The howling


The diagnosis came in June: old dog, new limp, x-ray, bad news. Bert had bone cancer and a lump was growing in his left foreleg. We could amputate, said the vet, but that probably wouldn’t stop the spread. And did it even make sense for a 12 year old bulldog? Molly and I knew pet owners can talk themselves into almost anything, and we didn’t want that for Bert. So we chose pain medication, not heroic action. We’d know when it was time to put it down, the vet assured us.
“It could be five days,” he said when we asked how long. “It could be a couple of weeks.”
This prognosis turned out to be wrong. The thing on Bert’s foreleg grew bigger, but he played, waved, and ate with gusto. The new puppy we had promised our four year old daughter Larkin came on stage and injected a large dose of puppy joy. The old man loved it. Summer passed and it seemed to be thriving – cancer or no cancer.
He’s the Lance Armstrong of dogs, we joked.
In truth, his illness got bad. But like most life changes, wickedness gradually deepened and its progress was difficult to see. Bert got up a little less and hobbled a little more. Sometime in the fall he became incontinent at night, so we covered the floor of the mud room with newspapers and moved his bed to the door. That became the new normal. At least he didn’t poop in his bed, Molly and I said. The mud room, it’s kind of like doing it outside, isn’t it?
Fundamental fact of human nature: for better or for worse, we conform.
However, a few days before Thanksgiving, something happened. From then on the bad leg was useless, flapping and splaying at strange angles. Fortunately, Bert persisted and limped like John Cleese in the Department of Funny Walks. We have now carried him outside. Sixty-three pounds of bulldog, six times a day – that was hard. But the burden wasn’t really on our backs; Carrying him around like a sack of potatoes violated the dignity that we creatures in our care accord to these companions. One day I left Bert outside to pee and came out minutes later to see him lying in the garden, sunk into the dead leaves like a garden ornament, looking up at me.
It was time.
We had hoped that when the time came, Bert would be semi-comatose – “ready,” as the vet had said, and not look up with watchful brown eyes. But we cannot precisely adjust the exit from life, not even for our pets.
The question remained, how should Larkin be told? What do you tell a four-year-old about the unpredictable mystery of life and death? Of course, most of the time naming the “imponderable” is a way of saying, “I don’t want to.” The truth is, death is eminently worth considering (and if you think your four-year-old isn’t already thinking about it, do something for yourself before.) On my computer I googled: “How can I tell my four year old that it’s us? lay down our dog? “Click here for a variety of representations. The angels want him. He’s chewing a bone in dog heaven. He will be with Grandma / Grandpa / our cat Tuffy. There was the poem of the Rainbow Bridge (“Inspired by a Nordic legend”), whose couplets describe an eternal romp in the animal paradise. On this golden land they wait and play / One day they will cross one day until the Rainbow Bridge.
This sentimentality about a child’s capacity for honesty struck me as deeply as I wondered if my aversion to well-intentioned bromides was really a form of arrogance that would leave me empty-handed and our daughter heartbroken in crisis. Well, you build with the tools you have. No rainbow bridges from me or Molly. Instead, we took Larkin home from preschool on the agreed day, sat in the kitchen with her, and spoke to her as quietly as possible. Did she remember that June when we found out Bert had cancer and we thought he was going to die soon?
She looked up cautiously.
“Well,” I continued, “we were really lucky. Bert lasted so much longer than we expected. We thought it might be five days and it’s been five months. But now – “
Her face blushed and she cut her off. “I don’t want Bert to die.”
“It’s time, honey. He can’t walk. A dog has to run. “
“No! I don’t want him to die!”
Molly put her arm around Larkin.
“Honey, he had a really wonderful life with us and we really love him very much. But his body hurts. He is in pain and it is time for him to die. So let’s spend an hour with him and then I’ll take him to the vet. “
We all fell to the floor with Bert. “It’s okay to be sad,” said Molly. “We will all miss him very much.”
For parents, the prospect of their child and their dying dog is a terrible thing. Desperately you want to avoid Total Family Meltdown – a chain reaction where your child’s grief reinforces your own until the three of you become a throbbing, trembling tag team of grief (though, as your therapist would ask what you think would happen if so did occur?). I had a fallback to this scenario, a distraction crutch. Recently I had taken Larkin to a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She fell madly in love with the play and put the movie version on our Netflix queue. Fortunately, it had arrived hours earlier. Did she want me to put it on? I asked.
