In the Clear

Remembering a dog's life

She was everything that I am not: raven-haired, practically weightless, indomitably perky. Sweet-tempered. Obliging. Patient.

If she hadn't been a cocker spaniel, she might have been real competition for me. What woman could stand comparison to another female who never snapped or judged and asked only for affection, a soft bed, and two squares a day?

I called her Claire because I liked the name and because it described an attribute I wished to possess. Claire is French for clear, and she came to us at a time when I wanted to be clear about the next chapter in my life: an empty nest and the end of a role I knew by heart. Clarity, at last, is what she brought me: clarity about love, and clarity about loss.

She was a new pet for a new era, a tiny black puppy who slept at the foot of our bed and woke us with sloppy kisses. In a house empty of children, she became the model child surrogate: bright and funny and just needy enough. We could laugh at her antics and occasional lapses; we didn't have to shepherd her through adolescence or get her into college.

"Pet" is an inadequate word. "Companion animal" is the politically correct term these days, but even that falls short. Family member is nearer the truth, if one can imagine a family member free of resentment and blind to human failings. Whatever we did or forgot to do, however cross or weary or impatient we became, she found us admirable. Each evening's homecoming was cause for celebration. The world might measure us by our flaws. In Claire's book, we were always aces.

We said goodbye to her three weeks ago. She was 14, old for a dog, and though she had been failing for months, I clung to the hope that she might rally again. She had, after all, survived worse things than the ravages of age: two bouts of risky surgery; a close encounter with an SUV. I used to joke that we could have rented a villa in Tuscany for the price of her gall bladder operation. Back then, she seemed to have nine lives.

She let us know that it was time, turning her back on us in pain. After a lifetime of sociability, it was the clearest signal she could send. We were with her at the end. It was right. We held her and spoke to her as she went out. The circle closed, gently.

I went home and washed her bowls and put them away on a high shelf. I put her leash in a cupboard in the garage. Sorrow's springs are the same, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins. I sat at the kitchen counter and wept for a long time, for my dog and for everyone and everything I've ever lost. Then I dried my eyes and thought two clear thoughts. I would like to be as good a person as Claire believed me to be. And I would like to see her again. Once I asked a theologian if there would be dogs in heaven. There will be dogginess, she said. For me, there will be Claire-ness.

The circle has closed, and so has another chapter. My youngest son was still in college when he picked her out and carried her home in a baby blanket. Someone to liven this place up, he said. He's a husband and father now, with a house of his own and lives in his care. When I told him she was gone, he grieved. But in his voice, I heard that he had said goodbye some time ago.

Now it comes down to this, a small box of ashes. We will find a place near the back yard woods and return her to the earth. I will plant something over the spot, something that flowers and fills the air with sweetness and fades and flowers again. Something to find each spring. Something that lasts.