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The Primal Howl

“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.

Photograph by Rand Richards Cooper

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