Two things happened back to back this week that have left me feeling unusually contemplative. The first is that my dog Charlie was in a car accident. She seems to be healing well, nothing was broken and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of permanent damage, but it made my heart stop. I called the dogs in and one came but the other didn’t. The neighbor dogs were all wining and jumping at their fences which was so strange, because normally they bark at me. I saw a truck pulled over off the side of the road and a man holding what at first looked like a black garbage bag. Then my heart dropped out of my body because I realized it was my dog. I ran over and waved him down, and he handed me the dog and said, “it’s bleeding.”
All I could think was that she HAD to be okay, there was not a universe in which she was allowed to leave us so soon after joining our family. My daughter adores her and uses her as a pillow and a napkin and a blanket and her silent partner in crimes. She’s not even two yet, she doesn’t know about things dying. And she’s way too young to know. I saw that Charlie was bleeding, from behind one ear. Her hair was matted there, and she wasn’t even looking at me. I took her inside, wrapped her in a couple of towels, and set her down on the couch while I tried to figure out what to do. Her brother, Sparkle, started flipping out, alternating between licking her face and asking to play and yipping at me and pulling on pants to try to get me to do something. Of course I had no idea what to do. By that point, it had only been a few minutes, Charlie was already starting to make a little sound and move around. I felt like we had all just barely missed a huge tragedy. What if I hadn’t seen the man get out of the truck? What if I’d waited a few more minutes to call in the dogs? What if, what if, what if.
But “what if” didn’t happen. Charlie is going to be fine.
The next day, Neil Gaiman’s dog died. All I can think is that it’s this huge thing, to lose a pet. Our pets are in a very real way a part of ourselves. They give us back a part of ourselves that we don’t have to acknowledge if we live without them. There is a part of man that was made to be in the wilderness, to tend to wild things. When we invite wild things into our homes we bring that part of ourselves back to life. There’s also a tenderness they teach us that nothing else can. Sometimes we don’t realize what our mood is, when we are angry or sad, but our dogs know. They’ll play with us when we’re playful and when we are angry they will give us that look, the ears flat on the skull, head butting against our shins look, the look that says, “this is painful, please don’t be this way.”
Dogs also make you be responsible. If you don’t pick up your jammies, they claim them. If you leave out the legos they eat them. If you don’t clean up the lunch, they appropriate it.
I wouldn’t want to have to live without them. I’m glad I don’t have to yet, but I know that my daughter will probably still be too young to have her driver’s license when Charlie does die, and that breaks my heart.
But, still, I think that even if she did understand death right now she would gladly bear the pain of it later to have her pillow, her blanket, her conspirator, her closest friend to stay at her side now. And I wouldn’t give up Charlie now to spare that pain later, either. That pain is the price we have to pay for keeping our whole selves alive.