Dog day

The death of a beloved friend makes plain the beauty of this world.

Published June 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Kafka said that the point of life is that it ends, and I suppose that up to a point this is true. But truth is usually a paradox -- that freedom is found in surrender, for instance, or that he who loses life shall gain it. I've been filled with a sense of the latter today, because today we buried Charlie Conners out in our yard near the roses.

He was only 10, and only a dog, but he was a dog of a dog; and we loved him. He belonged to Brian, who is Sam's Big Brother, and to Diane, Brian's wife. No one has ever quite figured out why Charlie's last name was Conners, since that is not Brian and Diane's last name. If you ask me, Charlie's name has to do with Brian and Diane both being alcoholics of the very worst sort, although between them they have 40 years of sobriety. At any rate, Charlie Conners was the name of one of their dogs.

He was gentle, elegant, serious, young, old, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, small with soulful brown eyes and a dappled coat, creamy white with reddish brown markings. His people, by the way, are not called Cavalier because they are haughty or uncaring -- "So another cat got run over on Willow; so what?" Cavalier refers to the members of the court of King Charles II of England. Mary Queen of Scots is supposed to have had one of these small spaniels hidden in her skirts as she was led to her beheading. The dime-sized marking Charlie and certain King Charles spaniels have on their foreheads is said to be the memory of Mary's bloody thumbprint.

This is how Charlie came into our lives, eight years ago: Sam was 2 years old at the time, and Brian had been his Big Brother since birth. He had helped to raise him, mother him, father him, brother him. I had just seen "The Silence of the Lambs" and come to the conclusion that I either needed a guard dog or an armed husband, and for reasons I won't go into here, I opted for the dog. I quickly tired, however, of auditioning the bad dogs listed in the want ads of our local paper. A Gordon setter, for instance, billed as "Great With Kids" actually lunged at Sam. So I put an ad in myself, like a dog personals: "Mellow, low-energy guard dog wanted for family with small child." Lo and behold the first response brought us Sadie, whom I have described elsewhere as Jesus in a black dog suit. At first Brian and Diane were delighted for us, but then they became bitter and jealous, so I offered to find them a dog, too. They were dogless, in Gaza, at the time.

I ran another dog personals in the paper, and Brian immediately got a call.

He was grilled over the phone for an hour and a half by the dog's owner, as if he were asking for her daughter's hand in marriage. It was brutal, but he stuck with it because he had a hunch.

Then there was a follow-up call. This time Brian got to do some of the talking. Charlie's original owner apparently had tiny little unresolved control issues.

"Why are you giving him away?" Brian asked.

"I have too many children and too many pets," she said. "And I can't give away the children."

Finally the woman agreed to meet Brian and let Brian meet Charlie, her 2-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Brian said it was an awful scene, with Charlie jailed in a crate underneath a bird cage in the woman's living room, feathers floating down onto his head, which seemed to startle him every time.

"It was like the Chinese water torture," said Brian. After elaborate hostage negotiations, the woman gave him Charlie. They drove home to meet Diane. Charlie had never been for a ride in the car before, except to go to the vet, and he climbed onto Brian's chest and sprawled there like a bearskin rug, staring, unblinking, up into Brian's eyes as he drove. "It was like he was trying to communicate with me telepathically, but I wasn't enough on the ball to make the connection. But he was such a sweet, gentle little guy. And we were friends for life."

Charlie never got in trouble. Oh, maybe there were a few unpleasant situations involving cat boxes, the telltale kitty litter stuck to the fur around his mouth, but that was about it. He was like the small, perfect dog other families had when you were growing up: well-behaved, highly intelligent. Our dogs were always like furry portraits of Dorian Gray, yappy and neurotic, full of dark weirdnesses. No one ever liked our dogs but us. Hannah Arendt could have had a field day discussing our dogs. But we loved them, and when they died, it was always the end of the world. There's no armor there for you in the space where you love a dog. And they prey on this! They know this, and they use this against you! You put a dog together with a person whose center is in near-ruins and the dog loves that person like a rock, often becomes in fact that person's rock.

So Brian and Diane got loved like that by this sweet, worried little old man of a boy, in a dappled dog suit.

But his breed is prone to congestive heart failure, and not long ago, he began to fail. His heart was going, and his kidneys, too.

"We've got to get him a heart transplant," Sam said. "We'll sell everything we have and get the money for surgery."

"There aren't really organ transplant programs for dogs," I said, and Sam looked at me with disgust.

"But some people like their pets more than they like the people in their family," he said meanly, and then looked adoringly over at Sadie. I sighed and said that while this was true, there was not much transplant surgery available for pets. This gave him the opening to cast aspersions on my character.

Diane called last night to say that Brian was going to take Charlie in today and have him put to sleep; he was really sick.

Sam began to weep. "What can we do?" he cried.

"We'll help them get through this. We'll cry and feel terrible with them. That's all we really have to offer."

Everybody felt really broken up by the news. It was impossible not to love Charlie. It would be like not loving Flipper. My friend Chris, upon hearing the sad news, said, "Oh, God, my heart breaks for Brian and Diane." Her old dog Shane had died recently and it had been a terribly painful loss.

"Tell them that Shane is up there collecting the best dog toys for Charlie right now and great cat butts to sniff."

Sam said that Charlie had been getting ready to leave for a while, that you could see it in his eyes. That he wanted to jump and play but would never be able to do that again down here.

I arranged to meet Brian in a parking lot near the vet's office. Their other dog, Lulu, Charlie's soul sister, was in the back seat of Brian's car. He had read somewhere that if you spirited a dog away to be put down without the other dog having a chance to grok this somehow, it could really mess up the surviving dog. Lulu is sweet and happy and has Goofy's stand-up ears like Cyndi Lauper would have if she were a dog. And there's a lightness to her, like she's one of the really dumb popular girls. Brian and I and Lulu drove to the veterinary hospital. Brian and I went inside to get Charlie. He was so weak, wrapped in a blue towel, so sweet and trusting and so cute you could die. Brian carried him out to the car.

Charlie and Lulu smelled each other and nuzzled, but after a while we had to go back inside. The vet and his assistant met us in the examination room. Brian kept stroking Charlie, telling him over and over, "You are a sweet boy, such a sweet boy," and everyone was crying quietly except for the vet, who looked sad and very kind. Charlie wagged his tail to the end, but it was without much life force, like windshield wipers on a car with a nearly dead battery. He was making a soft sound unlike any other I have ever heard, a muffled kind of peeping and cooing like baby dolphins might make in the first moments after they're born. Then the vet gave him an injection in the leg, and moments later, with Brian nuzzling him, Charlie stopped breathing.

Later today, we buried him in the earth near the roses at my house, because Brian and Diane live on a houseboat. Brian dug a deep hole in the ground and we laid Charlie in it. I scattered a few rose petals over him. We prayed.

Brian and Diane and Sam cried off and on all day, but everyone was also kinder and more connected. Charlie's death made you hear the songbirds more acutely, smell the sunny air. We planted the lightest yellow rose bush we could find over Charlie's body and packed rich black soil around it. Looking out the window just a minute ago, at Brian and Sam, who were watering the roses on the grave, I remembered out of nowhere Dorothy Parker's line, "Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?" and it made me laugh with something approaching joy.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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