Last month, we buried one of my best friends ever. She lays beneath the Carolina mud and clay in our back yard, about four feet below the surface. When I look down from above my backyard, I can see the stone that marks her resting place. At her death, we read several poems that can be found in Border Ways, including the title poem, Now and Then, and Dog Gone.
As I go on living without Sallie, I am moved to share the work of two artists. The first is a poem by James L. Dickey, The Heaven of Animals. The second is a short essay by my mother, Barbara J. Linney based on her experience last month. It is titled, Love of Dogs.
The Heaven of Animals
Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.
Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.
To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.
For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,
More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey
May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.
James Dickey, “The Heaven of Animals” from The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992. Copyright © 1992 by James Dickey. Reprinted with the permission of Wesleyan University Press, www.wesleyan.edu/wespress.
Source: James Dickey: The Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)
Love of Dogs
My son called the night before I was driving to his house in Durham to stay with his three children while his wife had minor surgery. “I hate to have to tell you this, but we are putting Sallie down the morning after you get here. The vet is coming to the house to do it. I know that will be hard for you but we need you.”
“I can do it, but you have to know I will cry like crazy.”
“We will all cry. Kathryn and I took her to the vet this morning. The vet said, “I can do blood work, but I don’t need to do any tests to tell you she’s very sick.” She had lost 1/3 of her body weight, had been having seizures, and bled from her nose the week before.
“But she doesn’t cry like she is suffering,” my son said.
“She is a working dog. They’ve been bred and trained not to complain for generations. Just because she is not whimpering does not mean she is not suffering.”
She was my son’s first dog as a grown up. He got her from the pound in Frisco, Colorado, where he went with fraternity brothers for two years to work and ski after he graduated from Furman and before he married, went to Duke Divinity School, and had three children. The people at the pound thought she was a combination Border Collie and Australian Shepherd.
Kathryn and her Dad began to cry. They moved over to the corner to hug and try to comfort each other. Then my son said, “Is it time?”
“Some people give lots of pain drugs and go the Hospice route as long as they can, but it is not what I recommend. Almost no one does what I recommend,” the vet said.
He stood up. “That is not what I want. How will we do this? Do I bring each child over here to say goodbye?”
“I can come to your house. I have done this all over the city.”
“My wife is having surgery tomorrow. I don’t want to watch them both be in pain all weekend. Could you do it in the morning?”
“I can be there at 7:30,” she said.
I had arrived at the house before the family came back from celebrating Kathryn’s 8th birthday at Wet and Wild. I came early to spend time with Sallie. She and I had a relationship. I had dog sat many times over her 14 years. She could whine me into more food than the regulated amount. I slept in the basement bedroom with her when she stayed alone at my house so she wouldn’t cry. I knew she was a great contributor to my son’s maturing into the fine man he is.
Soon after I heard the garage door go up, William, the six year old, ran up to me and said, “Sallie is going to die tomorrow.”
“I know. I’m sorry.
Dad and the two boys went in the backyard to dig a hole in the flowerbed at the end of the zip line. “When you come down the zip line you’ll be able to say, ‘Hi Sallie,’” Dad said. Kathryn found a ragged rock about six by ten inches in the back yard and began to decorate it with markers.
When we were alone, I asked her mother, who is an exquisite gardener and landscaper as well as an RN, “How did that rock stay in your backyard?”
“I thought we were going to need it.”
Each child drew a picture on the rock and they saved the middle space for Dad to write Sallie’s name with a permanent black marker. Everyone chimed in, “Dad can do calligraphy.” Who knew?
We talked about it while we ate Little Caesar’s pizza and bread sticks. “I am going to cry. It used to scare me when my parents cried. I don’t know why, but it did.”
George, IV, the 9 year old, said, “I don’t think it will scare me if you cry. I don’t know if I will cry.”
His Dad, George, III said, “Some people do. Some people don’t. Not crying does not mean you don’t love.”
We went to bed and I amazed myself by sleeping.
Kathryn set her alarm for seven so she would have a half hour to hug Sallie, take pictures and offer her a spoon of peanut butter, her favorite treat. She asked me to take the pictures. Owning an IPhone had brought responsibilities I could not have anticipated. As I aimed the camera and took four shots, each one being checked for quality by Kathryn, I already had slow tears slipping over my eyelids.
I was nervous but also calm. Will the vet be on time? What is this going to be like? I’ve put two dogs down but I handed them to the vet and left with heaving sobs.
The vet and her assistant arrived right at 7:30. We all went to the backyard. My son had put a blanket and three chairs by the dug grave. The vet kneeled down in front of the three children and looked only at them. “Sallie is very sick. She is not going to get better. We are going to help her not suffer anymore. I am going to shave some hair off her leg with this razor, put this catheter in her vein and tape it on. Then I’ll put this needle in the catheter. It will be very quick. Her eyes won’t close.”
The vet and assistant carefully held Sallie. My son and three children got behind her and each put a hand on her. And then we all cried as she got totally still. My son stood up and read three poems he had written—one about her, one about a friend’s dog who had died, and one about it’s time for some of us to go and some of us to stay.
When my husband picked up our one dog, who died at home, the dog slid out of his arms on the first try so I was praying that wouldn’t happen. My son gently picked Sallie up folding her into a round circle, nose touching tail, the way she often slept and placed her in the grave. He said, “Some families like to each put in some dirt.” The children and he did that and then I did—very unlike me. Then he filled the hole quickly using all his muscle strength to pull the rain soaked dirt in. Kathryn placed the rock on top.
We all sat and cried a few more minutes. Then we got up slowly. The parents left for the hospital. The oldest son grabbed picture albums, took them to his room and pulled out pictures of Sallie to put on his wall. Kathryn wanted to frame the best two that we had taken. William, the youngest went out front to play.
Kathryn and I sat at the kitchen table making bead bracelets and necklaces after we finished framing the pictures. I answered questions all day long. “What do you think Sallie is doing in heaven?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think she is watching us?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did Daddy mean when he said Sallie made me a better husband and father?”
“She made him more responsible.”
“When you grow up, you can get a job, live on your own, and go where you want to. If you get a dog, you have to always think about feeding her, cleaning up her poop, making sure she has a safe place to stay. If you want to travel, you have to get someone else to take care of her. If she gets sick, you have to pay her vet bills. All of those duties are worth it, but they are a lot of work and you have to do it every day, not just sometimes. Being a husband and father requires all that and much more. She helped him get ready.”
Later in the day Kathryn said, “I bet Sallie’s thinking—they gave me peanut butter and then killed me. What’s up with that?”
That night after we got the children to bed, my son and I watched TV while his wife slept deeply with the help of Percocet. We told stories about when I first met Sallie at the pound in Frisco, about how he took her to the park, told her to stay, took off the leash, walked back and then said come. He did 20 feet, then 50 feet, then 100 feet. “She always came, jumped up on my chest and kissed me.” Through tears, he said, “Did I do the right thing?”
“Yes. She loved you from the moment she met you. You did what she most needed now.”