Dogs & grandparents are an experience. Details hint at their gifts.


[Tess protests sitting: Florida, 1981]

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:

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.”


[Tess’s leash, age 34: in Ohio, on its fourth dog. Collar: hers in adolescence.]

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.

[Tess: 1982 portrait.]

[Tess: 1982 portrait. In her red collar.]

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.

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.”]


  • dclaud says:

    Writers and editors form very close relationships, especially when they’re supplying you with copy that you depend upon to be engaging and artful once a month. You become more than friends. You engage in a codependent relationship where the editor brings out the best in your prose and the writer rewards the editor with better and better stories.
    One of the hardest things I’ve had to do as an editor is to say, no, your piece on your recently deceased dog just doesn’t get it, is not up to your usual level of excellence, though I’ve published pieces on the dead dogs of writers. It requires, as you observe, animating the dog with a true measure of difference, with the essence of how canines somehow inveigle their way into human and familial relations like no other being on the planet. From what I’ve read, you’re capturing that.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks—I’m trying. Neat that you know this dead-dog genre so well! It would be interesting to read a whole essay from the editor’s side. I have no idea how many dead-dog stories an editor sees . . .

  • shirleyhs says:

    There’s something so poignant in this essay, Richard. Your 34-year-old collar reminds me of the post I read this morning wherein the featured character, now 98 years old, has loved a dog named Fritzie all her adult life. When one dies, another eventually takes its place — Fritzie I,II,III, and IV.

    The shortness of life is a theme that hits me also. This being my son’s 40th birthday.

    And another point of connection. Had a conversation with a monk about aging. He said his grandparents marked him indelibly. What does he remember? His grandfather would always say, “Life goes so fast!”

    • Richard says:

      That was a surprise to me too, Shirley, the grandparent part that may produce what you call poignance here. Actually I had given up on my post’s draft and had decided to skip this week. But then this morning I read my former minister’s blog, his profound new post on finding meaning at 80. He takes off from the story of Jesus’ rebuke to Martha, for busyness and fretting, while her sister, Mary, sat at his feet and listened. Dave related it to what is his own “one thing” that Jesus mysteriously referred to as “needful.” He has found his one needful thing! (It is mindfulness or attention—link below.)

      Then I recalled Mary and Martha were Lazarus’s sisters, known to me for provoking the famous sentence “Jesus wept.” Before I read the parable of Lazarus’ death and resurrection myself, I’d assumed Jesus was sad because human life is sad, sad that it ends. Like us. Not at all! Jesus was responding to human grief over death. That’s what made Jesus sad, our sadness. He wept.

      Since I wrote this post after all that reading, and some emailing with Dave, maybe there’s a shadow.

      Dave’s post, on Owen at Random, is here:

      P.S.—My sister and brother in law have for decades kept a pair of shepherds, the males always named Mitchell and the females Tulip. It’s a great way to affirm their essential doggy-ness on the one hand. On the other, they do vary! One hopes they all share the same emotional qualities we treasure. I agonize over names, so doubt I’d do it, even though it makes practical and, in a manner, spiritual sense.

  • Dear Richard, I know that from your point of view, as you say, it’s agonizing to try to come up with just the right words as vehicles for your expressions of dog and grandparent love. But from my point of view, I think you’re doing a fine job of expression, and conveying both the actual emotions and thoughts plus the difficulty of articulating them, an added bonus for readers who like to think about what they read and not just wallow in it.

    • Richard says:

      I appreciate that affirmation, Victoria. A wise writer recently said to me, about my moaning over this, that I’m complaining about process. That’s what writing is, she said. It’s that process that’s challenging. That’s the thing itself. Looked at this way, I have nothing more to say on this subject! Ever again! But of course I will . . .

  • Beth says:

    I love reading about your process in writing “Tess.” And the dog/grandparent experience link is intriguing. At 65, because of my marriage to Buck (14 years my senior), I acquired “children” (in their twenties when we married 32 years ago), then grandchildren and now great-grandchildren. Labrador retrievers came into my life, too, and wiggled away my lifelong fear of dogs. And now we’re about to sell “the big house” because the season of letting go has begun. It’s all connected. That’s why I love reading about your process. It holds a mirror to my own.

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