Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dog Week Finale: Greta and the Grief Stalker

This is a story about human behavior in the guise of a story about my favorite dead dog.  That's her above, at age nine or so.   As you can probably tell, she was one of those ferocious Rottweilers, or "Rockwilders" as they are often identified by people whose next question is, "Does he bite?"

I don't want to get sidetracked here on my way to the whole point about how weird humans are about grief, but I can't resist first pointing out how stupid a lot of people are about dogs.  When Greta--that was her name--was a puppy, many people in my white-trash-with-glimmers-of-gentrification neighborhood in Charlottesville, VA, and many of the guys I worked with on the construction sites where Greta spent her days, gave me unsolicited advice about how to "make her mean."  The top two suggestions were to tie weights around her neck (to make her bulk up while at the same time annoying her, I guess), and to feed her gunpowder (I assume to give her aggravating ulcers.)  This didn't come up just once or twice.  It was an almost daily conversation.

But to the bemusement of my colleagues and neighbors, I chose to "make her nice" instead.  I trained her on my own, took her to three levels of obedience classes, and helped her earn her "Canine Good Citizen" certificate.  All that training did not keep people from walking across the street to avoid her, but it made me feel like I was a genius.  She was a sweet, friendly, well-mannered, confident dog and I chose to take as much credit for those traits as I shirk responsibility for the shortcomings of my current lovable (sometimes) basket-case of a pet.  I probably had fifty ridiculous nicknames for Greta, and an entire repertoire of songs I had made up about her virtues.  Many of my friends would report to me that they had been behind me at a stop light and seen me either serenading the beast or having earnest discussions with her as she sat next to me in the front seat of my mint-green Suburban.

I'm going to try not to spend all day talking about how much I loved that damn dog, but here's an illustration.  I was sub-contracting at the snootiest gated community in Charlottesville, and a number of residents had complained because one of the rednecks building houses in the neighborhood (me) kept a Rottweiler on a long tie-out, and sometimes walked it off lead at lunchtime, and it was surely going to kill some neighborhood children and Lhasa Apsos, and couldn't the builder he worked for forbid him from bringing this killer into our community?  The foreman from the company called to tell me about the complaints, but he didn't wait for my response, instead saying preemptively, "So I reckon y'all will just find someplace else to work if you can't carry the pooch to the job."  He was correct, and that's what I did.

And one more: I was obsessed with mountain biking in those days, and Greta was my companion on rides as well as work.  I would take her on 8-10 mile rides several times a week, and as long as the trails were technically demanding enough to keep my speed down (not that I was very fast), she had no trouble keeping up, crashing straight through the forest as I wended my way up and down the switchbacks. 

One time we found ourselves on a ride in an unfamiliar location in the George Washington National Forest on a sticky hot afternoon, with only some crappy directions and no map, and waning sunlight.  I'm spontaneous like that.  I took a wrong turn, which added miles to the ride, and never found the trail I was looking for.  Greta was exhausted and overheated, and lay down in the river when we got to the bottom of the mountain.  She cooled off, but was too beat to walk.  So we sat by the river with no trail in sight as the sun went down.  We had already gone 15 miles. 

I knew we had to go back upstream to get to where my truck was, but the undergrowth was too thick to ride or even walk through, and Greta still could barely stand up.  So I stashed my beloved bike behind some rocks and trudged up the middle of the river, carrying the 100+lb. dog,  sometimes half-swimming, until I found a trail.  I continued to carry Greta for the first mile on the trail, stopping to rest every fifty yards or so, until she finally had the strength to walk again; and then we picked our way back the last mile to the truck by the dim light of my otherwise useless brick-sized cell phone.  I had to drive back to the trailhead the next morning and hike in to retrieve my bike.  Greta was tired for about a day after that, but otherwise fine. 

Come to think of it, the above is more of a story of animal endangerment than love for a pet.  Anyway, the point is that we had been through some shit together by the time she got her diagnosis of inoperable cancer that had metastasized to her lungs.

She was twelve when she got the diagnosis, and that's old for a Rottie.  She had the courtesy to make it clear when it was time to put her down.  When her second cancer-riddled rear leg stopped working one morning, I called and made an appointment with the vet for the next day.

When I had to drag her out of the bed of my truck and carry her into the vet clinic, I lost my shit like I haven't done since I was in grade school, if even then.  I was a blubbering, snotty mess, and I didn't think I would be able to carry her.  I finally got myself together enough to bring her into the clinic, and then--this is embarrassingly sentimental--I grabbed my guitar so I could play some music while the drugs kicked in.  I'm pretty sure I was playing a melancholy number called Capricho Arabe when Greta farted one last time, peed buckets all over the operating table and floor, and then stopped breathing.  Somehow the peeing and farting seemed like a perfect gesture--her proverbial last words--and it made me laugh until the tears and snot started flowing once more.

So the weird part--the part that I have wanted to write about since it happened about four years ago--was the lady in the park.  On the morning of the day that I took Greta in to be euthanized, we made one last trip to the park we had been visiting since moving to our current home.  The back end of Greta's body no longer worked, so I had slung a towel underneath her belly that I could use as a handle to hold her up while she walked with her front legs.

