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.