Winter, The Dog

        The thin sun still shines through the living-room window. But however much we stoke the fire, the humid chill of winter still deepens the bite of the virus at work in Bull's deteriorating spine, and under his soft black fur his hindquarters twitch in random agony. Our sweet puppy is thirteen now, grey- muzzled but still spunky in between the bouts of pain. He's still the proud and loving spirit that our son Lorca has always known as his simple-minded older brother. But Bull’s condition has grown worse suddenly with the onset of this weather, and it's not clear that he will last the winter, or even the next week, crippled and yelping with pain. So as the day wanes, Lorca, Karen, and I take time for a long talk and cry together, planning to guide and receive his death.

         It's a bittersweet luxury, not being afraid that Bull will die but rather knowing that he will, after a long, rich life, that frees us to grieve in peace in the last pleasures of his company. And it's a blessing to be able to go through this with Karen, who so fully shares my feelings about this dear spirit; and with Lorca, who now at eight years old does so too, though he cannot fathom my undercurrent of joy at sharing this intimate occasion with him.

        After a second round of tears -- he and Karen had talked earlier in the day, and I'd had my own first cry while Bull limped gamely around the block, relieving his constipation, before I carried him upstairs again -- we talk about where and how we will bury him, in the old quilt, on the open hillside. Then we leave the dinners we still haven't touched, and go sit together on the couch and have a third cry, while Bull settles himself painfully before the fire.

        Brandishing his genuine antique knife-thrower's dagger above the dinner-plates, Lorca had cried out that he wished the viruses hurting Bull were large enough to cut, so that he could chop them into halves, fourths, eighths, eightieths, billionths. On the couch between us now, he sits up suddenly and says that it's wrong to be spending all that money on space, when there's so much wrong and needing to be done here on Earth. "When we get to other planets we'll probably just mess them up anyway," he says bitterly, "that's all we do. The only thing that people care about is people, just themselves, they hardly care at all about what happens to the animals. They'd rather waste their money on their stupid wars."

        What surprises me is not the values our son professes, for I'd imagined they were growing in him, somewhere beneath the passion for garish Starwars technology that's consumed him for the past two years. It is rather the economical clarity of their expression in this moment of his distress, and the way he seems to have put all this together for himself, spontaneously --  for neither Karen nor I had heard him rehearse such sentiments before.  

        "Who are 'they'?" asks Karen, once and again until he can hear her.

        "The scientists," says Lorca in disgust, "and the other people who run things. Businessmen."

        Once a scientist myself, I have taught him this love, which he forgets in his grief and anger at its uselessness here. But something deeper is at stake. Concerned that he learn what will help make him whole, I seize the open moment to tell him how it is to be more than child-helpless, to grow up with some power in our world, the way it works.

        I tell him that Bull's coming death leaves me angry too, but at no one: the grief is clean, nobody's fault. It's better to save your anger and energy for the times when willful stupidity, malice, or greed bring unnecessary grief, tragic and cruel. You can become a scientist who studies animals to help them, instead of spaceships, or studies both. A teacher who teaches about what is better for us to do; a politician who advances the good, a lawyer who defends it. And so on, there is always a way to take what you care for and work to bring it about in the world. And this is how such lives of purpose are begun, when young people feel deeply about what is right and what should be, and choose to grow up to support it. "Though you may not get very far," I feel compelled to add.

        "But you do it because you must try," says Karen; and I say "Amen."

         "And what do you do about it?" Lorca asks me, halfway between sullen and thoughtful challenge. I tell him that the very first story I wrote as a parent was about teaching a child to love all living things; and that it ended with the tale of how Bull came to accept Lorca as a baby, as a younger and favored brother. "And I imagine I'll write another," I tell him. "That's part of what I try to do about it. But you have to find your own way."

        And Lorca is quiet, thoughtful. I cannot tell about what. This hour is a long vulnerable moment for him, for us –- one of those in which we are moved to grasp and re-affirm the order of the world and what meaning in it lies. We have chosen that Bull’s body will nourish a fruit-tree. I do not know what is sown in Lorca’s openness, or in ours, in this lucid moment in which we are more deeply one together than we have been for too long a time.

        And I am glad to be done with words and advice, for the timing may have been right but the mode feels wrong to prolong, off-key. So I rise and go to put the B Minor Mass on the player, and return.

        “What is it?” asks Lorca, as his hand and Karen’s find mine again.

        “It’s by Bach. It’s music for the dead,” I tell him, as the slow swelling cadences of those massed voices take us and grant me relief from the teacher, relief from worrying whether it’s too much to share this so with him. And Karen leans her head on my arm and we weep gently in our grief within the music for a time, all the more when Lorca slips away to go cuddle the dark body that lies before the fire, still larger than his own, and Bull searches his face with slow kisses.


Michael Rossman   1978

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