponderable” is mostly a way of saying “I don’t want to.” The truth is that death is eminently ponderable (and if you think your four-yearold isn’t already pondering it, you’re kidding yourself.) At my computer, I googled, “How do I tell my four-yearold we’re putting our dog down?” Click, an instant panoply of reassurances. The angels want him. He’s chewing a bone in Doggie Heaven. He’ll be with Grandma/ Grandpa/our cat Tuffy. There was the Rainbow Bridge poem (“Inspired by a Norse Legend”), its couplets describing an eternal romp in pet paradise. On this golden land, they wait and they play/Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.
Such sentimentality in the face of a child’s capacity for honesty struck me as craven, even as I wondered whether my aversion to well-intended bromides was really a form of arrogance that would leave me empty-handed in the crunch, and our daughter unconsoled. Well, you build with the tools you have. No rainbow bridges from me, or from Molly either. Instead, we brought Larkin home from preschool on the appointed day, sat down with her in the kitchen and spoke to her as calmly as we could. Did she remember back in June, we asked her, when we’d found out Bert had cancer and we thought he was going to die soon?
She looked up warily.
“Well,” I continued, “we got really lucky. Bert hung on so much longer than we expected. We thought it might be five days, and it’s been five months. But now — ”
Her face reddened, and she interrupted. “I don’t want Bert to die.”
“It’s his time, honey. He can’t walk. A dog needs to walk.”
“No! I don’t want him to die!”
Molly put her arm around Larkin.
“Honey, he’s had a really wonderful life with us, and we really, really love him. But his body hurts him. He’s in pain, and it’s time for him to die. So let’s spend an hour with him, and then I’m going to take him to the vet.”
We all got down on the floor with Bert. “It’s okay to be sad,” Molly said. “We’re all going to miss him a lot.”
For parents, there’s something dreadful about the prospect of your child and her dying dog. Desperately, you want to avoid Total Family Meltdown — a chain reaction, your child’s grief amplifying your own until the three of you become a throbbing, shaking tag-team of sorrow (though, as your therapist would ask, what do you think would happen if this did occur?). I had a fallback for this scenario, a diversionary crutch. Recently, I’d taken Larkin to a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She’d fallen hard for the play, and I’d put the film version in our Netflix queue; fortunately, it had arrived hours earlier. Did she want me to put it on? I asked.
“Yes! I want to watch Joseph!”
And so the three of us sat in the family room, petting Bert and taking refuge in a silly Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on a Biblical tale of fealty, betrayal and dreams, and starring, it turned out, a grown-up Donny Osmond, toothy child star of my youth. We sang along, Larkin shouting her favorite line, “And when Joseph made the scene, the brothers turned a SHADE OF GREEN!” Outside, a storm had begun to blow, gusts of wind and sheets of rain. It was December 1, and a two-day warm spell was fighting a rearguard battle against the first blast of winter. In the kitchen, an exhaustfan vent banged in the wind, lending a strange syncopation to the music.
When it was time to go, Molly looked at me, tapping her watch, and I paused the video. “We have to take Bert in now,” Molly said to Larkin. “Let’s all give him a hug.”
Larkin knelt and hugged Bert, crying, and I pushed my own grief down and jammed a lid on it. After a minute, Larkin returned to the movie; I picked up Bert and carried him outside.
The storm was whipping as I lugged him down the steps, cold rain splattering my face. I wondered why the gods so often seem to grace life’s dramas with the showy objective correlative of weather: in our case, on the exalted mid-January day our daughter was born, it had been freakishly sunny and 60 degrees; and now this Shakespearean tempest, elemental and unruly, as though betokening a loss so strong it rattled nature itself.
Molly went to the car and opened the hatchback, where she spread out a blanket. I stood on the patio, holding Bert. “It’s okay, buddy,” I said. “It’s okay.”
He’d been stone-deaf for years, but we’d never kicked the habit of talking to him. Doing so now popped that lid I’d shut inside myself, and out it all came. You’re our guy, I sobbed, you’re the best. I didn’t know how to say what I needed to. That morning, I’d fried a steak and fed it to Bert, sitting with him on the kitchen floor as he took one greedy, disbelieving gobble after the next. It was a condemned dog’s last meal. Now, holding him in the pelting rain, I truly did sense his life, or rather, his life in our lives, flashing before me. Bought 12 years earlier on a calculated whim, chosen for jollity at a time when Molly and I— not yet married and uncertain we ever would be — badly needed some, Bert had been the harbinger of a hope we had for our future, which had since come to pass. What a chunk of time and experience he had witnessed! The lifespan of pets is, in many ways, a neat miniaturization of our own, letting us reckon the 10 or 12 dog lives we ourselves are granted: another one down, so that in grieving my dog I grieve, inevitably, my wife, my daughter, myself.
Crossing the patio, wailing the whole way, I placed Bert in the back of the car, the cramped space where for years he had passengered along, uncomplaining, on our family trips. Many had been to a lake in Maine, where he blundered his way into the water — surely nature’s least gifted swimmer, yet frantically eager to try, summoning the hilarity under pressure that had been his contribution, again and again, to our lives.
I shut the door, and Molly drove off.
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.

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