A Time For All Things in the Life of a Dog
“Saoirse! Saoirse!” I call over the flat chill of an autumn lake. “Freedom! Freedom!” I am yelling like some warrior from Braveheart. But I am not a wielder of sword or shield. No, I am one of the women, babe at the breast, who stays at home and keens at wakes and tends to the needs of a distracted old dog.
When we sat in a Galway pub and decided to saddle this then-puppy with a name that was the Irish word for “freedom” we didn’t concern ourselves with the briefness of dog years. We didn’t consider the inherent tragedy of the big breeds, the way they slow down after barely a decade of devoted, slobbery love. Back then, we certainly did not imagine that the little Labrador my parents had adopted just before their trip would outlive anyone at that table.
My folks were visiting me in Ireland after I finished a so-so year at graduate school. My grandmother, fading from cancer, was back home in the States caring for the new four-footed family member. Our country was still making things up as it went along in the wake of 9/11 and the anthrax scares. All was not necessarily right with the world, but that night we had Guinness and laughter. We shared the unspoken belief that everything under heaven (which, at the time, we would still have considered benevolent enough) had its season.
Saoirse was always a sweet-faced chore. Out of pity for the folks at the vet’s office, Mom came to spell her name phonetically. My Gaelic-loving soul hated the look of “Seersha,” but this was the first of countless accommodations my mama would make for her one hundred pound lap dog. One might say that my mother’s love for her dog was reasonable enough. Saoirse’s name was never signed to the Christmas cards, but she was always permitted to disrupt dinner by yanking on Mom’s sleeve until all the attention (but none of the table scraps) was lavished upon her.
Their relationship had its rough spots, as all committed ones do. When Mom’s “sweetie girl” would follow her around, panting relentlessly through the hot summer days Mom would growl, “Saoirse, get out of my life!” The exasperation never did outweigh the devotion, however, and when Saoirse moved in with us two weeks after Mom’s funeral, my husband and I worked hard to keep our own frustration from overwhelming our love for a dog who’d lost her soul mate. Plus, it was comforting to know that we were not the first to tell the poor thing she was the most annoying creature alive and then cover her in apologetic kisses a moment later.
My Place at the End of the Leash
To adopt a person’s animal totem is to take on some of their magic, the medicine women say. As I learned to mother a baby and a dog without the help of the charms that my own mother never had a chance teach me, I could only hope that taking Mom’s place at the end of a lunging dog’s leash would set me right with the spirit world. Against my will, I learned that there’s a time for birthing and for dying, for planting and for tearing into that which we call hallowed ground.
It was my father who stood at the head of the church and incanted in his best businessman’s voice “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven.” This passage from Ecclesiastes that has soothed countless mourners does continue beyond those well-known lines: “For the fate of human and the fate of animal is the same: as the one dies, so the other dies; both have the selfsame breath. Human is in no way better off than animal — since all is futile.”
I can understand that they don’t tell pews full of the bereft that all is futile – not when the intention is to comfort us with talk of a divine calendar that dictates our passages and embraces, our laughter and our weeping. And yet, it’s hard to accept this chapter’s consolation when you can easily spot the flaw in its logic: the fate of a human and her animal is not the same.
You may argue that the most vital part of Saoirse was buried with her mistress deep in the ground, but when she dashed around the edge of a mountain lake, anyone could tell she was still very much alive.
We shared a distrust for still bodies of fresh water. There is too much left to chance when there are no ocean waves to sweep all of the monsters away. During our time together I pretended that I could modulate my voice so it caressed her name just like it did when Mom called her. Saoirse pretended that she is still that puppy we named in that half-remembered pub and that my love was enough for her.
Our dog has long since gone to join our mother. This new reality feels almost normal. Still, I’ll never be free of that bit of chilly comfort that closes the Old Testament verse we all think we know so well: “No one can tell us what will happen after we are gone.”
Marisa Goudy is an author and writing coach who supports creative entrepreneurs as they tell their stories and write their way to sovereignty. A Cape Cod mermaid at heart, she now live in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and their two girls, ages 1 and 5.