Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
On November 22 of last year, I lost my voice. I’m not talking laryngitis; I mean my words. They scattered from me like a covey of quail, and I knew, standing there amid the ragged stubble of a waning year, that there was nothing I could do to call them back, nothing but lean into the cold wind of sorrow and wait. Words, like all winged things, have a life of their own; believing in their return often feels like believing in the hope of spring when the whole world is laid barren and birdless by the ravages of winter.
But on November 22, I was too tired and sad to care if they ever came back. That was the day that my dog Caspian died, and some fundamental innocence in me died with him. The past two years have just about broken my heart, not by the ruin of a single blow, but by the slow-growing burden of accumulated sorrow, of grief upon grief that has seemed relentless at times. But when Caspian was diagnosed with cancer last spring, the very day we were supposed to leave on a long-awaited jaunt to the sea in our ’62 Airstream, it was too much to bear. I couldn’t bear it, in fact: when I heard the diagnosis coming out of the specialist’s mouth and saw the tears gathering in my husband’s eyes, a great, black cavern seemed to open inside of me and I felt myself falling into a bottomless place haunted by all my worst fears. The vet droned on unintelligibly about how there was nothing that could be done and what to expect in the coming days, but my soul was crying out in silence: Jesus, catch me! (He did, by the way. Strong arms shot out of that darkness and held me so tightly I could almost feel them about my physical body. I am here, that grip told me, in words beyond words.)
“How long?” Philip said in a voice that sounded nothing like Philip’s.
The vet was cautious. “Weeks to months,” he said. “But it’s an advanced case, and moving fast.”
We walked out into the sunshine of an April afternoon with Caspian tugging blissfully on the leash, ecstatic to be released after a night’s stay at the best veterinary hospital in the state. As soon as we were in the car, Philip and I stared at one another, frightened by the anguish in each other’s eyes.
“Let’s take him,” I choked. “Let’s go home and pack that Airstream if it takes all night and let’s get on the road by dawn. Let’s run away from all this sadness and give Caspian the trip to the beach of his life.”
And that is precisely what we did. If there’s ever been a heart on this earth that loved that Airstream or our island destination more than Philip and me, it was Caspian. In the ten years of tramping about in our Silver Girl, Caspian had only been left behind once—and he was so devastated we vowed never to do it again. Caspian wasn’t taking any chances, though. He always knew when we were even talking about packing up for another adventure, and would park himself by the door of the trailer, refusing to budge until the moment of departure, wherein, assured of a seat in the car with his nose on the console, he could finally relax. Sick as he was, this time was no exception. I actually had to feed him his breakfast in the Explorer the morning we left as he’d loaded himself up before I had hardly opened the kitchen door.
Philip kept calling it our “Shadowlands” trip, and, indeed, there was a keenness to those sunlit days that only sorrow can lend, a sharp brilliance against which both pain and pleasure stood out in dazzling clarity. For Caspian, still feeling well enough to enjoy everything, it was a dream come true: he got to eat whatever he wanted and do whatever he pleased. He got to spend whole days at Philip’s side as he worked (the Airstream doubles as “remote office” by day) and long, late afternoons on the beach with us or strolling the fishing pier in the cool of the evening. He had half of whatever I was eating at any given time, and he even got a sip of ale at the oyster bar on the wharf. Indeed, if we were living in the shadowlands, Caspian was frisking the foothills of heaven.
On the beach he was always off lead—for the first time in his life. Suddenly all the leashes and life-jackets and relentless safety of the past twelve years seemed silly. Worse than silly: in this light they looked like life-killers; joy-stealers. I had feared losing Caspian since the night we brought him home; I remember sitting on the kitchen floor clutching that squirming bundle of six week-old fluff to my heart and bursting into tears. It terrified me how much I loved him. And it terrified me that there was a world out there so suddenly swarming with Dangerous Things that could hurt him or take him from me. There were cars, and stagnant pools tainted with evil viruses, and ticks and vaccine reactions. And there was cancer, the thing I feared most of all. Now that it had come, I could not fail to see that my gentle Lord had softened this sentence of death with a radiant milieu of mercies. The very fact that we were all here together for a few fleeting weeks in a place that held some of the dearest memories of our lives was an unmistakable kindness. And Caspian’s illness did not mar the trip as much as it illumined it, revealing each moment for the fire-hearted gem that it was. I watched him trot free along the shore with the inquisitive abandon of a puppy and I wanted to run with him, throwing off the fears that fettered my joys to earth, free as the wind and the swooping gulls and the curls of foam tossed up on the murmuring tide—free as my dying dog, whose happiness anchored me in the moment even as my soul took wing with this glimpse of undying things. It reminded me of that scene at the end of The Last Battle when everyone was running together with such gathering gladness into Aslan’s Country, the real Narnia. We caught Caspian’s joy, Philip and I, racing with him along a deserted beach in the saffron radiance of a dying day, and the incandescence of it will be with us for life.
