ralph jumps

The Dog Is Dead.

We put Ralph to sleep yesterday. He was 13. I’d known he was near the end for a couple of weeks because he started letting me pet him. Ralph didn’t want to be touched the way other dogs do. I think it’s because he was thrown away when he was a puppy, like a piece of trash, in a dumpster behind his namesake supermarket in Palm Springs. Who knows what kind of mistreatment he endured before that. Ralph, like anyone who’s abused, had scars you couldn’t see. His manners were appalling. With a couple of exceptions — Phoebe, his lady friend, who has issues of her own, and Tober, who lived next door —  Ralph didn’t play well with others. His usual greeting at the park was a menacing crouch followed by growling and lunging. Fortunately we found a big-hearted groomer who was moved by the Ralph’s tale of woe and put up with his barking and nipping. He wasn’t one of those dogs that wagged his tail like crazy or showered his people with affection, nor did he expect or even tolerate much in the way of physical displays in return. If you started to stroke or pat him, if you showed him too much tenderness, the dog walked away.

And then he didn’t. A couple of weeks ago I smoothed the strands of fur back from his eyes. He gazed up at me. I rubbed his ears. He lowered his head, groaning with pleasure. I started to cry. It was so ridiculously poignant. The dog was letting me in at the end of his life. He was letting me in because it was the end of his life.

On Monday I called Jill, my dear friend and the one who heard Ralph whimpering in the Palm Springs dumpster on her morning run. We were all on vacation, and my family wound up taking the dog home. We called Jill Ralph’s birth mother. Jill was Ralph’s middle name. Jill was the dog’s favorite person, place, or thing. She drove from New York to Boston with Phoebe even before the vet phoned to tell me that Ralph’s lungs were filled with metastatic cancer nodules.

The nice thing about scheduling death is you can orchestrate the send-off. In the morning we lifted Ralph and put him in Jill’s van, where he used to beach himself on the back seat as she packed up to leave after a visit, hoping to be taken along. He took a nap on the floor with the door open and the sun pouring in.

We went to the field. His nose was in fine form and he smelled, and smelled, and smelled. Billy hugged him. Hannah hugged him. Satchel played guitar. Jill made videos with her iPad.

When we came home Jill and Phoebe left and Satch took the dog outside. He sat on the front stoop for a long time. He wasn’t looking for trouble like he used to but maybe he remembered the sensation of being King of the Block. Maybe he caught a whiff of squirrels and cats and recalled the thrill of the chase. I brought out a few bits of ham which is all he would eat during those last few days. He came back in the house and rested in the living room with Hannah.

We built a fire in the fireplace. We moved the coffee table and brought Ralph’s bed into the center of the room. The only thing missing was Eli, my oldest, who lives in Oregon. We surrounded the dog, stroking him and telling him what a fine fellow he was and waiting for our wonderful vet Holly to arrive at 5 for the kindest and most awful sort of house call.

Ralph slipped away quickly. He was ready to go. But I wasn’t. Who is ever ready to let anyone they love go? I’ve been crying for days. Literally. I burst a blood vessel under an eye. There are dry moments: I stopped crying to sleep for 12 straight hours after the vet drove away with the dog’s body in the back of her Rav 4. I stop crying to eat. But it starts up again if I think or talk about Ralph. I cancelled an interview today because I worried I wouldn’t be able to stop crying.

I know the tears aren’t just for the dog. They’re for my dad, who is in the twilight of his life. They’re for my kids, who grew up. They’re for time, which speeds up like a bad slapstick routine in direct proportion to my wish for it to slow down. They’re for the horrible part of love, which is losing the thing you love, which is going to happen every time. I can hardly fathom it.

Hannah read a Pablo Neruda poem, choking back sobs, just after Ralph’s heart stopped beating. It’s so sad and so beautiful. That’s all there is to it.

A Dog Has Died

My dog has died.

I buried him in the garden

next to a rusted old machine.


Some day I’ll join him right there,

but now he’s gone with his shaggy coat,

his bad manners and his cold nose,

and I, the materialist, who never believed

in any promised heaven in the sky

for any human being,

I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.

Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom

where my dog waits for my arrival

waving his fan-like tail in friendship.


Ai, I’ll not speak of sadness here on earth,

of having lost a companion

who was never servile.

His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine

withholding its authority,

was the friendship of a star, aloof,

with no more intimacy than was called for,

with no exaggerations:

he never climbed all over my clothes

filling me full of his hair or his mange,

he never rubbed up against my knee

like other dogs obsessed with sex.


No, my dog used to gaze at me,

paying me the attention I need,

the attention required

to make a vain person like me understand

that, being a dog, he was wasting time,

but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,

he’d keep on gazing at me

with a look that reserved for me alone

all his sweet and shaggy life,

always near me, never troubling me,

and asking nothing.


Ai, how many times have I envied his tail

as we walked together on the shores of the sea

in the lonely winter of Isla Negra

where the wintering birds filled the sky

and my hairy dog was jumping about

full of the voltage of the sea’s movement:

my wandering dog, sniffing away

with his golden tail held high,

face to face with the ocean’s spray.


Joyful, joyful, joyful,

as only dogs know how to be happy

with only the autonomy

of their shameless spirit.


There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,

and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.


So now he’s gone and I buried him,

and that’s all there is to it.



Filed under: Word/Play Tagged: , , ,


  1. Eric
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    A beautifully written reflection on Ralph. The last paragraph is astounding. For those of us reluctantly at middle age, I think you captured the deep sadness that has always been there, dormant, but is now unfolding to reveal itself as the new constant in our lives. Time speeds up; we lose more and more of the people we love.

    I started crying reading your description of Ralph’s final moments. It’s never easy playing God with your pets’ lives. “Is this the right time? Should I wait?”

    There will always be a space in your heart that is Ralph’s. You have my sympathies.

  2. Alex G
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to hear about Ralf, he had a great family and a happy life. Great ode to Ralf, the boys will miss him.

  3. Posted December 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    This is as lovely and sweet as the life he brought you. How beautifully written.
    Love, Betsy

  4. Iris
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this artice, in all a beautiful elegy to love and loss and how they bring us into the moment when we pay attention, as you all did.


  5. Dan
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Just beautiful. I started reading Middle Mojo because you’re writing about things I’ve been thinking about but I keep coming back for all the deeply felt pieces of real life, like this one. A wonderful sad, sweet portrait of your dog and your family.

    • joan
      Posted January 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      oh, people, thank you for the words of kindness and support. i am comforted and buoyed by them. and by you.

  6. susan piver
    Posted December 23, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    this is so beautiful and sad and real and deep. and joyful. just like all your other writing.

    you all were lucky to have each other. safe journey, sweet ralph.

    laughing and crying with you, s

  7. Blake Boris-Schacter
    Posted December 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I cried while reading this article. Ralph was the animal I was closest to in my life. He had some of the best expressions in his face, and was just bursting with character. I remember sitting in my TV room and hearing the sound of something yelp in fear. I turned on my outside light in time to see a coyote running through, with Ralph chasing him down. This was not your normal Newton dog, which is fitting that he resided with a family brimming with such strong personalities. If he didn’t want to come inside, not only would he not come in, but he would let you get just close enough to think you could catch him and then take off again. Right before he darted away, he would always give a look, proof of both his love of taunting and joy of play. I always knew the day would come where he would no longer be the first thing that greets me when I walk in your front door, and when I next drop by it will be the first think I think of. He lived a great live with a loving family, and he will be sorely and deeply missed.

  8. Pam Miller Shults
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Joan I found the Middle Mojo thinking it might be a Middle School. But it is a original, wonderful site you have created. I cried when I read your beautiful story of Ralph and especially the end piece. I am sorry Ralph,, a big part of your family, passed on. You and your family will always have him in your hearts and can cry and eventually celebrate the happy times you all had together.

    • joan
      Posted January 12, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      Pam, welcome…We miss Ralph but you are right about him living in our hearts. He was a fine, fine fellow. I’m starting to think about finding another pup to bring into the family. We have a rabbit, too, Lamarck, and he misses the dog as much as anyone.

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