I never had a dog to teach me about death

I never had a dog to teach me about death

I never had a dog to teach me about death 1080 693 Matthew Starr

Bones was about as close as I got growing up. He was my next door neighbor’s Alaskan Husky, black and white boy, lupine face, eyes that hit you like a cold wind. I routinely chased him up and down the length of the fence that separated the houses, close but not too close because I still held on to that boyish fear of everything. Sometimes I’d sit there criss-cross applesauce in the itchy summer crabgrass, tossing shavings of tree bark through the chain-link, thinking I was giving him something good to eat. He’d sniff them and move on, face unchanged. He was my first friend.

My deddy used to come home with an extra steak whenever he knew he was going to be grilling for us. He’d cook it, then cut it up and feed it to Bones over the fence. There was always this eagerness behind the dog’s intense focus, this hunger to live, to keep on living. An animal instinct. One day, Bones bit Deddy as he was going for a piece of the meat, and Deddy said, “Ow, you bastard,” and then that was the end of feeding Bones. These things happen.

A handful of years later, when I was eleven, I think, Bones died in his back yard on an oppressively hot summer day. I remember looking out the door as Jerry picked him up longwise, buried him in a neat grave next to his carport, gave him back to the earth. He was there, and then he wasn’t. I didn’t cry. I don’t even know if I wanted to.




I always wanted a dog, but I never got one. My parents used the excuse that me and my brother wouldn’t take care of it—that we’d lose interest after a few months, and then the burden would be on them. Every Christmas morning for several years, I woke up hoping a puppy would be sprawled under the tree with a bow on its head. But it never happened.

I didn’t understand it. Why would anyone deprive their kids of a dog? Dogs are loyal and good-natured and quirky. Dogs are good at explaining parts of life that aren’t comfortable to talk about out loud. If there’s a mess, it has to be cleaned up. Trust is a long, hard road. Breath and flesh are temporary.

Dogs don’t ask about your grief, they just let you hold their warm bodies. They take your pain as if it were their own, and they endure with you, loving you stoically. They don’t judge.

Before I was born, my deddy had an Irish Setter named Jenny and a Weimaraner named Benny. Mama said that, while they were dating, he’d occasionally come home to his trailer drunk and play the piano for Jenny and Benny. I always felt robbed of moments like that.




My paw paw had never been a big man, but he was tougher than fucking nails and he did things that other people didn’t have the stomach to do. Mama told me that one time while she was growing up, the family dog was mauled by an animal (they never found out what it was), and there weren’t vets on every corner like there are nowadays. Once it was obvious that Sunshine’s hours were numbered, Paw Paw took her out back and ended her suffering with a mallet. It was the only dignity he could give her. He rocked her mangled body in his arms like a baby, spent all night fashioning her a proper plot.

He came down with pneumonia just after Thanksgiving when I was twenty years old. Begged us not to take him to the hospital because he knew he wouldn’t come home. Many of his faculties were on the backend by that point, but his carnal intuition was as sharp as ever. Over the next week and a half, his condition deteriorated. My deddy and uncle came to get me from college so that I could say goodbye. I’ll never forget the way that room in the ICU felt, weightless and flat cold like the steel of a razor blade—drawing out strange new monsters of sorrow in thick runs of blood.

On his last day of consciousness, Paw Paw sat up in bed, loopy from the drugs, but his spirits were good. He talked up a storm, fiddled with the breathing tube in his nose. He called me Charlie. That was my deddy’s name.

When Paw Paw went to sleep that afternoon, he never woke up again. Being his power of attorney, my mama had to make the decision to remove him from life support. In that midnight hour, we congregated around the hospital bed, a sterile smell in the air, some infomercial on the mute television, hand in clammy hand. My aunts and uncle, my cousins. My deddy had stepped out to get something from Wendy’s.

“So we’re all in agreeance?” my mama said through a choked throat, reaching for reassurance that she’d made the right call.

We all nodded, but none of us said anything.

The nurse ran a morphine drip to slow the heart, to numb the metamorphosis from living person to dead person. Then we waited. After a half hour of suffocating silence, a sound. Paw Paw gasped his last breath. His eyes flitted open, pale and distant, his whole face blushed purple. His tongue jutted out involuntarily, reptilian. Stillness befell him.

“He’s gone home to be with Mama,” one aunt cried with a woefulness I had never heard in a voice.

