It has been several months since our handsome and energetic dog — a grand pet, one that my mother deemed “the quintessential dog” — passed away. He was 14, and we had gently been preparing our seven-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter for his end without knowing when or how it would come. Now, in our too-quiet house with its ache and its absence, I see that it was our children who instinctively took the lead in helping us all through our dear dog’s demise.
Kevin, who had been in robust health — streaking along tormenting our cats, chasing squirrels and gobbling up bread left for pigeons in the park — developed an odd skin condition early last summer. The left side of his body went black and thick and entirely reptilian, as if he were evolving into an ankylosaurus.
“Ho-lee!” exclaimed our vet. He had never seen anything like it. He shaved some of Kevin’s blond golden retriever/border collie fur, took a swab for the lab and prescribed antibiotics.
The drugs made a dent in our bank account, but not in Kevin’s health. The “infection” spread.
By early August, it was clear that Kevin was losing weight and energy. Summer is his season. He loves to swim. When he was young, he would dive into the lakes of the Canadian Shield as if they were heaven itself, its very embodiment, and slap his paws on the cool surface, snap at the bubbles he was creating and chase those bubbles halfway to England. To see him avoid the water in favour of lying flat on the ground on his side was truly striking. My dog had lost his joy.
The vet called one hot morning in September, while the children were still eating their cereal and watching cartoons. Clara answered the phone, learned it was Dr. Wellington and pulled my husband out of the shower. She and her brother listened intently while Ambrose, standing in a towel, heard the lab result: stage 3 mast cell cancer. He estimated Kevin’s remaining lifespan in weeks. Ambrose began to cry. The children were dumbfounded. They had never seen their father cry. When I walked them to school, they were silent as stone. Clara called home before lunch with a stomach ache, which I half expected. It was clear to her teacher she just needed to be with us and talk.
“I’d give all my toys up for Kevin,” she told me, dissolving in tears.
That weekend, she asked me to take her to church. She usually only comes at Christmas and Easter. While the choir sang, she wrote a note to God on the back of the program: “Dear God, my dog Keven has skin canser and might die! Please oh please help him live a little bit longer and if you can’t, thank you for trying.”
I was reminded of a friend who turned away from religion as a child when she learned from the priest that animals couldn’t go to heaven. This was no time to talk to Clara about theology.
The week before Thanksgiving, he began to flag — sometimes coming to a stop at the end of the leash, as if he’d forgotten where he was going. One afternoon as he stood still, Clara tugged on his leash, and he fell over sideways like a broken toy. Cheek to the pavement. It was so surprising and unnerving that Clara sank to her knees to pat him, apologizing. She felt that she’d done something disastrous, as bad as a bully.
The next day, he fell down a flight of stairs. My husband and I heard him from our third-floor offices: thump-scrabble-thump down 12 steep wood stairs. This was a dog who could catch a Frisbee in mid-air, who could bound through rocky woodland with breathtaking speed and grace.
“How long does he have?” we asked the vet, having prolonged his life already by keeping him pumped up and toothpick-eyed on steroids since early September.
“Days?” he ventured. “Don’t let him die from this, guys.”
We made the appointment without Clara and Geoffrey knowing. Acting on intuition, Clara suddenly begged us to throw a birthday party for Kevin. I sent out an urgent request to about 15 friends of all ages who rallied at the last minute and came over to play Pin the Bum on the Human and don party hats and feed Kevin pie. There were loot bags filled with dog bones. There were pictures passed around. It was completely the right thing to do, and it was our daughter, not us, who understood that.
The next day, she came home from school and didn’t even pass the front gate of our home before she began shouting: “Where is he? Where is he?” She ran down the street, blindly stumbling and wailing, and I chased after her, my own face still streaked with tears. Neighbours held their curtains open and watched silently, while I held Clara on my knees on the sidewalk. “He’s gone, sweetie. He’s gone now.”
When Ambrose and I had taken Kevin on his final walk that morning, we stopped to sit in the park and watch the younger dogs cavort. I plucked at Kevin’s fur, as was my habit, gently prying loose the shed. Next morning, Ambrose found that little ball of fur still free-floating in the dry grass above the ravine. He brought it home, and gave it to Clara. The power of relics! (I had already found myself placing the remains of the sandwich I shared with Kevin in the freezer, where it presently resides.) Clara immediately insisted upon laying the fur in a small jewellery box and orchestrating a backyard funeral. She changed into a black skirt and her best shoes, and — had she given more than 10 minutes’ notice while I was in the midst of sending off some work emails — I might have done the same. As it was, I had to hurry out in my jeans. Ambrose strummed his guitar and Geoffrey held the picture of Kevin that he had been keeping under his pillow.
Clara gave a eulogy, holding the little box in her hands, having dug a hole near the quince shrub in the back of the garden. Geoffrey offered one or two taciturn, shrug-shouldered boy words. Then the pair of them buried the box, and marked it with sticks. They later added a brick, upon which they wrote: Kevin, RIP.
“Will Kevin come back?” Clara asks me again. “In your dreams,” I remark. “That’s so mean!” she cries, for she thinks I intend the sarcastic expression of the phrase. “No,” I explain, “I mean that literally. He will come to you, in your dreaming.”
Where else is a dog that dies? Is he in heaven? In a little doghouse made of clouds? Clara knows how oriented dogs are to their owners. Where can they be without them? We talk about the puppies he used to run with, Rudy, Thunder and Nicky. At the very height of his joyousness in the world. If he’s not with us, he must be with them.
Maybe he’s with us as a spirit guide, as in the First Nations tradition. He remains with us as his pack, but in a new dimension.
One night, my husband rents the movie Lassie, and we settle in for a Friday evening’s entertainment. But Geoffrey winds up sobbing for an hour on the bunk bed in his room, until Clara tiptoes in to give her brother the Christmas present she’d bought at the school craft fair. It is a small stuffed dog, and he embraces it fiercely. In these moments, we glimpse the grief they still both feel beneath the surface of their busy lives.
We are only thankful that in their creative ardour, they have managed to process an experience that we, ourselves, wouldn’t have handled nearly as well on our own. Most of the time, parents know best, it is true. But every now and then, it’s our children who figure out what life calls for.