Susan McCaslin, author of “Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga” writes about human-animal relationships, spiritual companions, love, and reflection on loss.
“What is this Joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?”
– from “Come into animal presence,” Denise Levertov (Poems: 1960-1967)
On Dec. 27, 2015 our five-year old mini-Australian shepherd Penny was brutally and instantly killed by a truck before my husband’s and my eyes. The incident was an accident, as the driver was going the speed limit, but it was a dark, rainy night, when Penny leapt from our car, as we were unloading groceries, and the driver did not see her. Did she see a bird or squirrel out of the corner of her eye, and bolted to give chase? We had failed to leash her, as she normally trots behind us straight into the house. Mark saw the truck coming, tried to stop the collision, heard the thud, then ran to gather Penny in his arms. A few seconds later he shouted, “She’s gone!!” I flung myself on the floor of the hallway of our home screaming and wailing.
Soon after, I told some of my friends that we were working through the trauma of the initial shock and wondered how long it would take to return to some kind of normalcy. Penny had become interwoven into every aspect of our daily lives. For us, she was us not only a dog, but a spiritual companion. We had lavished the love and care on her one would on a two-year-old child, a love which she returned in full.
Over the past four years, when Mark was living in Victoria during the week and I home without him in Fort Langley, Penny had become my lifeline. I talked to her, ate with her, and walked with her (you could say she herded me) for at least an hour and a half or more each day. Her routines and patterns were mine and mine, hers. First thing each morning, I opened her crate (which to her was a snug cave rather than a cage) and she jumped out to do her yoga stretches—“downward dog” and “puppy.” Then, she headed to the sliding glass door to greet the day, racing to the edge of the grass and making a “great leap of being” into the forested ravine. After sniffing around and chasing a few squirrels, she raced back for breakfast, demolishing her burger. Often, she would look longingly at my yogurt container, which I’d let her lick. If I retired to the computer to stare at the screen for too long, she’d demand a walk and we’d be off to one of our many trails and off-leash walks near the Fraser River.
Penny had a stick fetish, so she’d often choose a long stick or branch of at least two or three metres, balancing it between her jaws and running determinedly, sometimes threatening to run people off the trails. It was as if she was a big dog in a small dog’s body. Her athletic leaps to make contact with a Frisbee were feats of astonishing prowess, followed by a victory prance. At night, if I happened to have a cold or stomach pain, she would sniff my breath, lick my face, or sit on my stomach, clearly offering empathy and support, along with medical analysis. Stretching out on the sofa to have her belly rubbed, she often looked deeply into my eyes with complete trust. My husband and I both admitted that we had fallen madly in love with her. We had in our separate ways pledged her eternal fealty, as one would to a marriage partner. When I spent three months in France several years before, she had bonded with Mark in the same way she did with me.
Everywhere we go remembrances surface: fur in the sofa, paw prints in the back of the truck, scraps from our dinner we have the urge to save for her. Penny had so much joie de vivre that the house now seems deathly silent without her, and I continue to feel lost. Some friends have advised us to take another dog into our family right away. Though we are open to the idea in due course, we are not yet ready.
Losing Penny has in some ways been harder than anything we’ve faced. Compared to many, we have been lucky. Perhaps the depth of our grief has to do with the suddenness and violence of her death. The images of her last moments replay in our heads, as well as the guilt: “If only we had been more mindful, protected her, not taken that small risk of letting her out of the car unleashed. If only we had come home earlier, or later, perhaps she would be with us still.”
In many ways her loss has been more difficult than the deaths of my parents. My dad had lost all quality of life through ALS and wished to die; my mom suffered with dementia for many years and was in her eighties. My childhood dog Charlie died of old age, and our previous dog Chester of dementia and decrepitude at sixteen. We had time to prepare for those deaths, which were in one sense forms of release. My husband and I had both been looking forward to another ten years with Penny. The timing was wrong.
When informed of our loss, most of our friends, many of whom are animal lovers, “get it” right away. “Let the grief take its course,” they say. “Everyone grieves differently.” “We went through the same thing when we lost our beloved companion animal.” Yet, in my head I hear what might be called “the voice of reason” saying, “Don’t overdo it. She was just a dog.” It’s as if post-Enlightenment thinking has established a hierarchy of appropriate grieving. Certainly, losing one’s own child or spouse or parent would be incomparably grievous. Yet, I resist the phrase, “just a dog,” along with the admonition that it is best to keep one’s grief for a “mere pet” within bounds. I resist the assumption one has to quickly “get over” the loss of a dog or cat or other beloved animal friend, and that it is irrational to lament and celebrate their lives too long or deeply.
