I was listening to sports talk radio, an interview with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who characterized an athlete’s career as “a dog’s life,” meaning that career is short.
And this spoke to me in the wake of having just lost our first family dog, Hershey, a chocolate lab we had for about 14 years.
On the Sunday night just after the U.S. World Cup match with Portugal, Hershey began to bark and moan non-stop, starting about 8 pm and lasting until after midnight. My wife and I could not figure out why, but Hershey would stop if one of us stood in the garage beside him. As soon as we left him, however, the barking continued.
As labs are prone to do, Hershey had been in decline since the winter, his rear hips deteriorating. But during that soccer match, Hershey had been walking in the back yard with our black lab, Scout, and my daughter’s white lab, Sasha.
Around 12:15 am, I couldn’t just lie in bed anymore so I tried again to calm Hershey, but had no luck. My wife also tried again, and when she returned to bed and Hershey was no longer barking, I assumed all was somehow calmed.
Early the next morning, however, my wife told me she had discovered that Hershey could no longer stand. We lifted him into the car and my wife took him to the vet on her way to work. Soon after she arrived, I received a text that Hershey was out of his misery, and sadly, out of our family.
I cried alone while working before heading to my university to teach my summer grad class. And I immediately began to worry about my daughter pregnant with her first child (Hershey was technically her first dog, although the labs had become clearly very dear parts of my wife’s life) and our remaining lab, Scout, who is much younger than Hershey and who had never been without his companionship.
Hershey and Scout have always been eerie and powerful representations for me, more than pets. I envied Hershey’s calm and gentle demeanor. The world seemed to move slowly and patiently for and around Hershey.
That is an existence that I cannot fathom.
Scout is anxious, like me. She seems always on the edge or terror, often not quite lying down and with her back to the wall—her eyes alert and her head darting back and forth.
What seemed to be—Scout was smarter than Hershey—I think, is misleading because Scout is just more sensitive to the world around her. And it is that sensitivity that I share with Scout, that anxiousness that makes living in the moment impossible.
We anxious creatures feel too deeply, and as a result, we are probably simultaneously that soul who will love you more intensely than anyone else (and we love so entirely that few make that list) and also love you very badly.
There is an inevitability of failure in such intensity.
It seems now that we always had Hershey, and it seems now that we never had him nearly long enough.
So I will do (have already begun to do) what we anxious do: Try very hard to appreciate Scout, who seems somewhat lost but not entirely shaken by Hershey no longer being there beside her.
And as we anxious are prone to do also, I continue to care and feel deeply while doing a truly poor job showing that and fulfilling those obligations.
All the people we love and all the people we fail become mirrors of our love and our failures. That is both the beauty and torture of being human.
The dogs we love, however, even that dog like Scout who shares my anxiousness for the world, are entirely without the sort of judgment we see, we fear in the people around us, the people who have known us in the fullness of our inadequacies.
I pet and scratch Scout, talk to her, and she leans into my hands, closes her eyes, and hasn’t a single thing to offer me except just that. We are an anxious pair, us two, save those few seconds when we allow that moment just to be that moment.
Hershey was damned good at that, by the way, his huge box-head weighing your hands like no tomorrow.
It is all but a dog’s life, each moment to be touched, each moment we can never hold.
UPDATE: We have now lost Scout only about a month after Hershey. A terrible summer for pets in our home. RIP Scout:
For Hershey and Scout:
The Heaven of Animals, James Dickey