After the Death of a Dog
Polly Ann Brown
are we educated by children, by animals!
haunted by the feeling that I have
allowed something besides my little dog,
Cinder, to slip away. I click through the
sequence of events leading to her death
like rosary beads. I am in search of some
nagging thing. I figure, in time, I will
be able to isolate it from the pure grief
that follows naturally the loss of a
was 11 when diagnosed with lung disease.
My neighbor, a veterinarian, offered to
euthanize her at home.
do we do it? I asked.
know, she said, adding, I
dont believe in hospice for
going away for the summer. I hinted to my
husband that maybe we could take Cinder
with us. His look I took for an answer. I
told myself it would be too hard on
Cinderthe long trip, the adjustment
to apartment living. Our plans were made:
we had commitments. With the date of our
departure approaching, Cinders
breathing seemed more labored. I called
the vet and asked if I could give Cinder
a pill to relax her. The vet replied that
no, she would give Cinder a tranquilizer
by injection before putting her down.
Its a painless, peaceful
process, she said.
not a painless, peaceful process. Cinder
yelped at the needles stab, wailed
over the ache of medicine seeping through
deep muscle. The vet was chagrined.
Im used to big dogs,
friend and I buried Cinder beneath a
boxwood in the backyard. My friend said,
You did the right thing. You
couldnt go off for the summer and
leave her with someone when she was so
sick. You had a deadline.
mentioned the injection. I couldnt
shake it off.
a brain snag, my friend noted.
Its part of grief. If your
brain wasnt snagging on the
injection, it would find something else
to snag on. Let it go,
my friend said each time I brought it up.
The next day my
husband and I drove to our summer
apartment. The further we pushed on in
the car, the more I felt like I was being
vacuumed up by a powerful riptide, sucked
out to sea.
for weeks, I become, by turns, sad and
numb yet curiously waiting for an answer
without even knowing the question. I turn
to writers who give me the bad news, who
ask questions that make me feel as if I
can breathe no matter how in over my head
I am. Thats how hearing bad news
affects me right now. I dont want
rough out there and chancey,
declares Annie Dillard. Cruelty is
a mystery, she writes, after
vividly detailing the consumption of a
small frog by a giant water beetle. In
the Koran, Allah asks, The heaven
and the earth and all in between,
thinkest thou I made them in jest?
Annie Dillard says, Its a
like a castaway facing the starkest of
realities, asking the most basic of
questions, needing to begin again,
critiquing everything I have said I
to church and my brain snags on the words
the preacher uses to identify himself.
I am an Orthodox
Presbyterian, and of this way of
presenting himself, says, It
doesnt get any better.
Through the years, I have crossed many
denominational boundaries and have heard
(and used) words that, in one form or
another, create us and
them. I leave, walk away,
knowing I will never return to this
is a seed of future promise in my
bottom-line existence, my new-found
determination to let go of anything that
no longer rings true or fair. Like the
Velveteen Rabbit, I want to become real.
Nothing short of honesty will do.
phase of radical reflection, looking back
over my life, I see how I leaped from one
movement to another, took on large
calamities, systemic injustices: a famine
in Ethiopia, racism in the United States,
misuse of the medical model in education
in students lives, a war in the
notice, now, that in all of these, there
had to be a villain, someone to blame and
dehumanize. There were two sides, a right
side and a wrong side. I was on the right
side, the side of justice. In my pursuit,
there was no capacity for imagining the
merit in the other side. Another thing I
notice: All those battles were waged on
behalf of someone elses well-being,
never my own.
world shrinks as I think about how I
sometimes treat the person in front of
me. I judge and criticize my husband
without trying to imagine where he is
coming from. I dont have the
courage to tell my mother something she
doesnt even know is still a barrier
between us. I bite my tongue when one of
my grown children almost pleads with me
to speak. I cant even manage my
dogs demise without bungling.
woman I know asks me, And why would
you expect to find peace and justice
outside if it cant be in your tiny
group, between you and the one in front
of you? Its a good question.
remember the exact location, the
intersection where, 20 years ago, in a
car, a friend, dying of cancer, said,
I never question God. We rode
on in silence.
never known how to reconcile the reality
of sufferingthe Holocaust,
Hiroshimawith the notion of an
all-powerful, all-loving, a totally
in-charge, sovereign God.
And then, while
rehashing how it went with Cinders
death, a friend says, Sounds as if
it wasnt your choice. The
words stoke their way into some inmost
nerve. After she leaves, I think about
what she has said.
have stayed with Cinder until she could
not longer put her head down for lack of
breath, or decided that, under no
circumstances, would I let her suffer
that much. There are moments I should
drop everythingStop right
here!take all the time I need to
think about what another says and what I
think. When the vet said she didnt
believe in hospice for dogs was such a
is it that a look becomes a factor in my
decision-making? My husband is a
reasonable man. I could have arranged for
Cinder to spend the summer with us. And
why didnt I insist on giving Cinder
something by mouth to relax her?
hunches are usually good ones. Its
possible I could have given Cinder two
more fairly decent months, or longer.
Ill never know: I accepted
others views, looked around, failed
to look within. I yielded when I
didnt want to yield, gave up my own
authority (and secretly blamed those to
whom I had yielded).
was my dog. This was no time for
compromise. I betrayed Cinder. I betrayed
myself. This was a time, is time, to step
up to the plate!
above all: said Shakespeare,
to thine own self be true, And it
must follow, as the night, the day, Thou
canst not then be false to any man.
Merton asked himself what he feared most.
His answer: Forgetting and
ignorance of the inmost truth of my
being. To forget who I am, to be lost in
what I am not, to fail my own inner
truth, to get carried away in what is not
true to me, what imposes itself on me
from the outside.
church, I have heard little of what
Shakespeare and Merton are pointing to
here. I have been well-schooled in the
need to love and to serve, that it is
better to give than to receive.
biblical shalom is about right
relationships with God, self, and others.
And right relationships are about
justice: genuine mutuality and
reciprocity, knowing and being known.
Summing up the law and the prophets,
Jesus said, Do unto others as
you would have them do unto you.
not the way of duty or one-sided
paternalism, ways which often barely hide
subliminal hostility, resentment, a sense
Finn, believing hed go to hell for
helping his friend Jim, a slave, journey
toward freedom, said, Alright then,
Ill go to hell. At the
most, knowledge of self, claiming
ones own authority, commitment to
ones own heart, to Gods
heart, might mean laying ones life
down for another.
least, it might mean making the best
possible choices about the care of
like my dog Cinder to drive the point
Ann Brown lives in Philadelphia with her
husband, Ken. They are members of
Norristown (Pa.) New Life Mennonite
church. Polly Ann, a semi-retired
educator, is writing a childrens
book and planning another book encouraing
ongoing dialogue among communities,
families, educators, and students. She is
housebreaking a new puppy. Lois
Schlabach, the friend referred to above,
deserves thanks for comments that
improved the article.