Before I can move forward with my backlog of book reviews, I have to write something in tribute to Pippin, who passed away May 4th. He was a good dog who deserves to be remembered, and besides, he taught me some things. Pippin was a “springador” – a springer spaniel/labrador retriever mix. He and his sister Cocoa came to live with us in April 2005 when they were eight weeks old. My sons were 12 and almost nine at the time and we had recently lost our 16-year-old dog Petra. We answered an ad from a puppy rescue organization and drove a couple hours down to North Carolina where we met a litter of eight irresistible puppies of various configurations of fur colors, ear shapes, and wagging tails. AJ picked a rich brown flop-eared charmer, and JT, my older son, immediately chose a sweet white one with black markings. JT, who was reading The Lord of the Rings books at the time, named his puppy after a hobbit and AJ loved chocolate….
I wish I could say I didn’t play favorites, but I admit Cocoa won all our hearts. She was always the sort who sucks all the air out of the room with her antics, charm, and cuteness. Pippin was a humble soul who was content to live outside the limelight, observing things steadily and protectively. He did bark loudly at strangers and occasionally showed signs of aggression when he imagined any threat to family. He accepted the slightest pat on the head with quiet gratitude. His special job was to chase the invading flocks of Canada geese that frequently descended on our front yard and drive them into the adjacent lake. He had a stocky build and was not a fast runner, so there was no danger he’d actually catch one. Each time he performed this duty he’d return to the house wagging his tail and holding his head high as he proudly accepted his reward of effusive praise, a rub-down, and a biscuit.
For ten years he was a low-key but integral presence in the house. He had a Christmas stocking with his name on it. He was one of us. Until the day we noticed he was sick there had never been a single day he had not gobbled his dinner with great enthusiasm. Persnickety Cocoa would test her food with the tip of her tongue, nibble to make sure it was acceptable to her delicate pallet, and finally, if all was deemed in order would deign to eat it, but Pippin would inhale his like it was his last chance at a meal. Then suddenly he didn’t want to eat. The veterinarian sadly delivered the diagnosis: lymphoma. We could try chemo at a cost of thousands, but it probably wouldn’t extend his life long. We chose the palliative care route, but he couldn’t even keep the pills down. We knew we’d have to have him put to sleep soon, but he passed away on his own, May 4th, two days after his diagnosis.
The day before he died I sat with him in the living room reading my current book, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, a classic of psychology published in 1902. The book is a fascinating study of the many ways people experience God and other phenomena outside the normal material world. I was only about a third through the book but patterns were beginning to emerge that revealed tantalizing new clues about what it means to be a human being. One of these patterns is what we make of suffering. And there was Pippin, lying on his side and panting. We were still hoping the prednisone and pain pills would relieve him enough to let him eat and get comfortable, and he did seem to rally one more time – wagged his tail and ate a little soup. But I knew his time with us was coming to an end.
There is nothing more senseless than the suffering of an animal. It is different from human suffering. There is no blame or asking “Why me? Pippin kept trying – getting up on wobbly legs and walking around, moving closer to me for affectionate words and petting, weakly wagging his long fluffy tail. Because I was reading William James I was especially aware of how the situation had become, for me, a variety of religious experience. And it seemed like it might be so for him too: there was such a sense of knowledge about him, like he knew his life was coming to a close, like he was saying good-bye. I could sense profound acceptance and a sort of humble obedience to natural forces. When I urged him to eat a bite of something he turned his face away and I got the feeling he was gently and solemnly saying, “No that’s over now.” He did not take the transition lightly seemed to know exactly what’s going on.
But all these perceptions about what Pippin was feeling were surely my religious experience, not his. I could not know what his mind and spirit were really perceiving, only how it came across to me. Yet it was not really an imaginative projection and it certainly was not wishful thinking. It is what I felt in my heart was really going on, like I was perceiving a spiritual reality at a level compatible with my mind’s ability to understand. I know Pippin was in the process of crossing over and seemed at peace with it.
I have heard that dying animals will separate from the herd and go off by themselves. On their own level they are in touch with an awareness of life and death that humans, or at least this human, are not. I have still not finished The Varieties of Religious Experience so I do not know if James covers this variety – what you go through when you lose a beloved animal. Probably not. I try to find meaning in it, but of all things, animal suffering is the single thing most resistant to our attempts to attach meaning to experience. (A few years ago I wrote an article called C.S. Lewis on Animal Suffering: A Tough Question for Theology.) Unlike Pippin, my mind cannot seem to accept that suffering just “is”. I am determined it has to mean something or teach something and can’t stop trying to get to the bottom of it.