As we passed by the tennis courts, a lady with a small, fluffy dog--maybe a Shitzu--approached me and asked what was wrong with Greta.  I wasn't rude, but I told her flat out that Greta would no longer be with us in a matter of an hour or so.  I didn't feel like having a long conversation. 

I guess I expected the woman to reply with a subdued expression of condolence, and respect for our need for privacy. 

But instead, she gasped and cried out that this was the most horrible thing ever and that I must be devastated.  Wasn't I devastated?  She fired off one question after another about the depths of my misery.  It was one of the many times that people have reacted in a way so far removed from what I would have considered appropriate that I had to question my own perception as much as theirs:  surely I just don't know what a normal response should look like.  But she was clearly a "dog person," (like me) so all bets concerning her social skills were off.

Eventually the Shitzu Lady went on her way and Greta and I staggered around a bit more.  We found a shady spot and lay down.  I tried to help Greta roll in the grass like she used to, but her eyes were dull and her breathing was labored.  She was clearly in pain.

After a few moments, I saw, or sensed, some movement in the next shady spot in the field. I turned to see Shitzu Lady, now with a friend--Dachshund Lady--whispering in the shadows as they gawked at the spectacle of my dying dog and me.  To her credit, Dachshund Lady came over and, after asking permission, quietly petted Greta for a minute, with tears streaming down her face, and then moved on.  This was a woman who had never met Greta or me.  Shitzu Lady lingered for a bit and then disappeared.

With just a few minutes before Greta's appointment with the hereafter, I tried to steer her back to the truck.  I had not realized that it's nigh-impossible to steer a dog from the back end when she is controlling the front and has different ideas about where she should go.  Greta just kept plodding farther away from the parking lot as I tried to swing her big butt in front of her nose.  I gave up on that tactic, picked her up and walked toward the truck. 

As I loaded her into the truck, I happened to glance over my shoulder and see Shitzu Lady peeking from behind the pro-shop, holding her dog in her arms and looking distraught.

Sure, I was somewhat peeved that this woman had essentially stalked us around the park during what I had hoped would be a time of quiet reflection.  But it wasn't like she ruined the whole thing.  And I had been quietly reflecting about my ailing pet for months anyway. 

Mostly, being stalked by Shitzu Lady drew my attention to the spectacle--the performance if you will--of grief.  Which is not to say that the way people act when grieving is necessarily artificial in any way.  But it is probably, at least in public, self-aware (probably much, much less so for people who are less self-absorbed than I).  I know I was very self-aware when I had the audience of the two dog ladies, and even when I completely lost it on the tailgate of my truck before taking Greta into the clinic.  And my self-awareness made me even sadder in a strange, kind of funny way: I thought about what a pathetic figure I cut, collapsed over a dog on the back of a pickup, sobbing and gasping like a child or...or like someone who has experienced a tragedy of epic proportions--like you see in some god-forsaken country on the news.  If I had seen something like what I was performing at that moment in a movie, it would have been hard not to get choked up.  In fact, I was getting choked up at the scene even as I was performing it.  So in all, I felt sad not just for Greta, and for me, and for my wife; but also for anyone who might stumble upon my heartbreaking performance.

A bit of a disclaimer: The experience I over-analyzed above was really about grief light.  Greta was a dog after all, not a human family member, and she had lived a very full life.  Thankfully, I have not had much experience with losing really close human friends and family.  I've had some, but in almost every case, I froze up and didn't allow myself to feel much, for whatever multitude of reasons a lot of people (men especially, supposedly) do that.  I remember reading that men are much more comfortable showing affection to their dogs than to their wives and kids, so maybe that's true with grief as well.  I am plenty comfortable with showing affection to my wife and (especially) kids.  I hope to never find out about showing grief.  Obviously.



  1. Sitting here blubbering. Our precious Carly, 17 years Cocker Spaniel, had a stroke just before we moved in June. Still hard to look at pictures.

  2. You're trying to kill me, aren't you.

    I've had both, dog death and dad death, and it's not so much grief light as it is just different. And then, of course, sometimes the dog death brings the heavy, buried, other grief up until you're not sure who you're crying for. (Yourself, is my guess.) Maybe those old cowboys are crying for more than their dying cowdogs, is what I'm saying.

  3. @Nubian--Sorry. See, now I'm getting sad thinking about other people's dog-related sadness. I guess I deserve nothing less.

    @Steamy--See above comment. I'm done with all this tear-jerking nonsense. It's kind of selfish, isn't it? I just always wanted to write about the Shitzu Lady--it was so odd. Anyway--excellent point about the "not sure who you're crying for." Pets can be a vessel for all kinds of emotion, and it's probably good to have a cathartic cry every decade or so. Even for cowboys.

  4. BD,

    Well, yes, I'm crying. But that was kinda the point, right?

    I thought of at least 7 different doggie-related experiences I've had while reading this post. You've got a great piece here, tapping into all that shared collective unconscious. Maybe that's why your Shitzu Lady had such a stalker moment---she was tapped in, too? Or off her meds?

