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In his grief over the loss of a dog, a little boy stands for the first time on tiptoe, peering into the rueful morrow of manhood. After this most inconsolable of sorrows there is nothing life can do to him that he will not be able somehow to bear. – James Thurber
In July of 2004, my brother James held Dutch, his German Shorthaired Pointer, for the first time. On November 20, 2014, James held Dutch for the last time. After ten incredible years Dutch succumbed to the ravaging effects of hemangiosarcoma, a deadly and unfortunately common cancer in dogs.
Ten years, that’s the deal. The lucky get more time, far too many get less. But we all must inevitably face the end. That end – the only end – is heartbreak. When Dutch died I held James and we cried. I wasted no breath on neat and impotent words. James howled an ancient pain.
Some admonish, “While epidemics rage, wars destroy and poverty runs rampant, your sorrow is for a dog?” Some miss the point.
I had given orders which brought death to thousands. Yet here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog. – Napoleon Bonaparte
The point is this – each and every one of us is alone. Profoundly, inexorably and inescapably alone. We have family and friends with whom we share parts of our journey and parts of who we are, but it is impossible to ever truly understand the experience of being anyone else. We are each stuck inside ourselves with no one but ourselves. Scary, I know.
There we are, stumbling through the darkness, finding our way when we see a wagging tail and we’re made a simple but profound offer. “I’ll come with you!” says a dog. A dog has no journey of their own, no thoughts of past or future, so they give themselves fully to us in a way no person ever could.
James accepted Dutch’s uncompromising offer and for ten years Dutch followed James from Boston to Washington DC, to New Jersey and finally to Chicago. Cities and circumstance changed but Dutch never did. No matter what and no matter where, James would come home and find Dutch wagging his tail furiously with a bone hanging out of the side of his mouth like a cigar. To be greeted at the door by a dog like Dutch is to know, if only for a moment, what it feels to be completely accepted and unequivocally loved. And oh what a feeling that is.
In Washington DC James was a police officer in the narcotics division. He became all too familiar with poverty, addiction, crime and violence. You can never let go of all the things that weigh on you, but you can always count on a dog to help carry that weight. I remember one night when James came home after responding to a particularly harrowing shooting. James didn’t say much and Dutch didn’t need him to. With a deep sigh James settled into the couch, Dutch jumped into his lap, and the two held each other in silent comfort.
I have a Scottie. In him I find consolation and diversion… he is the “one person” to whom I can talk without the conversation coming back to war. – Dwight D. Eisenhower
That’s what we do – we hold them close. We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us.
Like our own story, a dog’s story ends. Just much, much too soon. We know that, yet we repeatedly subject ourselves to this wrenching pain. Why? I suspect there’s no shared answer, but there is a shared lesson. We must measure life not in loss but in experience. Through our relationship with dogs we experience not just man’s best friend. We also experience man’s best quality – unconditional, selfless love.
When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.
There’s such beauty in the hard honesty of that, in accepting and giving love [to dogs] while always aware that it comes with an unbearable price. -Dean Koontz
As I’ve said before, a dog can’t change the world but they can change your world. And if each of us can pass along even a fraction of the unmitigated, world changing love we receive from our dogs? Maybe we can see about that whole changing the world thing.
Today we cry and howl. Tomorrow we wake up and change the world the same way Dutch did – one small act of selfless love at a time.
When the Man waked up he said, ‘What is Wild Dog doing here?’ And the Woman said, ‘His name is not Wild Dog any more, but the First Friend, because he will be our friend for always and always and always’ – Rudyard Kipling