A dog has died: a big, happy white dog; a dedicated pacifist; a dog with the manners and the ways of an Edwardian gentleman. He came to our house in need of a family. But, in the way of these things, my wife and I needed him. Strange how every dog fills a need we did not know we had.
Someone had appropriately named the lover boy Sunny. He did not do tricks, give a paw, or beg at the table. Although, truth be told, he had a what-about-me stare that could penetrate hardened steel.
When age and infirmity sounded their knell, Sunny had to be gurneyed into the veterinary hospital, where kind hands did the dread thing. As he lay on the table, I kissed him goodbye, and I cried for him and for myself. The mortality of our dogs–their lives and assigned span of years–is so out of step with our own pilgrimage.
Why do dogs commandeer our hearts and minds, and shatter us with their departure–each one so different from the others, and yet as dear, as precious, as intriguing and as beguiling? Do dogs live with us, or do we live with them, even through them? Do we escape into their being–so much simpler and nobler than our own? We pamper them and they fawn on us; we corrupt and transmogrify them, and they accommodate. Their sins are few, by comparison with the panoply of our own. What is a little jealousy, or a smidgen of disobedience, compared with the human capacity for evil?
Some people are much like other people, but the variety of canine personality is one of the miracles of Creation.
I have been pondering the many dogs who have favored me over the decades. There was Monty, the fox terrier, who got lost in the African bush and journeyed 200 miles home. There was Healthcliff, the Jack Russell terrier, who thought all children in swimming pools were in such mortal danger that he belly-flopped in and tried to drag them out–by the hair, if they were girls.
And there was Overset. I named him Overset, which is what newspapermen call articles for which there is no room in the paper. Overset was an ingratiating stray who was surplus to my living requirements. He showed up at the hotel where I lived in Washington, D.C., back in the late l960s. The hotel frowned on his presence, so I took him to work at the old Washington Daily News.
Overset adopted the paper and it adopted him. His day began on the editorial floor, where he would jump on the copy desk, and walk up and down while the first edition was being prepared. Then he went down to the composing room to hurry on the printers. Even the noise of the presses did not faze him. His last stop was the loading dock, where he would bark, if he thought newspaper bundles were not being loaded fast enough. Six unions claimed he had honorary membership.
In what, I think, is John Le Carre’s greatest novel, “A Perfect Spy,” the old, professional spy, Broadbent, loses his beloved dog. Broadbent takes his favorite tweed coat and wraps his dog in it before he buries him. There were many poignant moments in the book, but that one stands out.
Many poets have memorialized dogs, but none more so than Rudyard Kipling. The imperial poet went sentimental about dogs. Prolific, too.
When a dog’s last day close, and we are bereft, it is time to read again Kipling’s lament, “There is sorrow enough in the natural way/ From men and women to fill our day/ … Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware/ Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.”
Beware, indeed. Even the runt of a litter of uncertain parentage is born with the keys to human hearts.