Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Writing about dogs

Mark Doty is a fine writer. Equally at home writing poetry, as well as prose, my first contact with his work was via his wonderful memoir, Dog Years.

The book was one of many that I jammed into my backpack while readying for our summer vacation, in August 2007. Mary had found what looked like a delightful, rustic cottage along Maine's rocky coast, in Steuben, about an hour east (or Down East, if you prefer) of Mount Desert Island, and removed from the tourist Mecca of Bar Harbor. Granted, we were working from a picture and description from a guide to Maine camps and cottages (put out by the Maine's Office of Tourism , I think), but we decided to take and chance. I'm glad we did.

Bernie, then 12-years-old, was beginning to show the first signs of aging. Occasionally, after he would run chasing balls in the yard, or aggressively exert himself running, his rear haunches would shake and quiver. I wondered if he was showing the first signs of a possible genetic hip condition that Shelties are prone to have.

Steuben became a magical week away from television, cell phones, and computers. It was a week filled with early morning walks in the fog, exploring the shoreline at low tide. We met a local clammer, 82-year-old Reny, who kept us supplied with the freshest clams for the rest of the week, for a pittance of what we'd have paid in Portland. Mark, our son, and his girlfriend, Gabi, would arrive midweek, and share the cottage for the remainder of the week.

One night, we had Sandy Phippen, Maine writer extraordinaire, over for dinner. Phippen and I had struck up a relationship over the phone over the past few years, and I thought it would be great to have him by, since he lived nearby in Hancock. His homespun Maine humor and stories kept us all in stitches throughout dinner and afterwards.

I read Doty's book in a day and a half. Without giving away too many details of the book, the ending, where Doty eloquently conveys the passing of one of his two beloved 70-pound labs, Beau, touched an emotional resevoir, as if my own canine friend, Bernie, had passed away. Little did I know that less than two years later, I would personally experience the loss of my own friend.

Doty's book has a much greater depth than the popular Marley & Me. That's not to say that the latter isn't fine for some tastes, but for me, Doty's writing is much more grounded in the harsh complexities of life's realities, with their joy, pain, heartbreak, and the inevitable death of loved ones, both animal and human that all of us must come to terms with.

This is only the second day without Bernie, but his departure has left an almost palpable emptiness in our home. This void has much less to do with the absence of Bernie's 35-pound physical frame, and much more to do with his larger than life spirit and personality that filled rooms, and always elicited a smile. He was a dog that truly loved everyone he was ever with, as long as it was human, and not a fellow dog (an association that I don't think Bernie ever was comfortable with).

I know that both Mary, Mark, and I will ultimately come to terms with the loss of our dog, but in the short-term, it's just really hard to cope with, just as Doty was able to convey in his wonderful memoir.

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