Listen To Article
by Jeff Munroe
You are 14, which, depending on whom you listen to, equates to either 84 or 98 in people years.
We’ve been noticing your hearing seems to be going, and we see your old age whenever you lumber up the stairs. You have even lost your erstwhile unwavering interest in denuding Nutsy, the stuffed squirrel. He just lies there, embarrassed, a tattered mess of bald patches. You still like your ball, but the times you want to chase it across the room are measured now in weeks. You used to spontaneously tear around the house, running amok, and we’d clap and cheer and you’d happily bark and run some more. That never happens anymore. Mostly you like to sleep, often to comic effect when a noise wakes you and the stunned expression on your face looks like something out of a Cheech and Chong movie. You are an old dog.
And I am an aging man. Your mortality is such a predictable mirror of my own that I find it amazing that an emotional coward like me signed up for this.
Robert Frost trod this ground many years ago and wrote a poem called The Span of a Life:
The old dog barks backwards without getting up
I can remember when he was a pup.
That’s the whole thing. I think I get it; Frost used the length of the poem to reflect the fleeting nature of existence and at the same time avoided sentimentality by limiting himself to 16 words. It is spare and concise and yet he sets life and death plainly before us.
But I (not even one ten-thousandth of the writer Frost was) want more. The great poet avoided sentimentality, but I ask if we can acknowledge our emotions without becoming drippy? I’m talking about your emotions as well as mine. I’ve seen you express joy, sadness, longing, anxiety, fear, happiness, empathy, and anger. I swear there are times you smile. I want a poem that recognizes the complexity of your existence amid the complexity of our family. You are our safe place, onto which we project our feelings and desires, and our family’s best unconditional lover. You have been my silent companion on thousands of walks (an introvert’s dream come true), and our household doorman – always there saying hello or goodbye. If I happen to leave my clothes on the floor, it isn’t long before you’re lying on top of them. Who else is devoted to the earthy, deep down parts of me like that? Somehow, all of what makes us “us” is embodied in you, and as long as you are there, our adult children can come home to their childhoods.
What a life you’ve had. You’ve lived in Europe, after all. You’ve got a Dutch dog passport and once went to Belgium for the weekend. I still smile when I think about that day in the Netherlands when you lunged at another dog and unknowingly put yourself into the path of a bike. The Dutch bicyclist was so concerned he said, “You need to take your dog to a vegetarian right away.”
But you were okay. Like you were okay that night in Grand Rapids when you ran free for a few hours and eventually came home with a serious road rash. Some car hit you, and I am rather glad I wasn’t there to see it. However, I was there that night three or four years ago when you were attacked by another dog. I stuck myself into the melee and managed to get bit. A tetanus shot took care of me, but it was the closest we’ve come to losing you – you spent the next 36 hours lying on your side, not moving. We did take you to the veterinarian (who may or may not have been a vegetarian) that time, but there was nothing to do. We just had to wait and see how it turned out. We kept a vigil, and after a night, a day, and another night of not moving, you stretched yourself out the next morning and you were fine.
It was foreshadowing. Someday in the not-so-distant future you will lie on your side not moving again and you won’t be fine the next morning. Like with every death, life will go on and the rest of the world will be indifferent. But our hearts will break, because we know our little world has been rearranged, and not for the better. Our lives and our home will never be the same. One word will come through our tears, because what else is there to say about the span of your life–and mine–but “thanks”?
Jeff Munroe is the Vice President for Advancement and Operations at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.