Loyalty–that quality for which dogs are so well-known–calls me, each summer, to remember Isaiah, his life, and the summer I lost him.
Writing about a dog involves a desperate struggle to avoid cliche. Mary Oliver’s poem, “Her Grave,” describes the loss of a dog with her characteristic depth, elegance, and total lack of cliche. So I will let her words dance within this post, dotting the sand of this story with the easy soft drops of rainy words:
She would come back, dripping thick water, from the green bog.
She would fall at my feet, she would draw the black skin
from her gums, in a hideous and wonderful smile—
and I would rub my hands over her pricked ears and her
and I would hug the barrel of her body, amazed at the unassuming
Perfect arch of her neck. (Mary Oliver)
I don’t want to cheapen this loss by playing on sentiment, writing a tearjerker about what it means to lose a dog. Those who have owned dogs already understand it. We even avoid dog books and movies, sometimes, because we know our hearts will be broken in the end, every single time, without fail.
A dog lives fifteen years, if you’re lucky.
Do the cranes crying out in the high clouds
think it is all their own music?
A dog comes to you and lives with you in your house, but you
do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them. (Mary Oliver)
Humans who love dogs love them beyond the comprehension of non-dog-loving humans, which is part of why the grief we experience at the death of a beloved pet can sometimes be deeper and wider even than our grief for humans–unacknowledged, grief takes longer to heal.
I wish I could tell you the unabridged story of Isaiah, but that’s a story fit for a book, not a blog post.
When I adopted him in 2002, he was homeless, supposedly hopeless, skittish, defensive–a last-chance dog; a dog nobody else wanted. I’ve always been one to draw in those that others reject, and so I took Isaiah (age four, weighing in at 70 pounds, a black lab mix) into my heart & home & complicated life.
Her wolfish, invitational, half-pounce.
Her great and lordly satisfaction at having chased something.
My great and lordly satisfaction at her splash
of happiness as she barged
through the pitch pines swiping my face with her
wild, slightly mossy tongue. (Mary Oliver)
I don’t know how to properly memorialize seven years of absolute, unbridled love and companionship.
I can tell you that this dog was the one constant during some of the most turbulent years of my life. I was young and dumb; I made mistakes and messes–huge ones. Isaiah never minded. He sat patiently beside me, rested his chin in my lap, whispered to me with his sweet eyes that, to him, I was just fine–I was perfect–I was exactly what he wanted me to be, all the time, just because I was me.
This was a dog who had been abused and abandoned, so he never came to totally trust other humans, but he did learn to trust me absolutely. The word “loyalty” doesn’t do it justice.
Isaiah came with me on long, crazy, unplanned road-trips taken out of a desperate need to escape my life circumstances. He sat patiently in my old green Saturn as I made one move after another, from Michigan to Arizona, to Michigan, and back to Arizona.
He knew me before I met my ex-husband; he was by my side throughout my short and unfortunate marriage; and he came with me, of course, when I got divorced.
After my divorce, I began to witness my friend’s deterioration into old age, as the arthritis in his legs became increasingly painful–even painful for me to watch. He still lay on the rug by the front door every night, waiting for me to come home, but he stopped leaping up upon my return.
His greeting became a quiet lift of the head, a thump of the tail. I’d kneel beside him and whisper to him that it was okay, that he could take his time, that I’d wait for him to get up before I went to bed.
In July of 2009, I finally had to make that one decision–the one every dog owner must make, and the one that we dread above all others.
It was time; it was finally time to let my Isaiah’s soul go free.
I want to write about that day and how we spent our last night together, and how it felt to let him go, to walk out of the vet’s office empty-handed and empty-hearted, his beloved blanket folded in my arms–but that story is still too near, too dear, too sharp. I’ll suffice it to say that it broke my heart.
It took four of us to carry her into the woods.
We did not think of music,
but, anyway, it began to rain
slowly. (Mary Oliver)
I went home and lay at the end of my bed, where he’d slept each night for so long, and covered myself in his blanket and cried, and cried, and cried some more.
I moved out of my bedroom and into the living room for weeks because I couldn’t stand sleeping in that room without him, and I didn’t want to vacuum the floors, sweeping away his fur, his smell, his essence.
And for a very long time, beside me, there was a dark shadow. It was the misty ghost-vision of the dog I simply could not let go of. I’d see a shadow in the corner of my eye and turn in momentary forgetfulness, forgetting he was gone now, looking for the dark figure who had stood so nobly at my side for all those years.
She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back, or
wait for me, or be somewhere.
Now she is buried under the pines.
Nor will I argue it, or pray for anything but modesty, and
not be angry. (Mary Oliver)
In grief, we think we’ll never recover. We don’t want to recover; recovering means moving on and accepting the loss. In a way, we never do recover. I honor Isaiah’s memory with words and with the tears that slide down my face as I write them, even now, three years later.
But I write them anyway, because he deserves to be remembered and honored for the short and brave life he lived.
Sometimes I think dogs live such short lives because part of their job here is to help us to understand loss.
You adopt a dog knowing that you will outlive him. You adopt him knowing that the day will come when you’ll part ways, and no matter how long you delay it, that day will always come too soon.
Even now I feel slightly silly and awkward writing these words, wondering if they’ll be understood at all, not knowing how to end this post in a way that will do justice to that beautiful, loyal, noble creature who walked by my side for seven turbulent and incredible years.
I keep a small pine box with his name carved on it. It holds his collar, his tags, some papers, some photographs.
At the bottom of a closet, I also have a small collection of his things–things I won’t keep forever but also have not found the strength to part with: his dish, a bone he loved he to chew, his bed.
I’ve been meaning, for years now, to take the dish and the bone and bury them somewhere near Lighthouse Beach, a green and sandy place that sits on the cold waters of Lake Huron; a place where Isaiah loved to ramble off-leash in the late years of his life. I don’t know why I still hold onto these things, but I think it may be time to let them go at last.
I think maybe this week I’ll make the drive north and finally set these things to rest in the Earth.
How strong was her dark body!
How apt is her grave place.
How beautiful is her unshakable sleep.
the slick mountains of love break
over us. (Mary Oliver)
* Note: all italicized portions of this post are quoted from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Her Grave.”)