My mama threw herself over the bed. My other aunt vomited in the bedside waste bin. I went to the hospital chapel on the other side of the Intensive Care wing, howled at the altar with my face down, hands raised together in one fist. God did not comfort me. On the way back to the room, I wiped my eyes on my shirt sleeves. Some lady I’d never seen before whispered “Bless his heart” to her husband as they passed.

When he got back, my deddy walked me around the hospital. He said very little because he knew that’s what I needed. I had to process this my own way, learn this lesson by myself—which is how we all start this life, and how we all finish it. Later, he told my mama that he wished I hadn’t seen what I’d seen.

These things happen.




The older I got, the more I realized that my parents never gave me a dog because they didn’t want me to go through that hurt. That devastating, collapsing hurt of having to let go. They wanted to protect me, to guard me from that misery for as long as they could get away with it. It was a stray thing, a force that wanted to infiltrate the pack and do violence like the beast that had ripped poor Sunshine to shreds.

A boy should not know such things. A boy should not know cuddling his dog on the gritty tile floor of a vet’s office, screaming into its coat as its body stiffens. The severance of innocence. When a dog dies, it takes a boy’s secrets with it. His youth, his trust and wonder, the things he cannot remember once they’re gone.

I reckon Mama and Deddy wanted me to hold on to those things until my arms got too tired from the weight of the rest of the world. Such harsh truths should be reserved for the grownups, or so it goes.




Mama was already on the phone with 911 when she came to wake me up from my afternoon nap less than eight months after Paw Paw died. “Matthew, get up, your deddy’s not breathing.”

I scrambled, still fuzzy with sleep, to my parent’s bedroom, where my deddy was supine on the floor with his eyes closed. I straddled him, put my ear to his mouth. I counted off chest compressions, trying to remember what I’d learned in high school health class some seven years before. I continued for several minutes, hoping to will life where it wasn’t, knowing that I wasn’t doing it right. I was too afraid of breaking my father’s ribs.

Sometimes I see that moment through the eyes of someone else. A child, a stranger, a thief of joy.

It’s funny how the mind works because I know that I said things to him, but I don’t remember exactly what they were. Please and don’t go and Deddy and don’t leave me, some combination thereof. As you do. I ran outside and sat on the concrete steps of our porch. The paramedics scuttled past me and into the house, left me rocking back and forth, a wild creature of pain, raw. Would a dog have taught me how to handle that experience with more grace? Every now and then, I wonder.

A short time before family and friends began to assemble in the front yard, one of the EMTs came outside, put his arm around me, and asked, “Who is that in there to you, son?”

I said, “My deddy.” My own words felt so broken in my ears.

“You don’t need me to tell you what’s going on,” he replied.

He was right: I didn’t. I walked around to the back yard as they wheeled the body out of the house. I didn’t want to see it. A fresh wave of hysteria washed over me as my aunt handed me the contents of my deddy’s pockets. His license and cash bundled up in a rubber band. His car keys and mints. Some change. Most people offered me tender words of condolence.

Someone asked me if he was saved.

I asked him, “Are any of us?”

Later that evening, while high (low?) on Ativan, I sobbed into one of my deddy’s old baseball shirts as my cousin was arranging a hotel room for us to stay in. I wanted the agony to pour out of me. I wanted to heave every scrap of it from my body, that cursed fucking feeling. Chase it away to the end of the fence, bury it deep. And if it ever came back, I would snarl at it to show that I wasn’t afraid. But I didn’t even talk about it. After a while, it was just easier that way.




Over the next two years and some change, I lost two more grandparents. I didn’t gain any dogs. As vain and bizarre as it might sound, I long considered myself an expert on death. But one cannot be such a thing, just like one cannot really know where any of us go, if anywhere, after this life. To say otherwise is arrogance.

We can know these things, however: love, loss, happiness, hunger, trauma, wounds—the kind that can’t be seen, only felt when the salt of grief is lapped into them as if by some cruel tongue.




Now, I’m thirty years old, and I finally have two dogs of my own. Sweet, foolish things, the older one sassy, smiley, and catlike, the younger one loyal, floppy-eared, epileptic. My children. Is it everything I imagined it would be?

Yes and no.

I know that someday they will die. By their own biology or at my decision. The light will leave their eyes. The animation will leave their bodies, and I will be left once more to find a piece of life to hold on to and salvage, to hide like a bone in the dirt and unearth whenever I need a reminder of how fragile this all is, how precious. I’m still not ready.

Header photo © Liz Baronofsky.

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