I wrote in my journal: So here is what I want to remember and never forget: Anxiety is the devil. Fear is a taste of hell because it cuts us off from the ever-offered rest of God’s love. And fear cannot do one damn thing to avert the thing feared. Sorrow, on the other hand, is a kind friend, and when it comes, grace comes, too, and all the tender mercies of God. All fear is the fear of loss and death; all love comes with a price tag of pain; all true sorrow has its counterpoint of joy. And it’s real. We’re living it in the most vivid way. And if we’re running along the beach laughing at one moment and weeping over the grief that is coming the next, well then, this is life abundant, the full package. And the joy is more real than the grief because the joy is forever and the pain is for but the passing shadow of this life.
Beyond all expectation, Caspian lived to travel with us once more to our island refuge in mid-September, though by that time he was completely blind. The dignity with which he accepted this sad new development was one of the most touching things I have ever seen. The vet explained to me that dogs don’t regard “suffering” as a concept the way we humans do; they are generally very philosophical about hardship, accepting what comes their way with deeply instinctual adaptability. I witnessed that first-hand when Caspian lost his sight: after a day or so of deep confusion, he shook off the gloom and started feeling his way around the house with his nose, reacquainting himself with thresholds and walls and furniture. He nosed his way up our steep staircase, gingerly at first, and then with astonishing confidence. He even wanted to go to the barn with us in the evenings as he’d always done, though it must have been frightening to have the goats and sheep and chickens all swarming about and not be able to see them.
The island was no different: Caspian didn’t have to see to know exactly where he was and to be excited about it (or to run up to strangers, barking an ecstatic greeting, only to run right past them). And though the disease had certainly progressed, neither Philip nor I had the least doubt that our brave little dog was happy—glad just to be with us, salt-kissed and sun-warmed in a kindly breeze under a generous sky. Whenever we were on the beach, I would bury my face in that gorgeous spotted ruff of his (I always said it looked like the ermine collar on a princely robe) just because I could. Our days with him were dwindling, and we all knew it. On the last afternoon, I stayed behind on the beach while Philip took Caspian back to the Airstream, and as I watched their retreating figures, my eyes burned with tears. It was the end of an era. The loss of a particular innocence loomed: Philip and I both had lost dogs in our lives—but we had never lost our dog. Caspian was so much a part of us, we hardly knew “us” without him. We weren’t just “dog people,” ardently as we love the canine species as a whole. We were Caspian people.
So, the day came in late November when Philip and I had to prove our love to this faithful companion of ours by making the decision that every lover of dogs prays they will never have to face. Yet even that black day was made tender by mercies: the sudden, unmistakable downturn that left us no doubts; the fact that we were both with him; the gentle expiration with his head on Philip’s lap. Our kind-hearted vet hugged me hard when it was all over. “I’ve rarely seen a dog loved as much as Caspian,” he told me gently. But that’s no credit to us. Caspian was the kind of dog that little children wrote letters to and perfect strangers were smitten by. He had a weakness for whole sticks of butter stolen from the countertop and a human-like cock of his head when he was trying to make out one of the several hundred words in his mental inventory. My best friends wept when they heard Caspian was sick, and when he died, one dear soul spent a couple of weeks trying to bring herself to break the news to her nine year-old daughter.
