Obituaries and Life With a Dog

The other day I was out with the dog on her morning walk when the low gray sky began to spill its burden of rain. She had chosen that moment to do her business, and by the time I bagged the results we were in the midst of a deluge. We turned around and ran two blocks back to the house, a picture that struck me while we huffed and panted along as possibly notable, an 80-year old man running at a brisk pace with a dog about to turn fifteen in less than a month.

This sweet-tempered canid we’ve shared our home with since she was five months old has been declining in obvious ways, moving stiffly after getting up from the bed in which she spends most of her time, showing signs of hearing loss, and just generally looking and acting in a manner commonly perceived as elderly. But she ran with me in the rain, and now and then she will dig her favorite toy out of her basket of stuffed animals and lengths of rope and balls of various sizes, a gray, rag-like animal we call the weasel. With this unfortunate creature limply dangling from her jaws, she will fix her gaze on us, letting us know that she wants to play.

It’s hard not to think about the time she will no longer be a steadfast presence in our house, just as it is hard to completely avoid thoughts of my own demise and that of friends and loved ones of a similar age. There’s a stereotype of elderly persons poring over newspaper obituary pages to see if anyone they know has died, but I usually turn past that page in my journey through the fish-wrap that lands on our front step every morning. Perhaps I’m like another stereotype, a superstitious kid averting his eyes when walking by a cemetery. But when a notable death makes the front page or produces a bold headline inside, I’ll stop to have a look. I’ve always loved good stories, and the best obituaries are just that, stories with stirring narratives and vivid details and protagonists we can see and hear even if we never knew them.

A few years ago, I made contact with a man I worked with long ago but hadn’t heard from in nearly fifty years. He lived on the east coast, and despite desultory talk about trying to meet somewhere, our exchanges were confined to the virtual realm of email. But they were often lively, entertaining, and educational, and when he was diagnosed with a fast-growing cancer and shortly thereafter died, I felt that a genuine, blossoming friendship had been the victim of a bad cosmic joke.

One of the man’s salient traits was his sense of humor, which he put to good use in the obituary he wrote for himself just days before his death. Filled with irreverence toward the conventions of such panegyrics, it poked a thumb in the eye of solemnity, recounting with a jaunty air the details of a life that ends with the only certainty being that “his physical remains are stashed for the time being in a Maxwell House (good to the last drop) coffee can to be sprinkled by loved ones at a time and in an undoubtedly breezeless location of their choice.”

Shortly after I wrote the paragraphs above, I heard the news that our grandson’s mother had suddenly died. We weren’t related, but when she and my stepson were living together, we saw her frequently, and after they went their separate ways we saw her occasionally and remained friendly. I can look at World Health Organization statistics and see that I can expect to live another eight years and two months, but I could also die as she did, suddenly, unexpectedly. So I think I’ll get to work on my obituary. Who better to tell my life’s story than myself, even though I may not know myself any better than a friend or even a stranger who looks at all the facts and constructs a picture of a man who lived a life that doesn’t belong on the front page or merit a thick, bold headline but was eventful in its own way.

While I’m at, I’ll write our dog’s obituary, too. If she could, I’m sure she’d have lots to say about her life with us, and I won’t delude myself into thinking it would all be rosy encomiums about her human beings. But if there is such a thing as canine happiness, I’m sure she experienced it, if for no other reason than the fact she knew where the treats were stashed in the kitchen cabinet and if she was patient, my wife or I would eventually come along and open the cabinet door and give her one.

And isn’t that the essence of happiness? Small moments of pleasure conferred upon us not for grand feats and accomplishments but as unconditional answers to simple desires?

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