A Joyful Bark

This morning, Breeze got up from her padded armchair–which we have allowed to become her dog bed–and walked across our room to greet me. I was slipping out of bed, ready to take her downstairs to potty and eat breakfast, when I noticed she was holding one paw up off the ground in an exaggerated limp. I wondered aloud if we would be going over to the vet today. “It’s just stiff,” Brad insisted in a wistful tone. “Probably arthritis. She is getting old.”

Breeze turned eleven this past Valentine’s Day. I don’t think of her as “old,” but it is true that Dals generally live only until thirteen or so. Gulliver, who was truly the dog of my heart, only got to be twelve–but he still shines brightly in my mind, even though he died nine years ago. His dying nearly killed me, the sorrow so intense I wasn’t sure I would live through it, but I did, with the help of my other dogs. Now I have a photo of Gulliver and me on my desk, with his collar and its tags draped over the frame. His marble urn sits on the mantlepiece above the fireplace in my study. He is always with me.

Recently, I read an essay, “What Has Irony Done For Us Lately,” by the wonderful writer Pam Houston. The piece is, in part, about losing her Irish Wolfhound, Fenton. She switches gears midway through to something more political, speaking to how we are losing the earth bit by bit, in just such a painful manner as she lost Fenton and as I lost Gulliver. 

I am sure the intent of the piece, perhaps even the point of the piece, is its environmental message, but I can’t help myself: what I find most moving here is the way she brings the reader head on into the death of the dog of her heart. As is often the case when I read really well-done dog books or essays or short stories or articles, I cried over this one, too, remembering Gulliver. I mourn the earth, but I am brought to tears by the story of Fenton–his life and his death. 

It is Houston’s gift to bring her dog alive for me, just as she brings alive the plight of the earth for the more environmentally aware reader. I am an earth person, but maybe I am more of a dog person. Sometimes the larger issues are overtaken by the smaller. Some people would say the earth’s welfare is more important than a dog’s. I, however, think to myself that a dog’s welfare is a metaphor for the earth’s welfare. The way we treat our dogs should be the way we treat our earth. That much I get. 

And so, a dog brings me closer to a larger issue, as dogs always do. When Breeze limps, I limp a little as well. I don’t like to think about how we are both in the “sunset of our years,” Breeze at seventy-seven and me at sixty-five. Because of those years, however, she has grown into a wise older dog who knows how to run our household and manage the boys, as they move boisterously from day to night and back again. Early in her life, she was the princess who graced us with her beauty; then she became the queen who raised two litters; now she is the matriarch who oversees us all. 

Someday, in the not too distant future, Brad and I will lose Breeze. Her death will bring back memories of Gulliver’s, and of the other loved ones in my life–people and dogs both–who preceded her. Sorrow will descend. But for right now, I massage her stiff leg. I pray that it is only arthritis. I pause for a moment to watch her run pell-mell, despite it all, around the backyard before breakfast, in the dark of a March morning. And, as I listen to her barking joyfully to tell the world she is alive, I know I am, too.


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