Loss of a Dog
By: John Alves
Last year my grandmother died. Since I moving away from home after high school to attend college I tried to call her every Sunday. I knew she'd be home after attending church or spending time with her sister so it was a regular thing. I was able to tell her things about my life and know that she held them in confidence in a way that I had almost never been able confide in anyone else before. I think I learned more about her as a real person in the five years after leaving home than I did in all the time we spent together before my move all the way across the country. She helped me deal with my doubts and folly's in a way only a grandmother can.
We had always had a special relationship, not just because I was her grandson, but also because we were similar in many ways of thought. Before she died I started a painting of her. I meant her to see it completed but she passed before I was able to finish. It's been a little more than a year since and I still have been unable to complete it. Often I set up the easel and my painting supplies, change clothes, and sit down in front of it for a half hour; fully intending get on with it. I can not but stare at the image. I put the paint supplies back, change into my regulars, and look out the window blankly. I have done this many times, but what I have not done is cried.
I'm not sure why this is, in fact I have not cried at the death of any family member that I can remember and it's not for lack of caring. I have a deep well of emotion for those in my family and for many outside but I simply don't cry on these occasions. Often I wish I could, thinking that it could have a sort of cathartic effect. I've spoken to friends about this on intermittently and many do not understand the longing. They understand the need for release but this method in particular is typically a difficult one. I feel I must be missing something but I don't know exactly what it is. At any rate crying not being an option, paint and canvas board seems a good enough solution for the swell of feelings that need liberation.
Since her death I have actually touched it with paint twice, each session being short despite my being desperate to complete it. Each attempt I end up returning the image and its supplies to the closet, much to the annoyance of my sister to whom it is promised upon completion. Today I received word from my parents of another death, my pet dog. I understand that there can be no real comparison between the death of a human family member, especially one such as my grandma and a Labrador retriever but damn it, I loved that dog. With Coal, as might be imagined I had a somewhat different relationship than grandma and since having left the nest it has been difficult to say whether or not he truly remembered me when I returned each year for the holidays or vacation. While the first few times being a bit galling it became routine enough after a couple years. The remember process was always the same.
I would come home back and at the airport mom or dad would come to pick me up, usually with Coal in tow. Now although I know he didn't remember me his good nature would always compel him to cover me in wet dog kisses anyway. After about 2 or 3 days he would be back to the old ways of responding and playing as though I'd never left. Then, I would leave, and the process would start again the next time I returned. I remember playing with him and when it was night he would lay at the foot of the bed, just happy to be near someone. I remember him drinking from the bathroom faucet, as was his preference to standing water, and the chase game he loved. I remember how friendly he was and how much time had been spent walking in the woods. Mostly I remember the look he would give you after a being away for a long time surprised and happy.
It's difficult to say what he thought, if dogs can be said to think in the same manner as people, given that they're simply not as intelligent as we often imagine. We see added meaning in the expressions and underlying purpose in their simple motions. Some of this may be warranted but most is likely just a reflection of our own purposes and meaning. I know however that Coal enjoyed certain things in his life to which he was often obliged, walking with my father and mother, sitting in the front seat of the car, chewing his toy "bite the man", and playing in the grass. He had these things and on the whole I feel I can say with true confidence that he lived a life any dog would be lucky to have. Even at his death some of his family was nearby, as I wish I had been.
I was able to say goodbye to my grandmother, we all knew her time was approaching and most of the family was able to express their love to her before the end. I held her hand about a week before it happened and left without many regrets on the time we had been able to spend together save that it was perhaps to brief. I'd hoped that this year I would be able to do something similar when I returned come December for Coal. Say my goodbyes, with the knowledge that I mightn't be understood but at least would get to say them. Take him for a nice walk and maybe buy him a treat at the bakery. Then I could leave with at least the feeling that I could really part ways. Life and death however are not for anyone to plan with real regularity. That rag, splattered with the paint of our lives is something which is most often not predictable, ugly and difficult. I would not get the chance to see him or run my hand over his fur again, by the time I get home he will have already been sent to the crematorium and turned to cinders.
I will miss the being that was, for a short time, a traveling companion on the trail my life has led me down and know that someday many of the faces I know now will go in the same way. But I also know that my life continues, his contribution to was not meaningless and I believe I am better having known him than not. I will miss him and I don't ever expect to see him again, not being a believer in a life after. This is the way things are and likely will continue until the last cell on earth dies, but I can't help but wish that impossible wish that it wasn't so. I will not cry at the loss of Coal, but I may start another painting.