My little dog, Tallulah, is in the last run of her life. Despite numerous x-rays we're not sure what's wrong with her, so all we can do is monitor her to make sure she is comfortable. Most of the things she used to enjoy - walks, chasing squirrels, greeting us - are proving too 'exciting' for her, and she'll even black out during a gentle walk.
However, Mark Doty's book doesn't do what I feared, which is to blank out my own experience and batter me with his. Instead, it's like all good writing - it feels like a conversation with someone who completely understands. I knew I was on safe ground in the first few pages, when he talks about the guilt involved in feeling so much compassion for an animal when there are so many humans who need our love and sympathy. I've been feeling this shame myself everytime I look at Tally's battery of medicines:
..and think of how many people can't afford medical care. It's wrong. I can't deny it, but as Doty says:
'...the plain truth is no one should have to defend what he loves. If I decide to become one of those dotty old people who live alone with six beagles, who on earth is harmed by the extremity of my affections? There is little enough devotion in the world that we should be glad for it in whatever form it appears, and never mock it, or underestimate its depths.
Love, I think, is a gateway to the world, not an escape from it.'
I want to read that again and again. This is a beautiful book - more a meditation than a memoir. I'm savouring it, page by page. Not just for the poetry of the language but also the way he manages to say all the things I've been thinking - or perhaps wasn't sure I was thinking, but had the vague thoughts jumping around in my head not quite being able to grab hold of them for long enough to concentrate - in such a simple and yet obvious way that it makes you want to bang the table, and say, 'yes, that's what I meant.' One example is how he talks about how so many children learn about mortality through the death of a pet:
'The child's apprehension of mortality is a set of initiations, woundings, introductions to the mystery, and animals are very often the objects of these instructions. The little turtle in the grass, the lifeless snake on the path, the toad crushed by a boot heel, the caged bird whose animation has fled with its song - they are far more themselves for us as children; they lead us into the depths of this life.'
Meanwhile, Tally is enjoying the sunshine, although we've noticed that rather than looking out, as she always used to, she's now taken to hiding, looking in. This shouldn't be a morbid post, she's had a wonderful life and is still enjoying it. And we're enjoying her.
As Doty says:
'Because dogs do not live as long we we do, they seem to travel a faster curve than human beings, flaring into being, then fading away while we watch. An animal's life is for us a theater, in which we may see the forces of time and mortality played out in a form smaller than our own bodies, and more swiftly.'