When we came home that afternoon to a thunderously quiet house, we sat in the silence and counted off the things that Caspian had taught us in his living and dying: enthusiastic inhabitance of the present moment; unfettered enjoyment of life; courage in suffering. Philip said gently that maybe someday I would be able to write about it. But in the weeks after Caspian died, I could hardly speak in coherent sentences, much less write them. My journal from that time looks like psychological chicken scratch. The one clear, strong comfort was our shared conviction that Caspian is. If there’s a bone of theological contention that leaves me cold, it’s the argument of whether animals will be in heaven. No mere sentimental crutch, my doctrinal position on the matter is simple if not a little incredulous: Why the heck not? It’s one of those questions upon which Scripture is notoriously silent, but I see absolutely no reason to interpret silence in this case as “no.” All I know of the character of God speaks to the contrary: if there’s one thing in the infinite universe this quaking heart of mine doesn’t fear, it’s the possibility of imagining God better than He is.
“I wonder if the spirits of all the pussy folk and doggy folk I’ve loved will meet me with purrs and yaps of pleasure at the pearly gates,” L. M. Montgomery’s whimsical heroine Pat Gardiner ponders. But dear “Grandpa George” MacDonald takes a firmer stance: “I know of no reason why I should not look for the animals to rise again…If the Father will raise his children, why should he not also raise those whom he has taught his little ones to love? Love is the one bond of the universe, the heart of God, the life of his children: if animals can be loved, they are loveable; if they can love, they are yet more plainly loveable: love is eternal; how then should its object perish?”
We knew we’d been marked as dog lovers for life; Caspian had settled that question irrevocably. But in the first deadness of grief we declared we never wanted another dog.
Then we said maybe, in a hundred years or so.
Then we said it would have to be an Australian shepherd, just like Caspian.
And then, before either of us dreamed we were ready, a five-pound ball of downy blue merle pranced into our sadness and lit it all the colors of the rainbow. Suddenly, our mourning for one dog was not mutually exclusive with the sweet anticipation of another. The woman we got her from (a saint among dog breeders!) was so gentle with my fears of circumventing the grief process: she told me that when one of her dogs goes to a home where a beloved companion has recently been lost she believes they have a special calling to care for wounded hearts. I can vouch for that: when Philip and I met our wee lass for the first time, we handed our hearts over without question. This pup had a vocation on her pretty little head—it was as obvious as that seagull-shaped “V” on the bridge of her perfect little nose.
We named her Bonnie Blue (her mother’s name is Katie Scarlett, of course), and in the weeks since she’s come to live with us, a strong new joy has been swelling in my heart like the unblighted bulbs of early spring. Colors appear where once there was only the hard earth of sadness; hope flocks home, birdlike, one dove at a time. My words are coming back, as well, in this sudden thaw, and old ambition gleams out between patches of melting snow. All this from the advent of a puppy who’s not quite housebroken and nips holes in my favorite skirts and eats out of the litter box? Absolutely. That’s what love does—it kindles and warms and wakens. Love is a creative force: it always begets in some way or another. And this particular love is resurrecting gladness in my heart, reminding me that winter must give way at last to warmth and sunshine, in nature and in life. Who says dogs can’t be grace-bearers? We sat in the pasture the other day, Bonnie and I, and watched the sandhill cranes swirling overhead on a persistently northward course. “That means spring is coming, Bonnie-girl,” I told her, as she cocked her head at their far-off cries. “And you won’t believe how beautiful it’s going to be.”
I’ll spare the details of how absurd Philip and I have made ourselves with puppy-love the past six weeks. But I will say that we’ve remembered Caspian more tenderly than ever since Bonnie has come into our lives. Though each dog’s personality is unquestionably unique, it’s been sweet to see the similarities in the breed that have made us such devoted “Aussie people.” With the remembering, however, comes the ghost of old fears, the temptation to snatch and grab and worry. Menaces rise on every side so that I want to clutch Bonnie in my arms and sit down on the kitchen floor and cry. How easily I fret my joy away over improbable things! And yet, it’s love itself that arrests my panicked heart, soothing me back down into the quiet of Caspian’s best and most unforgettable gift to us: Fearlessness.
Love wildly! Love exuberantly! his doggie soul proclaimed in a thousand ways.
But—for Heaven’s sake—love without fear.
Lanier Ivester is a “Southern Lady” in the best and most classical sense and a gifted writer in the most articulate and literal sense. She hand-binds books and lives on a farm with peacocks, bees, sheep, and the governor of Ohio’s leg. She loves old books and sells them from her website, LaniersBooks.com, and she’s currently putting the final touches on her first novel, as well as studying literature at Oxford.