Happy Bastille Day to all the Francophiles and other freedom lovers out there. Bastille Day 2016 marked a banner day for the Closser clan. I am wallowing in my own misery, per usual, while damn near everyone I love is going through something terrible. My mother is lying in bed in a nursing home with pneumonia. My brother’s life “got flipped turned upside down,” as the Fresh Prince would say. And my father had to put down his dog of nearly sixteen years, a black Dachshund named “Nietzsche” who was in such poor health that there was really no other course of action but to put him to sleep.
It’s always a sad affair when one loses an animal, but as the poet Mark Doty once noted, to have a pet is to make a “pact with grief.” Unless you own a tortoise, odds are that you will inevitably outlive the creature you’ve agreed to love and nurture, and one day you will have to deal with the grief that comes with its loss.
It’s not a Mark Doty poem I’m choosing to share below, but rather it’s a poem from Billy Collins. I had forgotten about this particular poem, but my father mentioned it in our phone conversation this afternoon, and now I feel the need to share it. (Apologies to Billy Collins.)
I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you–not one bit.
When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.
I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair to eat,
a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.
I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and–greatest of insults–shake hands without a hand.
I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.
You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.
The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.
While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all of my strength
not to raise my head and howl.
Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place
except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner–
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.