This dog's life

Having a good pet is the closest some of us ever come to knowing the direct love of a mother, or God.

Published November 7, 2003 3:09PM (EST)

In the magical documentary "Rivers and Tides," about the artist and naturalist Andy Goldsworthy, there is a scene where Goldsworthy outlines black holes in the ground with bright leaves, wreaths of red and yellow and green. Over time, green shoots grow out of the holes, when the leaves have blown away. I think of this scene whenever I confront loss, because I have to believe that green shoots will grow from even the deepest black hole, either in a wreath, so that we might see it better -- in poems, or paintings -- or in plainsong, like when our dog died last year.

Having a good dog is the closest some of us are ever going to come to knowing the direct love of a mother, or God, so it's no wonder it knocked the stuffing out of me and Sam when Sadie died. I promised Sam we'd get another puppy someday, but secretly decided not to ever get another dog. I didn't want to hurt that much again, if I could possibly avoid it. And I didn't want my child's heart and life to break like that again. But you don't always get what you want; you get what you get. This is a real problem for me. You want to protect your child from pain, and what you get instead is life, and grace, and while theologians insist that grace is freely given, the truth is that you sometimes pay through the nose. And you can't pay your child's way.

We should never have gotten a dog to begin with -- they all die. I know this sounds sort of negative, and bitter, but it happens to be true. That's why it's so subversive that Goldsworthy makes art that will pass away in the fullness of time, or later that same day, like his giant prismatic rings made of icicles. He builds them outside on the cold ground, positioned to frame the sun in the sky as its light shines through. Of course, the sun is also the reason the ice rings melt so soon, but if he built them of iron, there'd be no halo, no prism.

When Sam was 2, and George Herbert Walker Sushi-Barfing Bush was president, and it seemed that the first Gulf War would assure his reelection, I couldn't help noticing I was depressed and afraid a lot of the time, like I am now. I decided that I either needed to move, to marry an armed man, or to find a violent but well-behaved dog. I was determined, as I am now, to stay and fight, and the men I tended to love were not remotely well enough to carry guns, so I was stuck with the dog idea.

For awhile I called people who were advertising dogs in the local paper. Everyone said they had perfect dogs, but perfect for whom? Quentin Tarantino? One dog we auditioned belonged to a woman who said her dog adored children, but it actually lunged at Sam, snarling. Other dogs snapped at us. One ran to hide, peeing as she ran. So I took the initiative and ran an ad for a mellow, low-energy guard dog, and the next day we got a call from a woman who said she had just the dog.

As it turned out, she did have a great dog, a gorgeous 2-year-old named Sadie, half black lab, and half golden retriever. She looked like a black Irish setter. I always told people she was like Jesus in a black fur coat, or Audrey Hepburn in Blackglama, elegant and loving and silly; such a lady.

She was very shy at first. Our vet said she must have been abused as a puppy, because she was so worried about not pleasing us. He taught us how to get on the floor with her and barrel into her slowly, so that she would see that you meant her no harm -- that you were in fact playing with her. She tried to look nonplussed, but you could see she was alarmed. But she was so eager to please that she learned to play, if politely.

She lived with us for 10 years, saw us through great joy and great losses. She consoled us through friends' illnesses, the death of Sam's grandparents. She and I walked Sam to school every day. She was mother, dad, psych nurse. She helped me survive my boyfriends and the metallic, percussive loneliness in between. She helped Sam survive his first mean girlfriend. She'd let my mother stroke her head forever. She taught comfort.

But when she and Sam were about to turn 13, she developed lymphoma. She had lymph nodes in her neck the size of golf balls. Our vet said she would live a month if we didn't treat her. Part of me wanted to let her die, so we could get it over with, have the pain behind us. But Sam and I talked it over, and decided to get her half a dose of chemo: We wanted her to have one more great spring. She was better two days later. She must have had a great capacity for healing: She went in and out of remission for two and a half years, 10 seasons. Toward the end, when she got sick again and probably wasn't going to get well, our vet said he would walk us through her death. He said that even when beings are extremely sick, 95 percent of them is still healthy and well -- it's just that the 5 percent feels so shitty -- and that we should focus on the parts that were well, that brought her pleasure like walks, smelling things, and us.

Our vet does not like to put animals to sleep unless they are suffering, and Sadie did not seem to be in pain. He said that one day she would go under the bed and not come out, and when she did, he would give us sedatives to help her stay calm. One day, she crawled under the bed, just like he said she would.

It was such a cool, dark cave under my bed, with a big soft moss green carpet. Her breathing was labored. She looked apologetic.

