Archives for posts with tag: dogs

Virgil

Virgil is aging. He no longer hears us when we come in to the apartment; we surprise him sleeping in our bedroom, and he struggles to stand up on his back legs when he finally sees us. He can’t go down stairs anymore, at least not confidently, so I keep my hand over his shoulders to steady him as we descend together. He wobbles from side to side a bit when we walk, and sometimes tips over when he loses his balance on a little incline in the park.

It’s getting warmer now in the city, and people are starting to sit outside, on their stoops, and in the parks, and at sidewalk cafes. They greet you with smiles, and make room for you to sit at an adjacent table, or on the same park bench. And people love to pet Virgil. 15,000 years of evolution have wired him to respond perfectly to attention: he wags his tail gently, and sits, and moans a little bit when you stop petting him. He begs for food patiently— he doesn’t jump up to steal food off your low table. (At least, he hasn’t done that in a long time.)

The people in my neighborhood are enjoying themselves, eating hotdogs and kielbasa. They are sipping cappuccinos, snacking on pizza slices, and carrying home grocery bags full of pork chops, chicken breasts, turkey burgers, and bacon-flavored potato chips. How is it that people are able to get over the nearly deranging cognitive dissonance between loving animals and eating meat? The principle is substitution: it is okay that those animals die, we think, because we provide other animals lives of enviable comfort. We love our animals; would that all animals were so lucky.

We don’t think about the animals we condemn to death because it is too horrific. We turn away— toward the generosity and affection we show our pets, and our neighbors’ pets. There is an image I happened to see, sent by an animal rights advocacy group to my email. Don’t worry, I won’t describe it, except to say this: it centers on a wheelbarrow.

Virgil has a lot of gray around his muzzle now, and he has that slight swaying in his bony back that shows his age. I remember taking him to the vet when he was about two, back when we were doing the hike around Maple Lake almost every day. The vet listened to his heart and said, “He has the deep, slow heartbeat of an athlete!” Now, sitting next to Virgil on the couch, I put my hand on his skinny side and feel his heart tick— it is still strong. He looks up when I lay my hand on him, and sees that I am not getting up, just checking in. And then he rests his head on the blanket next to me with a heavy, contented sigh.

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I had an adjunct teaching job for a year in the English department of a research university in the midwest, one you know from the name of its mascot and its stadium. Every afternoon I would walk Virgil around a lake about ten minutes’ drive from campus, and I made some casual friends among the dog people there. They were typical midwesterners, generously offering to have a brother-in-law look at your car trouble for free and using communist as a derogatory term.

Past the gravel parking lot was a meadow that we would linger in and watch the dogs sniff and play on our way to the trail around the lake. One day in the spring a woman we knew walked up to our little group and said, “An English professor just threw himself off the roof of the parking garage.” My immediate thought when I heard her was, Which one? Many possibilities from the department came quickly to mind.

The conversation in little groups around the university all that week was curiosity: Why did he do it? What drove him? Why that way? The tone of the conversations was slightly giddy. People felt better about themselves when they realized that their unspoken despair was tiny compared to the suicide’s. They pretended to be horrified, but they were thrilled. It gave them a perspective that was redemptive.

All writing is a suicide note, according to Amis. This journal may document the kinds of things that people wanted to know when they found out about that death: the nature and shape of the struggle that leads to suicide. But in those conversations about suicide we also recognized that the slightest gesture of human warmth can be a soft velvet rope blocking the doorway that leads up to the roof. You might still linger at the doorway a moment, but it can turn you away.