Certainly, if my husband or I were to find ourselves descending into a lengthy depression that threatened to destroy our ability to enjoy the present moment, which is Penny’s legacy to us, we might need to seek therapy in order to move on. But the notion that dogs are of less worth than humans is troubling because it is so profoundly anthropocentric. People sometimes fear being accused of “sentimentality” when they express or write about their profound relationships with other species, especially those of the domesticated kind.
Sometimes I hear a voice saying, “Get over your grief quickly. After all, it’s self-indulgent to bemoan your loss when there are much larger tragedies in the world that make yours seem small in comparison: dying refugees, tortured prisoners, people stricken with cancer, children caught in war zones.” Yet, empathizing with the sorrows of the world, doesn’t necessarily require cutting short one’s own particular griefs. To hold back from expressing our love of the animals in our lives for fear of ignoring other forms of suffering comes out of a false dichotomy. Why not grieve both?
Lord Bryon’s poem, “Epitaph to a Dog” tends toward a certain misanthropy about humans and exaltation of animals. Yet it is a corrective to the notion that it’s silly to have a memorial service for a dog:
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
Byron’s poem counterbalances the faulty notion that humans are the most evolved creatures on the planet. Maybe, we are only the more clever species. Animal intelligence, creativity, compassion are now being explored more seriously than in the past. Jane Goodall’s ground-breaking work with gorillas has helped us here. For Jane did not simply discover that apes use tools, but that they have unguessed depths of feeling, empathy, compassion, as well as the capacity for brutal warfare.
When I was studying anthropology in university, some of my professors made clear qualitative distinctions between humans and other animals by arguing that we alone have a sophisticated language, self-awareness, the ability to contemplate beauty, make art, be self-reflective, or reflect on our deaths. One by one these barricades have been challenged by those who have studied whale song, or studied animals who grieve their sorrows and enjoy their creative accomplishments. Who is to say what mysteries animal creativity and intelligence hold? Why have we so firmly set ourselves above the other species with whom we share the planet, whether domesticated or wild? By placing ourselves at the top of a hierarchy, we have diminished ourselves, for who we are stands in relation to these other life forms on which we are dependent.
Recently, when I at last ventured to walk the dike near our home that Penny and I had walked together so many times, I was reminded of how once she spotted a pack of coyotes at the edge of a field in the distance and sped off to join them. I realized her wild relatives would likely make mince-meat of her, so called her back. Mark and I often joked about how Penny, though clearly a dog, was also, through her remote relatives, a kind of fox or coyote. Whether on or off leash, she was for us a bridge between the domestic and the wild, providing a wilding of our domesticity; in essence, a connection to the natural world.
Penny led me each day down trails of scent, to imagine a world where smell is a universe in itself arising from the creative powers of the earth. Her sense of smell opened to her worlds beyond my reach. She seemed as intent on following a trail of scent it to its end, as a Van Gogh on the track of a new shade of yellow or blue. Whenever I sat hunched over my computer screen for too long, she would nudge my elbow, look plaintively, and force me outdoors, rain or shine, to be in and of the earth.
Dogs are our kin, kindred spirits, and often embodiments of kindness. Ecologist and poet Wendell Berry writes of the relation of the words “kind” and “kin”:
But the wealth of the idea of kindness is not exhausted by kindnesses to humans. It is far more encompassing. From some Christians as far back as the twelfth century, certainly from farther back in so-called primitive cultures, and from some ecologists of our own time, we have the idea of a great kindness including and binding together all beings: the living and the nonliving, the plants and animals, the water, the air, the stones. All, ultimately, are of a kind, belonging together, interdependently, in this world From the point of view of Genesis 1 or of the 104th Psalm, we could say that all are of one kind, one kinship, one nature, because all are creatures. (Wendell Berry, from “Caught in the Middle,” in Our Only World: Ten Essays. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015, 96.
Humans would be diminished without the wildness of domestic animals and other species. We evolved together and are co-dependent. As our relationship with Penny developed, she seemed to become more human, and in turn, we become more doggish. One might say we co-evolved in each other’s animal presence. I’d like to close this reflection with a poem I wrote shortly before Penny was taken from us:
A luminous fox—
brown, white, and amber,
huddles in my Aussie’s fur
A night wind hurls her
eyes into the moon
where howls erupt as music
wilding our domesticity
– Susan McCaslin, author of Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga (Inanna, 2014)