“Yes! I want to see Joseph! ”
And so the three of us sat in the family room, petting Bert and escaping into a goofy Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on a biblical story of fidelity, betrayal, and dreams. toothy child star of my youth. We sang along and Larkin called her favorite line: “And when Joseph made the scene, the brothers turned a SHADOW OF GREEN!” A storm had started to blow outside, gusts of wind and rain leaves. It was December 1st and a two-day warm phase led a rearguard battle against the first wave of winter. In the kitchen an exhaust fan blew in the wind, giving the music a strange synchronization.
When it was time to leave, Molly looked at me and tapped her watch. I stopped the video. “We have to take Bert in now,” Molly said to Larkin. “Let’s all hug him.”
Larkin knelt and hugged Bert, weeping, and I pressed my own grief down and put a lid on it. After a minute, Larkin returned to film; I took Bert and carried him outside.
The storm lashed as I dragged him down the steps and cold rain splashed my face. I wondered why the gods seem so often to adorn the dramas of life with the striking objective correlate of the weather: in our case, on the sublime day in mid-January that our daughter was born, it was incredibly sunny and 60 degrees; and now this Shakespearean storm, elemental and unruly, as if speaking of a loss so great that it shook nature itself.
Molly went to the car and opened the hatchback, where she spread a blanket. I stood on the terrace and held Bert. “It’s okay buddy,” I said. “It’s okay.”
He’d been stone deaf for years, but we’d never gotten used to talking to him. Now when I did that, the lid I had closed inside opened and everything came out. You are our typeI sobbed you are the best. I didn’t know how to say what I needed. That morning I’d cooked a steak and fed it to Bert, who was sitting with him on the kitchen floor as he took one greedy, incredulous gulp after another. It was a convicted dog’s last meal. Now that I was holding him in the pounding rain, I really felt his life, or rather, his life in our lives flashing in front of me. Bought on a calculated whim 12 years earlier, chosen for fun, at a time when Molly and I – not yet married and unsure if we would ever need anything – needed something urgently, Bert had been the harbinger of a hope we did for our future had come to happen. What a piece of time and experience he had seen! The pet lifespan is, in many ways, a nice miniaturization of our own that allows us to calculate the 10 or 12 dog lives granted to ourselves: one more so that in mourning for my dog ​​I inevitably for my wife, mine , mourn daughter, i.
As I crossed the terrace and howled all the way, I put Bert in the back of the car, the narrow space where he’d been carefree on our family outings for years. Many had been to a lake in Maine making his way into the water – certainly nature’s least gifted swimmer, but trying desperately to evoke the pressurized exhilaration that had always been his contribution to our lives.
I closed the door and Molly drove off.
Back inside, Larkin sat enchanted in front of the television screen. I put her on my lap, grateful that the division of labor between Molly and me – really talented – would save me the last session with our hippie vet Gus and the last sight of Bert lying dead on the steel table. My far less strenuous job was to stay with our daughter and guide her through the moment.
I thought about what a four year old does and what doesn’t. Larkin’s birth had been attested to by two serious deaths – Molly’s brother six months before Larkin’s birth and my mother six months later. We told Larkin about these events, and she learned early to say things like, “Uncle Wes died, Mom, and it was you Sad“Or” Don’t worry, Dad, you’ll see your mother again. You will see it 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 that was started in the act of saying and gradually fills with understanding. Since we saw the rest of JosephI studied Larkin. When a song ended, I thought I could see an awareness that something bad was creeping back on her face, only to be erased by the next song. Thank god for the music. Finally the movie was over. Larkin turned to me. She frowned and her face blushed again and collapsed.
“I want Bert!” She said.
“I know honey. I know.”
“I want Bert! I want Bert! I want Bert! “She howled over and over, at least a dozen times. I want Bert!
And there it was. The most original explanation, even more than “I love”. It was what I had fought and not said before on the terrace. I want I want I want. The words come from the deepest part of us, where emotions are appetite and someone “misses” exclaims a painful incompleteness: something is missing, something torn out or torn away; a ghost member; a desperate need. Put it back. Make me whole I would like.
I hugged Larkin. Later, Molly and I made it through the first night of Life After Bert – boiling a storm in the kitchen, listening to old pop music, drinking lots of wine, and leafing through our Bert photo album. But right now it was my mission to hold my sobbing daughter and accompany her as she discovered the ferocity of grief. Let the old dog go, I thought. Make the inner animal howl.

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