I’m struggling here. I am three weeks out since the death of my dear Sylvia, the first dog I myself acquired. Bought sounds so…uncouth, doesn’t it? But I did buy her, from some very nice people who owned a farm down in southwest Missouri and bred dogs. That was 11 years ago, when my life was vastly different than it is today.
It’s said that people come into our lives for specific purposes. Whatever power operates the universe–God, Buddha, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, pick your poison–presents us with opportunities at random points in our lives…or really, not so random. At moments where we can make life-changing decisions. These opportunities might be material or spiritual or fiscal or physical. I think it’s safe to say that among these opportunities are those involving bringing not just people into your life…but souls. And if you don’t think dogs have souls, we can end our little chat right here.
You see, the struggle for me has been trying to figure out how to honor Sylvia’s life. Because, in the last decade, there have been two souls who have entered my life and made profound differences. One is Deb, and since she’s still here, we won’t eulogize her just yet.
The other, without a doubt, was Sylvia.
As a kid, we were raised with all kinds of animals. We had dogs, we had cats, we had hamsters and gerbils and fish and birds. We sometimes brought in frogs or lizards, baby rabbits from the yard, birds who couldn’t fly. My parents once even kidnapped a chipmunk from Colorado and transported it across state lines (in what I’m sure was a violation of some law) to our home here in Missouri. We were animal people.
But I was never really a dog person. We had collies, and contrary to what you might have seen on TV, both of them were as dumb as rocks. They were less likely to tell you that Timmy had fallen into a well than to fall in one themselves. They were good dogs, and we grieved their passing. But I think most of our hearts were given to our cats.
We had cats of our own when I got married, two great ones. One from a shelter and one taken in from running around at our apartment complex. Cool, friendly cats who loved to curl up with you, loved to be petted, came when called. Great cats.
Dogs were smelly and skittish and messy and kind of…well..stupid. At least that’s what I thought.
As I grew older, though, and life took its inevitable downs, I suddenly, inexplicably wanted a dog. I can’t tell you where the idea arose, I can only tell you that it was a life-changer. I really wanted a bulldog, but decided to settle for a pug as sort of a cut-rate second choice. I did the research, found the breeder and plunked my money down on a pug.
We went to get her around Father’s Day 11 years ago. It was a long drive, with little kids, and we met the breeder in a church parking lot. Sylvia was all of 8 weeks old, and she was the runt of the litter. I had my ex-wife drive home so I could hold her on my lap during the trip. It was a position she would always have throughout her life whenever she got into the car. Excuse me for a moment, because among many things I miss about her, I deeply miss that, having her sit on my left thigh, my hand entwined in her harness. Her wide open, smiling mouth, her lolling tongue. She loved car rides. Loved them.
Anyway, I learned quickly that dogs aren’t stupid, at least not in the way I thought. Dogs have the incredible ability to live life as it’s presented to them. They take the ups gratefully and the downs in stride. I learned that from Sylvia.
There’s that old adage that dogs live in the moment. It’s true. They don’t linger or dwell on bad experiences. React, then it’s off to the next one, hopefully a better one.
Dogs, as Sylvia was to teach me, are fucking awesome. They’re loyal and loving and, in Sylvia’s case, totally (and I mean totally) empathetic. Sylvia knew when I was down and cheered me. She knew when I needed a kiss (or to have my entire scalp licked). She was always there for me at times when I thought there was no other.
She saved me. Simply put. And made me a better, more centered person. Because of her, I have cast aside my old self, filled with worry and stress and anxiety and fear. Because of her, I am less judgmental, less negative, less “the glass is half empty.” Because of her I have been able to open myself to love and healing and moving on. Does that sound new-agey or a little too feminine? Well, then…fuck off.
And I guess, right there, is the gift Sylvia gave me. That wonderful little soul came into my life at just the right time and offered me a lifesaver to cling to. No pretense, no demands, no judging. Just love me and let me love you. What a profound lesson to learn at my advanced age. And from a dog.
I’ve been struggling, to bring this full circle, with what I might be able to do, to write to honor the profound impact Sylvia had on me me, continues to have on me. I had another dog die about five years ago, a pug named Hector. Hector’s death and my grief afterward unlocked a secret chamber inside me that poured forth a torrent of writing at a time when I’d pretty much stopped. I wrote what was to me a powerful story, entitled “Here,” which is available in my collection Little Deaths. It eased me through the sadness of having lost Hector and eased me back into the writing I hadn’t realized that I’d sorely missed.
“Here,” though, is a ghost story, filled with loss and poignancy, but it’s a ghost story. I don’t want to write a ghost story about Sylvia…that’s not what her life meant to me. So I’m stymied about how I can write something that stays within my milieu (horror/dark fiction) and yet still speaks to the profound, ongoing effect that little dog had on me.
I dunno…this right here might be it, my eulogy for Sylvia. That she was a soul I opened myself up to and became all the better for knowing and loving. I can sit here, late this evening with my fiancee and my two other much-loved dogs–Sadie and Tovah, all up in bed and waiting for me to join them–and know that I am honored and humbled that this tiny being found me and allowed me to share her life, allowed me to grow through knowing her, allowed me the profound honor of being with her, holding her as she moved on from this life. I can carry this lesson forward, to my relationships not just with Sadie and Tovah, not even just to the lovely Deb, but to my relationships with family and friends.
Why is it so awkward for us to express our love to people? I dunno. But not anymore. I kiss and hug my parents when I see them, both dad and mom. I tell my good friend Chris that I love him when I go to hang up the phone. Why not? Life is so short and regret lasts forever. No regrets anymore. The people who are in my life, I think, all know that I love them these days. You know who you are, and are probably uncomfortable when I say it. Too fucking bad. I love all of you. (Jeez, this is beginning to sound as if I’m drunk…I’m not.)
In the end, just as it was at the beginning, Sylvia gave me a gift, and I unwrapped that gift and use it every day now. I hope that what I gave her in return was equal to what she gave me, though I think it couldn’t be. But she had a great life. She was adored, simply adored.
I can’t say anything better about anyone I’ve known.
She was adored and I miss her greatly. But I am so thankful she chose to spend some time with me here.
Books of the Dead is bringing out a new (well, old and substantially rewritten) novel from me soon. I think it’s going to be called The Exterminator, though I loathe that title. I dedicated this book to Sylvia. Is that strange? I don’t think so.
Sorry for the long, rambling post. But I think it helped me process what Sylvia meant to me. Thanks for reading it.