Thursday, June 9, 2011
the smile on a dog
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
--Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass
One of the most beautiful sections in Milan Kundera’s brilliant novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is “Karenin’s Smile,” in which the protagonists, Tereza and Tomas (played by Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis in the film version), are confronted with a terminal illness diagnosis for their dog, Karenin, and must decide which course to take. In the chapters that comprise this section, Kundera reflects, mostly through the character of Tereza, on the differences between our relationships with animals and our relationships with each other:
. . . the love that tied her [Tereza] to Karenin was better than the love between her and Tomas. Better, not bigger. . . .
It is a completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; she did not ever ask him to love her back. Nor had she ever asked herself the questions that plague human couples: Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it have the additional effect of cutting it short. (Kundera 297)
I thought about Karenin yesterday after receiving a similar diagnosis for our own dog, Sasha, who has been suffering good-naturedly for the last several months. Though she has been plagued by arthritis for the last couple of years, she has managed to stay, up until about a month ago, relatively active, and healthy aside from her aching joints, which cause her to groan when the weather is heavy. Though it was clear she would never again be able to join the running group, she has been able to hike, swim, and accompany us on our neighborhood walks. And, true to Lab form, her appetite never wavered, not until last month. That’s when we knew things were changing. One morning she did not come down for breakfast, not even when she heard the sound of the top spinning off of her food container, nor when she heard the rattle of kibbles hitting the metal bowl. When it was time to feed her dinner, her bowl was still half-full of breakfast. I offered her a banana slice, a favorite treat, as an appetizer; she sniffed it and turned away. My heart sank.
Yesterday was ostensibly a routine visit to the vet. It was time for her rabies vaccine. Of course, I brought my concerns with me, but I barely had time to raise them before the vet had decided that Sasha’s condition was “not good.” Her gums were pale, her stomach inflamed, her heartbeat irregular. She had lost almost ten pounds (and she was already quite thin for a Lab). They kept her at the vet for some tests, but I did not need results to know that Sasha was preparing for her next journey.
The results: enlarged lymph nodes, a big one in her chest. Enlarged pancreas. Blood cell count showed likely evidence of lymphoma. We could send her for an ultrasound, then to an oncologist, and then on to other specialists, or we could swallow hard, accept that she had lived a rich and active life, and send her off with love and memories. So, with very heavy hearts, we have chosen the latter.
I’ve said good-bye to pets before, and it’s always painful, but Sasha and I have been together for over ten years. She arrived when I was at graduate school in Vermont, and though I told Bryan he would have to assume the bulk of the responsibility for her while I was finishing up my degree, I could never stand being away from her; as a result, we shared custody, and she spent her first few months as our puppy living in two states. She snoozed on my lap while I read for my Comps exam. She hung on the ears of my roommate’s 115-pound Great Dane/Chocolate Lab mix, Perry. She explored the spur trails and higher peaks of the Green Mountains.
When Bryan and I got married, we spent two months on the road, going out West, up through Canada to Alaska, and back down through the Canadian Rockies and into Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Sasha was on the trip, and was even present at our wedding ceremony on the summit of Flattop Mountain, just outside of Anchorage (though she did try to sneak off with a trail runner who came through).
Her adjustment to Dylan’s arrival took some time, and in the early days she did express her disapproval at having been usurped, but she later grew to tolerate the kids, especially now that both are able to toss her a ball (she still brings the ball back to one of us, rather than to either of the kids, presumably as a way of stating that, though she has accepted them as roommates, they will never be her masters).
Still, her happiest days are in the yard, chewing on grass, sniffing out a dead animal, chasing anything we can throw. Though we’d like to think she enjoyed the road trip, I suspect she would have been just as pleased—perhaps more so—to run after a Frisbee right here in Cheshire.
If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza,
“Look, I’m sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can’t you come up with
something different? And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a
circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing
for repetition. (Kundera 298)
Dogs thrive on routine, and a Lab will suffer through just about any amount of pain for the sake of a walk. I have sometimes worried that, left to her own devices, Sasha would literally retrieve until she keeled over from cardiac arrest. In fact, she has a kink in her tail that is a testament either to her stamina or her foolishness. At our wedding party, which took place on Lake Spofford in New Hampshire, the children of our friends threw tennis balls and sticks into the water for Sasha to chase. When dogs swim, they use their tails as rudders, and at the end of the day, Sasha’s tail hung limp and was sore to the touch. The next day she could lift it, but just slightly. When it finally healed, it stood at a crooked arch, and so it remains. But she’d probably do it all over again. Tomorrow.
Last night, we gave the bad news to the kids. Dylan was sad but inquisitive, as is his nature. Lexi was more visibly upset. She has experienced death before, having lost both of her beloved grandfathers, but the frightening notion of death itself upsets her greatly. It’s the “f” word—“forever”—that sends her into a spin. I made the mistake of using the tired euphemism, “putting her to sleep,” when explaining the process of euthanasia. I thought she had understood (though why I would make that assumption, I’m not sure); later she came to me and said, “Mom, Dylan said we’re going to have to say goodbye to Sasha forever.”
I took her hands and said, “We are, honey. It’s time for Sasha to go on to a place where she doesn’t have to feel any more pain.”
And she lost it. When she woke up this morning, she started all over again. I showed her pictures of Sasha doing all of the things that make her happy: chewing, hiking, swimming, sleeping on our bed. I told her we’ll sprinkle her ashes in her favorite places: Brooksvale Park in Hamden; Camel’s Hump in Vermont; Flattop Mountain in Anchorage. She will literally become a part of her favorite trails. We’ll save a little for our backyard, of course.
In Kundera’s novel, Tomas, being a doctor, decides to euthanize Karenin himself, so that Karenin might die in the comfort of his country home, surrounded by his family. “Assuming the role of Death is a terrifying thing. Tomas insisted that he would not give the injection himself; he would have the vet come and do it. But then he realized that he could grant Karenin a privilege forbidden to humans: Death would come for him in the guise of his loved ones”(Kundera 299-300). When Karenin sees Tomas enter the room, he gives a weak wag of his tail. “Look,” Tereza says through her tears, “He’s still smiling”(299).
Bryan and I have yet to work out the logistics of what happens next, but we do know we want her here, at home, if at all possible, perhaps on her lumpy old bed in front of the fireplace. I’m looking at that bed now, at its ridges and wrinkles and stains. Sasha spends most of her time in the bathroom now, preferring cool tile to foam cushion. She doesn’t greet us at the door anymore, but I hear her tail thump against the floor when I enter, and I know that, in spite of her discomfort, she is happy.
But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. (Kundera 298)