By Corey Dahl
Gus never liked to get in the car. He liked riding in the backseat, panting next to the window. He liked jumping out, landing on the ground with a face that said “Ta-da!” But getting in? He’d stop at the open door, stare at me, and wait. I tried boosting his confidence. “Go on now!” I’d say. “You can do it!” I would pat the back seat in a tantalizing manner. I yelled trainerly things such as “Hup!” and “Yaw!” like either of us knew what that meant. And, every time, I’d wind up sighing and stooping, wrapping my arms around his hairy 70-pound body, always remembering too late to lift with my legs and not my now-contorted back. “Jesus,” I’d say, grunting, heaving. “We’re getting those car stairs for dogs.” But, to tell you the truth, no matter how late it made us, no matter how many times I had to de-hair myself with one of those sticky roller wands, I never really minded it.
It was the car thing that tipped me off. How I knew something was irreversibly wrong. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t eat anymore. It wasn’t the 104-degree fever. It wasn’t the two nights I’d spent on a faux leather bench at the animal ER, watching Family Ties re-runs, wadding wet Kleenex in my hands. It was on the third day of his mystery illness, when he stumbled and tipped over in the backyard, and the ER nurse I called said, “Sure, yes, better bring him back in then.” That day, for the first time, I opened the car door and he jumped right in. I thought for a minute that it was a good sign. His health was improving! And so was his behavior! But then we looked at each other, and I just knew. We wouldn’t be coming back together.
In the days and weeks that followed, I did a lot of crying, often at random, usually in public places. On jogging trails and in restaurant booths. During yoga class. While browsing the cereal aisle. Once, even, on a tour of a historic fort. It was like a sadder, more embarrassing version of Green Eggs and Ham. “He was just a dog,” I told myself. But I’d pull into the driveway every night, looking for his fuzzy ears in the empty living room window. On my morning walks, I would catch myself holding a phantom leash. I scattered cheese on the floor while cooking, only to wind up crawling around a few minutes later, picking up the pieces, throwing them away. No one was there to eat it anymore.
I couldn’t stop thinking about death and grieving and sadness, and maybe due to metaphysical forces I don’t understand or just plain coincidence, every book and story I picked up during this period seemed to deal with those issues generally and, in the spookiest cases, my issues specifically. The week after I put Gus down, for example, suddenly there was David Sedaris, talking about how a pet death is never just a pet death in “Youth in Asia”:
The cat’s death struck me as the end of an era. It was, of course, the end of her era, but with the death of a pet there’s always that urge to string black crepe over an entire ten- or twenty-year period. The end of my safe college life, the last of my thirty-inch waist, my faltering relationship with my first real boyfriend: I cried for it all and wondered why so few songs were written about cats.
My hypochondria took a turn for the worse, and while fighting a stomach ailment, I became convinced that it was actually an ulcer, or organ failure, or toxic mega colon, a condition I knew nothing about but sounded terrifying enough. At the end of the “see you later” I tell my house every morning, I started adding a dark, whispered “hopefully” as the front door shut behind me. And so then there was Dave Eggers, explaining my actual problem, in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
This part concerns the unshakeable feeling one gets after the unthinkable and unexplainable happens—the feeling that, if this person can die, and that person can die, and this can happen and that can happen…well, what exactly is preventing everything from happening to this person, he around whom everything else happened? If people are dying, why won’t he? If people are shooting people from cars, if people are tossing rocks down from overpasses, surely he will be the next victim. If people are contracting AIDS, odds are he will too. Same with fires in homes, car accidents, plane crashes, random knifings, stray gunfire, aneurysms, spider bites, snipers, piranhas, zoo animals.
I unintentionally read stories about funerals for lost limbs, Holocaust victims, poisoned relatives, burned-alive tenants, and a lengthy magazine article on hospice care (while in the doctor’s office). And finally, last month, as we watched leaves die spectacularly and dressed up like skeletons and corpses—for fun!—I re-read George Saunders’s “Tenth of December.” And there was this, thoughts from an old man with dementia who has almost just killed himself, to spare his family (and himself) from his eventual deterioration:
Because, okay, the thing was—he saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld. Withhold.
Not that I was suicidal during any of this. Please note. It’s just that the thing about losses is they tend to accumulate over time. This year, it’s the dog. Eventually, it’s the parents. Friends, siblings, spouses. This death stuff keeps getting harder and messier—until at some point, at any point, it stops. Because you stop. Most of the time, it’s surprisingly easy to live with this awful knowledge, squirreled away in some batteries-and-matches drawer in the back of our heads. Except for the days (or weeks or months or even years) when those thoughts get loose, dimming the good, crowding out those drops of happy.
I don’t know if I can say exactly what I got from my tour of death literature this year, but I do know that it helped. That I feel less like a leaky bag of water these days and more like a human. In a particularly bad time for me, those stories and their writers were there, contorting their backs, patting some imaginary, metaphorical back seat. “You can do it,” they said. “Go on now.”
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Corey Dahl is the communications coordinator for Lighthouse Writers Workshop.