    Thanks for sharing all the personal moments (the guitar playing, the last park outing) that make this post resonate.


  5. It's not selfish to cry; it's human. I had to take Scout to the vet yesterday and they removed one of her nails. She had three nails fail off another paw recently, but this was a lot worse, on a different nail. They can't figure out the problem.

    I was bawling even when I called to make the appointment. I tried to hold it together while I was there because Scout gets upset if I get upset and hates vets in any case. Anyway, I really enjoyed this---though for once something about dog death didn't make me cry. So you liked Greta better than Mac?

    A heart that hurts is a heart that works.

  6. @Nicole--Thanks. Yeah, the stalker lady seemed kind of unable to turn away from the train wreck.

    @Paul--Sorry to hear about Scout's health problems. Boo. I didn't mean crying is selfish, but it occurred to me that jerking others' tears for your own catharsis probably is.

    I think the big difference between Greta and Mac was that, sadly, Mac's decline was so gradual that by the time I put him down, he had been a shadow of his former self for years. Even now I remember him as a doddering old fool more than the vital pup he once was. Greta was Greta up until the end.

  7. I loved Greta - she was a great dog. I wish we'd gotten to know her sooner in our C-ville tenure!

    Reading this brought back the whole experience of losing Sally this spring. She was herself right up to the last few weeks too. All of us (and I mean ALL of us) cried every day for a week. That last drive to the vet was surreal - it was just me and her in the car and the road was blurry on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon through the tears. I guess we're lucky we made it there intact. I'm still not done grieving - found myself tearing up when our neighbors adopted a dog last week.

    Thanks for sharing. Didn't need to shed any more tears but it was worth it - this was a great post.

  8. Sounds like you lost another great friend.

    I've always had dogs and considered myself a "dog person", even though the selfish bastards keep dying.

  9. Wow, I don't think you could have said it better. The collective unconscious aside, this was a tremendous story by itself. Amazing that you're willing to admit to the guitar serenade:):). Really hit home to me as I have a dog that is on her way out.

    What a unexpectedly awkward but somehow wonderful twist that stalker woman had so much to say about Greta and happened to be so interested. I feel like that would have been me...

    I don't know why it's taken me this long to comment, but I'm very impressed with all of your writing and damn your girls are adorable (truly that might be what actually keeps me coming back). I think this post stood out to me because you allowed the readers to really put themselves in your shoes and lace 'em up tight. At least us dog people readers...

  10. @Amy--Sally was a great pooch too! She must have been the oldest surviving member of Azalea Park class of '98 (or so). I always advise people to get a puppy without delay if possible to fill the void (or at least distract you). Works for me anyway.

    @Ed--I know. Dogs are such jerks like that.

    @Ben--thanks a lot! I appreciate your comments. (I better hurry up and post some baby pics. It's been a while.)

  11. This makes me tear up. It reminds me of Slow, the dog the nieighbours poisoned when I was 4, my cat that died last year of unknown reasons (whom I hadn't been able to see for almost a year thanks to this military life thing), and a few other pets. I'm just glad to see I'm not the only one that bawls and has a break-down over their furbabies. Most of the time, my husband contributes it to my being a female and the stereotypical "over-hormonal"-ness of our gender, but I made him read this to see that he's just a douche. I've experienced loss of family and friends, and while losing a pet that you love like you birthed them doesn't hurt near as much, but it's pretty damn close.

  12. You're killing me this week. Do you ever feel guilty morning your dead pets while petting your living ones? I do. But I can't stop.

  13. I think the public grieving thing may have been driven deep underground by my stoic Appalachian forebears. I remember standing with my dozen male cousins at our grandfather's funeral and not a single tear.

    RE: dogs: I don't think I cried for Li'l Betty (once Greta's favorite punching bag/bowling ball) until actually putting her in the ground (and please don't tell Fairfax County we did that). Granted, her death (by strange seizure) was very sudden. But still.

    Also, everyone here should read Bill Emory's beautiful photo-essay, "Sun Dog" (in 3 parts), a.k.a. "I am five dogs old." The essay is from 1999 and therefore is a landmark in the history of the genre (this is quite pre-blog, mind you), and deserves to make it around the internets again.

  14. That URL for Bill Emory's essay, "Sun Dog":

  15. Beautiful post, you had me blubbering a bit for a dog I put down, and hugging tight (too tight?) my squirmy current beloved best dog in the world.

    Rituals are good.

    Dog people will get this without hesitation, others won't. Terrific tribute.

  16. What a touching story. I've experienced pet death and human death, and they are both hard in their own ways.

    She was a beautiful dog. I'm sorry for your loss.

  17. I could comment on an awful lot of different things about this post. But I'll confine myself to one.

    God, you're a good writer. That was a marvellous piece.

  18. I want to fart in Shitzu ladies mouth.

  19. I remember the day I met Greta the ferocious. She was zipping around some field near the med school and my phobia instantly kicked in.
    Turned out that I had never met a sweeter dog than Gretie. I'm giving her complete credit for my now almost positive interactions with other dogs.


Don't hold back.


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