I know no one likes to read or think about the death of a pet, except those who have recently gone through the experience. Those who are experiencing this special grief do often want to read about others who have known the experience. There seems to be an entire genre of books devoted to helping people deal with the grief of losing a pet. Cold Noses at the Pearly Gates by Gary Kurz is one popular one. Literature provides plenty of stories about the loss animal friends, especially children’s books: Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, Sounder by William Armstrong, and Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls are three classics that come to mind.
I will end my tribute to Pippin with a poem by Rudyard Kipling.
The Power of the Dog
by Rudyard Kipling
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie—
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find—it’s your own affair—
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.
We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long—
So why in—Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
Lots of things fascinate me to the point of stupefaction. My brain comes to a standstill and I can’t process the amazing idea or event or realization until I begin to write it down. That’s probably the main reason I write: to mobilize the old thought processes. One thing that never fails to fascinate me is how whatever I am reading at the moment affects my perception of what is going on in the “real” world. I put the word “real” in the annoying self-conscious quotes because so often my reading life seems so much more vivid than the material world which I always think of as The World of Tables and Chairs.
Tables and Chairs is the world where moving about can result in bumping into hard objects, where the shins can get bruised and the fingers burnt. In the far more interesting world of the mind you never get bruises, cuts, or burns. In that world you can get run over by a semi and then jump right up to continue your stroll down the middle of the interstate. I suppose it is a healthy thing to be fully present in The World of Tables and Chairs, to have a mind that is fully integrated with the physical world, but it’s been a very long time since I have experienced that happy state of integration. Not since I started first grade at St. Bernadette Catholic School.
In my first grade classroom the tables and chairs were heavy wooden desks with the seats attached. We six-year-olds were confined to these contraptions, arranged in six perfectly aligned rows of ten desks each for the better part of six hours per day. We did have recess and bathroom breaks, but other than that we sat in the seats in front of the desks with a slot for our number two pencils and a cubby under our butts where we kept our books and our bag lunch. I quickly caught on to the rules: We were supposed to sit still and watch Sister B talk and write stuff on the big blackboard with white chalk (oh how I longed to draw on that blackboard!). When Sister told you to do something – write letters on lined paper or answer a question or count to 100 or pray to God or the Virgin Mary – you were to do whatever it was she said to do.
My six-year-old self made no judgments about the world as I found it, but I found that world so mind-numbingly boring that my mind just naturally wandered off in search of stimulation. Seven more years of the same sort of school experience reinforced the split between life in The World of Tables and Chairs and the life of the mind, until it became as natural as breathing to live a double life – the boring restrictive one outside and the lovely free one inside. One thing I found I could get away with in the restrictive space school desk was to read a book. I could read whenever I finished my work 30 minutes before everybody else. This motivated me to work fast and gave me a couple hours of free reading time each day.
Books gave my wandering mind a destination, a path to follow with patterns more interesting than the cracks in the ceiling or the tiles on the floor. Some kids sought distraction from boredom by talking in class or playing pranks such as throwing spitballs. But I saw that reading got you in less trouble or even got you praise; and it was also more interesting than spitballs. I read books that were available in the St. Bernadette School library. In addition to the lives of saints I remember especially the Betsy books by Carolyn Hayward, Beverly Cleary’s hilarious and wonderful books about such characters as Henry Huggins, Beezuz, and Ramona, The World of Pooh, and the wonderful books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
So here I am, decades later, still a reader. The World of Tables and Chairs is way more interesting than it was in my school days but my mind developed its patterns during those formative years so I still find it hard to be “fully present.” But it’s not a big a problem. As I did as a child, I function adequately enough in the physical world and 20 plus years of motherhood have honed my multi-tasking skills to a seamless art. I don’t think many people notice when I am not fully present. My dear Mom, who knew me well, always noticed it though. “You are always in your own little world, aren’t you?” she’d say. Or “Earth to Carol. Come in. Come in.” Mom has been gone to yet another world five years this month and I miss her. Happy Mother’s Day to her and to all mothers, by the way.
How about you my reading friends? How do you switch back and forth between your reading world and the “real” world? Does your reading affect what is going on in your life, how you react to it or perceive things?
NOTE: This entire essay has been to procrastinate writing about something unexpected that happened in my life this past week and how my reading interacted with the event. That event was the death of my dog Pippin, age 10. He was diagnosed with lymphoma only last Saturday and died two days later. The whole thing was rather sudden and shocking and has put me off my writing a bit. I have a backlog of at least four book reviews and articles but I will have to write about poor Pippin before I continue with my regular program. So I give you fair warning: My next post will be a eulogy for a dog.