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.