Dogs & grandparents are an experience. Details hint at their gifts.Writing about a dog’s death, or even a dead dog, risks sentimentality. I mean, the writer seeking from readers emotion he hasn’t earned. I must like the animal sub-genre of dog deaths, though, because I’ve read so many. And, as my previous posts have explained, I’ve just written an essay concerning my late Labrador, Tess. I realized, writing it, that I should take the advice I’ve given so many freshmen students trying to write about a recently dead grandparent.
“Show readers, in scenes and details, your grandparent,” I’ve told them. “You must convey in specifics what you lost to show the world what it lost.” The “world” is grand shorthand for unknown readers, of course. Which in those cases actually is always me and a few peers. We’re the kindly stand-ins for those uncaring readers whose armor the writer must crack. It’s best to think of readers as friends, actually.
But to have a chance of moving readers emotionally, the writer must recreate a singular, not a generic, beloved. The writer must not just summarize what s/he experienced but, as a rule, be specific regarding the remembered gifts of time, talk, and events. This can be hard with a dog, or at least with its middle years, just as with a person. We remember beginnings and endings. I’ve stolen this notion from Jill Christman’s spooky little essay, with an aside on that phenomenon, “Family Portrait: in Third Person,” in superstition [review].
Maybe we remember and can depict the start and end of something because we return so easily to those emotional states. As Virginia Woolf says in “A Sketch of the Past,” strong emotion must leave a trace. But long middle acts blur in literature as in life. Many situations, and therefore emotions, were in play. You remember the day you got the puppy, remember who you were. There’s a snapshot in your mind. In my case, of a bearded newspaper reporter with hair like Elvis, dashing hectically—and heroically, he thought—around at age 26,. And you remember the end of something, when time briefly stopped. In my case, as a book publisher and father of two, age 39 and bald, with a creaky back. That was the guy standing here at Tess’s grave:
I noticed and feared the tendency in “Tess” to plod through the years, our doing this and that. So, again, writing about dogs is the same as writing about people. Except dog lovers may give you a longer leash before they quit reading. Even so, the fundamentals apply. So yes, the middle of “Tess” is where I scratch my head. What’s the story here? Partly it’s who Tess was and what fun she sometimes caused—like the pointlessly exciting night she ate a container of caffeine pills—but also some milestones she was part of. So what links those milestones beyond Tess? As my son used to say in every essay for school, We shall see. I refer, of course, to revision. Now that I’m a grandparent, my past writing advice to my bereft students rings in my ears as I work on “Tess.” Charged with giving their grandchildren bottomless acceptance, endless love, and apt encouragement, grandparents break their little hearts one day. Temporarily. But that’s our job. The better we do it, the more wracking the eighteen-year-old’s sobs in her dorm room.
The last photograph I took of Tess was in our family room, aiming the camera at my son Tom. I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. I inadvertently documented what I couldn’t see: as our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, in retrospect, and then shuffled to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss.
My own stunned realization concerns how fast not just canine but human lives pass. (This insight will constantly be forgotten.) What I do understand forever, after Tess’s death so long ago now, is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone understanding it yourself, isn’t simple.
I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”
But I know something else now. I’ve already given my Precious One a gift even if I die tomorrow and she never consciously remembers me. Grandparents are an experience. My advice to my students got at that—emphasized the overarching blessing, and its loss, that only details can approach. That’s what I didn’t fully understand when I gave my students advice before I became Little Kathy’s funny old Mokie in his soft stretchy cap. Oh how she laughs at me and at her equally silly dogs.
[Note: I have found a great company in Aurora, CO, that makes quality leather leashes like Tess’s pictured: Bold Lead Designs. This is the fourth and final (probably!) post in a series about writing “Tess.” The previous posts were “Feeling your way“; “Learning to sit“: and “In dogged pursuit.”]