Tears agreed to in advance
I wrote and published the following column more than a decade ago. With tears in my eyes, it’s time to publish it again. I thought about rewriting it to fit this week’s events a little more exactly, but then I realized that if there’s anything of value here, it has nothing to do with specifics. So here’s what I wrote in a moment of deep sadness in January 1996.I finished dinner the other night and carried my plate to the kitchen sink. Halfway there, I started to cry.What pulled the tears to my eyes was a brief instant in which I started take the last few scraps from my plate and give them to the dog. That impulse lasted no time at all, because I know all too well that three weeks ago we had our dog put to sleep, just a month short of her 14th birthday.And so my eyes filled with tears, as they have many times when some corner of my mind, stuck in long-standing routines, expects to find the dog waiting inside the door when I come home or reminds me to take her for a walk before I go to bed.Her last months have been difficult, her last moments were not. The vet came to our house to put her down. He is a kind and gentle man who did his best to help us keep our dog healthy over her last few years and who came to perform this one last service when neither his drugs nor her courage could delay the inevitable any longer.The process was simple and quick. A shot of tranquilizers to ensure the last minutes were calm. Then, after minutes of gentle talk and soothing strokes, a lethal injection that killed her within seconds.And then my wife and I hugged one another and sobbed.I have known people who have cried uncontrollably for days after the death of a pet. One friend was inconsolable for nearly a week and finally emerged from his tears with a rueful shrug. “I guess I had a lot of things to cry about,” he said. “It felt good to get it all out.”But my tears were brief and in no way pleasurable. My grief was not cleansing or cathartic. It was simple and direct and terribly painful. Something too large, too sharp, burning hot, wedged within my chest.It was the payment of a debt I had incurred without realizing it, years before, when I took that tiny handful of fur home from the pound.I remember that moment well. I said, “I’ll take this one,” and I signed a few papers and that was that. I didn’t realize then what I know too well now: When you get a dog, you accept years of unconditional love and you accept, as well, a moment of paying it all back in unconditional grief.That bargain is a unique one, a relationship that, in the natural order of things, includes the acceptance of death.We accept no bargain, make no deal, when we are born. We grow up and eventually realize that some day our parents will die. It is a shocking realization and, when those deaths happen, they are deeply painful. But that is, at least, within the natural order of things.When you marry, you flip a coin. One of you will experience the death of the other, but there’s no way of knowing in advance how that coin toss will work out. The future is blessedly hidden from our sight.But within the line of our lives’ tragedies, we have to know that when we pick that puppy, that one out of all the rest, we are accepting the grief of its death some day in the future.My wife and I will get another dog. I know that. But now I also know that, even as we laugh at the puppies squealing and writhing in a pile at the pound, waddling across the floor and yelping, even as our hearts go out and we pick that one, that we will have accepted a moment of almost unbearable pain that waits perhaps a decade down the line.A bright light casts a dark shadow. That’s the deal. Agreed in advance.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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