A Man’s Best Friend

“As they were speaking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears.” – The Odyssey, Book 17

This is Argos, the dog who makes his presence felt during the finale of Homer’s Odyssey, the only creature who recognises the disguised Odysseus, gone for many years and now returning home.  Argos is so old that he cannot climb to his feet to greet the man who named him, but instead meekly wags his tail and radiates joy through his eyes upon witnessing his return.  Not wanting to blow his own cover during this dangerous moment, Odysseus furtively wipes away tears over the neglected state of this once proud hound, tears shed at least as much for the fact that he cannot greet the dog properly, a duty he is forced to ignore in favour of fulfilling the task in front of him, as for the state of the dog’s health.  Argos waits until Odysseus has entered the building before passing “into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more…”

I have always hesitated to use that word “master” to describe my own relation to my dog, Bailey, whom I first met at the SPCA in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, barely sixteen years ago.  The relationship, while it was never exactly equitable, often enough caused me to question who was the master and who was the dependent.  He was already named by someone I didn’t know when I adopted him in his practically newborn state.  I’m glad for that, since I probably would have named him something stupid.  Bailey, it turned out, was his ideal name, both friendly and sturdily dog-like enough to convey a serious nature.

Age eventually robbed him of his ability to walk and he joined Argos in that canine darkness while lying on a stainless steel table in a veterinarian’s office.  The vet was as nice as she could have been, offering her regrets that she didn’t keep scotch on the premises for moments like these.  I could have used it.  For never have I required hard alcohol to “take the edge off” as much as I did in that moment, a moment in which we made the decision to end the kaleidoscopic life of a creature who has shared enough sights, sounds, odours, and experiences with me that I felt his (our) life flying away from us in the moments before his death, as great a sense of overwhelming injustice as any I have ever felt.  All of those ineffable moments parading themselves through my mind in all their colour and force at the same time as they relentlessly dwindled stood in sharp contrast to Bailey’s simple urge to return to the house and lay on the couch, watching me go about my business, something that would never happen again.  The circumstances around any death are probably not ideal.  I do wish that I had managed to get Bailey back to Prince Edward Island, a place I am sure he recognised each time he visited, to let him sniff the red earth and stare out into the vastness of the Gulf of St. Lawrence again.

A strong case can be made for anyone to let a dog in their life.  There are many good reasons for it.  However, in the immediate aftermath of that dog’s death, I cannot in good conscience recommend it at all.  While the cons include the more or less constant walks, whether or not you care to stand around in the cold and rain watching an animal sniff the ground, not to mention the crimp in your social life (“Sorry, I’ve got to go and walk the dog.”), the pros are overwhelming.  And the emptiness that is created in the dog’s absence is so totally disorienting, it’s tough to imagine that anyone would willingly accept the grief if they knew the outcome in advance.

But then again, it is the outcome that we all face.  And facing it at least once in the presence of a loved one does force each person to confront their own impossible fact.  To advise a person to not take a dog would be to advise them against life itself.  Don’t bother with relationships, don’t enjoy eating and drinking, don’t travel, don’t fail, don’t succeed.  All of these things are gone before we can even register that they’re happening to us, and we pursue them anyway.  All that we can do is be aware of experience, even as it escapes our pitiful attempt at harnessing it.  I always wondered if Bailey grasped that he would one day no longer exist.  People are often portrayed as having an advantage over the animals because we’re aware of our mortality.  But I’m quite sure that this awareness is delusional, and that people are as distant from facts in their own way as dogs, the power of our denial turning oblivion into a story for children.

I am in a neighbourhood in Montreal’s east end, a neighbourhood that Bailey knew well, having lived here himself for seven years.  We disappeared for a year and then returned.  The two of us have travelled a lot together.  And we spent more time walking these particular streets as anywhere he ever lived.  I now see dogs outside and playing in the park that he once knew.  There is something reassuring about the continuity of seeing other dogs after my own is gone, not too different from the kind of continuity I feel seeing other people in the present moment, or people in old films who are now surely dead, or being moved to tears by writers who have been dead for centuries, or seeing dogs depicted in paintings from the Middle Ages.  I don’t know how Bailey perceived the world.  As close as we were to each other, his actual thoughts were opaque to me.  The number of times I felt that I clearly understood (and probably misinterpreted) him is easily outnumbered by the number of times I stood in front of him asking, “What?  What is it?”

We can see a version of Argos’s drama being played out in front of shops every day, with a dog waiting outside for a person.  I’ve often wondered how each dog can distinguish using such subtle cues the person they’re waiting for from every other person on the street.  People resemble each other far more closely than dogs do, after all, with vast differences in size, fur colour and texture, ear and body shape, etc.  You cannot distract a dog that is waiting for that person who is so totally imprinted on their brain.  We’re probably mistaken if we don’t believe that a particular dog is imprinted in ours, as well.

During Bailey’s final week, a man standing on his front step in the morning with a cup of coffee asked if I would get another dog, seeing that this one was literally on his last legs.  To me, it seemed indecent even to speak of it.  He interpreted my negative reaction as a verdict against getting a dog, any other available dog, as a replacement, whereas what I meant was that I could not imagine replacing this dog.  I can only point out the weirdness of this fact, how inconceivable an idea that I could ever replace Bailey, given that I have quite freely replaced, acquired and then discarded, people in my life more or less serially, all of whom have had to adjust their own lives to the presence of Bailey, who was as unmovable as he was accommodating.  He was a gentleman.


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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965