I called our vet, and asked if I should bring her in. He said she'd feel safer dying at home, alone, with me, but I had to come in to pick up the narcotics. He gave me three syringes full. I took them under the bed with me, along with the telephone, with the ringer off, and I lay beside her and assured her that she was a good dog even though she could no longer take care of us. I prayed for her to die quickly and without pain, for her sake, but mostly because I wanted her to die before Sam got home from school. I didn't want him to see her dead body. She hung on. I gave her morphine, prayed, talked to her softly, and called our vet. He had me put the phone beside her head, and listened for a moment.

"She's really not in distress," he assured me. "This is hard work, like labor. And she has you, Jesus and narcotics. We should all be so lucky."

I stayed beside her on the carpet under the bed, and then she raised her head to look around like a black horse, and she sighed, and then lay her head down and died.

I couldn't believe it, that she was gone, even though she'd been sick for so long. But you could feel that something huge, a tide, had washed in, and washed out again.

I cried and cried, and called my brother and sister-in law. Jamie said Stevo wasn't home, but she would leave him a note and come right over. I prayed again, for my brother to get there before Sam came home from school, so he could take Sadie's body away, to spare Sam, to spare me from Sam's loss.

I kept looking at the clock. School would be out in half an hour.

Jamie and their dog Sasha arrived 17 minutes after Sadie died. I had pulled the carpet out from under the bed. Sadie looked as beautiful as ever. Jamie and I sat on the floor nearby. Sasha is a small white dog with tea-colored stains, and she has a bright dancing quality -- we call her the Czechoslovakian circus terrier, perky ears and tender eyes -- and we couldn't resist her charm. She licked us, and ran up to Sadie, licking her, too, on her face. Then she ran, back to us, as if she was saying, "I am life, and I am here! And my ears are up at this hilarious angle!"

Stevo finally arrived, but it was only a few minutes before Sam would get home from school. I wanted Steve to hurry and get Sadie into the car, but it was too horrible to think of Sam catching him, sneaking Sadie out like a burglar stealing our TV. So I breathed miserably, and I prayed to be up to the task. Stevo sat beside his wife. Then Sam arrived home, and found us. He cried out sharply, and sat on my bed alone, above Sadie, alone. His eyes were red, but after a while, Sasha made him laugh. She kept running over to Sadie, the dead exquisitely boneless mountain of majestic glossy black dog in repose on the rug. Then she leapt on the bed to kiss Sam, before tending to the rest of us, like she was a doctor, making her rounds.

Then things got wild: My librarian friend Neshama arrived. I had called her with the news. She sat down beside me. Then a friend of Sam's stopped by, and his father came in too, and slipped behind Sam on the bed like a shadow. Then the doorbell rang, and it was another friend of Sam's, just stopping by, out of the blue, if you believe in out of the blue, which I don't; and then a kid who lives up the hill stopped by to borrow Sam's bike. He stayed, too. It was like the stateroom scene in "Night at the Opera." There were five adults, three kids, one white Czechoslovakian circus terrier and one large dead black dog.

But one of the Immutable Laws of Being Human is that whoever shows up is the right person, or the right people, and boy, were these the right people. Sadie looked like an island of dog, and we looked like flotsam that had formed a ring around her. Andy Goldsworthy would have had a field day with us, the range of ages and materials, the wit and hard work and unruly elements -- life, death, dogs -- something in us trying to hold something together that doesn't hold together, but then does, miraculously, for the time being.

Sometimes we were self-consciously quiet, as if we were all in kindergarten on the floor, and we should stretch out and nap, but the teacher had gone out, and so we waited.

Finally, the three boys went downstairs, and turned on loud rock 'n' roll. The grown-ups stayed awhile longer. I got a bag of chocolates from the kitchen, and we ate them, as if raising glasses in a toast. As Sadie got deader and emptier, we could see that it was no longer Sadie in there. She wasn't going to move or change, except to get worse, and start smelling. So Stevo carried her on the rolled-up carpet, out to my van. It was so clumsy, and so sweet, this big ungainly car-size package, Sadie's barge, and sarcophagus.

We could hear the phantom sounds of Sadie for days -- the nails on wood, the tail, the panting. Sam was alternately distant and clingy and mean, because I am the primary person he both bangs on, and banks on. I stayed close enough so he could push me away. Sadie slowly floated off.

Then, out of the so-called blue again, six months later, some friends gave us a 5-month-old puppy named Lily. She is huge, sweet and well-behaved -- mostly. She's not a stunning bathing beauty like Sadie was; in fact, she looks quite a lot like Walter Matthau. But she's lovely and loving and we adore her. It still hurts sometimes, to have lost Sadie, though. She was like the floating garlands Goldsworthy makes, yellow and red and still-green leaves, connected to each other with thorns, floating away in the current. I remember how they swirled, and floated back in toward the shore, got cornered in eddies, and floated free again. You know all along that they will disperse once they're out of your vision, but they will never be gone entirely, because we saw them. They illustrate the way water is like the wind, because the leaves are doing what streamers do. So the garlands are a kind of translation of this material; autumn leaves, transposed to water, still flutter.

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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