Friday, November 30, 2007

Reflection: Remorse for Any Death

This morning my son Gunnar picked up one of our cordless phones and said, "Phone?" I affirmed his astute observation, and asked if he was wanting to call anyone. He replied, "Papa?", which means Grandpa. I asked which one he meant, and when he didn't respond, I grabbed the closest family photo and pointed to my dad. "This Grandpa?" I asked. "Yep," he replied without hesitation.

All of this is a little odd, because Gunnar generally requests phone calls to his Grandmothers, not to his Grandfathers. We rang my dad up, and Gunnar talked to him for a little while. I think he knew already my dad needed that phone call today.

Our family has had dogs since I can remember. Nuktuk, a Siberian husky sled-dog who spent the off-season with us; Chugga, a dachshund I can remember picking out of a litter; Smokey, the dog I grew up with, a Heinz-57 mutt who came into our lives when I was in grade four, and left when I was in college. I remember that day with stark clarity - I was working at a summer camp as the director, and my parents called to let me know they were planning to put Smokey down. She'd been sick with epilepsy for a long time, and it had become unmanageable. They drove out to the camp so I could say goodbye. I held her for a while, and then they drove away, Smokey looking out the window at me one last time. It's amazing how much dogs get into our lives.

A year later, my parents brought Patches home. I was living in Edmonton already, so I never really thought of Patches as my dog, but I spent enough time around her that she was definitely part of the family to me. Another mutt, with a goofy spirit. Not as small as Smokey, but not as big as her best friend, Nala. Nala was a German Shepherd my parents inherited when my sister and her family moved to Houston. Patches and Nala became close companions. In recent years, I referred to them as the two old ladies.

Last year, Nala was diagnosed with a defect in her hip common to purebred German Shepherds. Worried she'd die before Gunnar could meet the dogs, we took a trip down to Medicine Hat so he could see them. We were very fortunate in that this was not the last time he would see the two of them. There were a few more opportunities over the past year, but today the opportunities came to an end. Nala's condition had worsened, and Patches relied on Nala for guidance since she had become mostly blind and deaf. My parents decided that with winter approaching, it was the kindest thing to do.

Donna Haraway says this about dogs in her Companion Species Manifesto: "Dogs are about the inescapable, contradictory story of relationships--co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all." We've seen that in our own household, a relationship between humans and dogs, over and over. We do not stop relating to these companions because of our grief. We carry on.

Still, the death remains. And in remembering these two good companions, who provided me with hugs and cold wet noses, who simultaneously fascinated, frightened, and befriended my son, I will close from a line of poetry from Jorge Luis Borges' "Remorse for Any Death":

The dead person, everywhere no one,
is nothing but the loss and absence of the world.
We rob it of everything,

we do not leave it one color, one syllable:

here is the yard which its eyes no longer take up
there is the sidewalk where it waylaid its hope.

Even what we are thinking
it might be thinking too;
we have shared out like thieves the amazing treasure of nights and days.

The images in this post are all of the dogs we've owned. Patches, Nala, and Smokey: these are images I worked on for a calendar of our dogs we gave to my dad a few Christmases back.


  1. Anonymous2:46 PM

    Thanks for those kind and inspiring words Mike. And the calendar lives on for it's third year. I just change the calendar pages. The pictures remain the same and will for more years to come.

  2. Rio Jones (niece)8:05 AM

    That was really sweet Uncle Mike. As you might know Nala was my first dog that I ever had and I loved her so much. thank you.