How the Life and Death of a Golden Retriever Might Save Us From Ourselves
On the morning of May 29, 2008, I lifted Savannah from her bed, carried her to the car, and made the longest seven-mile drive of my life. At the office of a veterinarian, welcomed by that profession’s unique form of love, I soon lay on a cushioned floor beside a golden retriever who showed virtually none of her age, watching both my hands stroke the face that had welcomed me home for thirteen years.
The answer to a yearning awaited us that morning. It was part of the quiet covenant I made with Savannah the day my wife, Jill, and I adopted her. When a sweet dog’s bloodline comes in confluence with our own, we human animals take on a sacred devotion. As sickness comes on hard and takes down the joy of living, caring dog owners are committed to shouldering our beloved family member to a merciful death. On the floor that morning, I answered Savannah’s courageous outreach for that death, allowing her to carry me. The peace that arrived in her final breath lifted the tide of my heartbreak. As I nearly drowned in sadness, Savannah showed me to the shore of a graceful goodbye.
Later that day, a prominent friend in Hollywood, fresh from the same grief in his own family, shared with us some comfort, but also a spiritual yearning of his own: Why would God measure the lifetime of dogs, and other animals we love, by a virtual hourglass when we live by a calendar? Why so little time on earth for those so good and loyal? It seems a cruelty.
After these months of healing, and the reporting of countless human tragedies on television, I’ve arrived at a conclusion: Savannah’s too-short life, like that of all sweet dogs, calls us to a fine urgency. Dogs get after big living. They seem illiterate of worry, yet able to read joys that elude us. They quietly shout to us: Wag your backside to music instead of your tongue to malice. Wallow less in pity and more on the bed of the one you adore. Give yourself, extravagantly, away.
I still fail her, of course. I live too much in my worries and sorrows and too little on the joy path she wore for me. Yet in these times of media-saturated human disaster, a thought of Savannah improves me as a man, recalls me to life as a writer. Her memory sets off some musing about the hope found in the life and death of a good dog. See if these truths make the news of your times easier to bear:
Savannah feared nothing about death. She went to it with eyes full of gratitude for the way her life had been. Her eyes seemed to draw from some deep well of love, way beyond the crust of words. Even in her final hour, sick as she was, she lived as a divining rod to this love. No matter how I tried to comfort her, she served me -- right to her last moment. The kidney failure that was stalling her life was no match for the servant’s heart within her.
The high pitch of biased media, politics, and the vitriol of social debate held no allure for Savannah. She made grace her way of life. She ran from loud voices and bounded to gentility wherever she found it. We could trust her to be tender, even with the smallest child. Savannah taught me there’s nothing so powerful in this life as a truly gentle woman or man.
There is no vanity in such dogs. They split mud holes, then track adoration across the floors of the humans who forgive them. They surely wonder why we care so much for things and so little for helping one another have simple wellness and fun. Savannah never cared for the size of my car. She simply loved the ride. She measured none of my money in how she valued me. In times of my sorrow, she made certain to place her head under my hand, letting me read a sense of all-will-be-more-than-well in its Braille.
With the too-often forgotten elderly in a nursing home, Savannah visited with no consciousness of herself. The sights and smells that repulse too many humans never seem to repel a good dog. Something innate about Savannah longed to care for everyone. She never appraised anyone by their politics, religion, or race. No human bloodline or job pedigree held any sway. Savannah treated the ignorant as kings and the malicious as queens. Even avowed dog haters valued what they found in her, and she loved them without pause.
Such a dog will forgive to the point of endangering itself. Some may argue enough hatefulness will turn any dog, even the most generous and kind. Perhaps this forms a caveat to us as well. Maybe good dogs teach us we will eventually draw back what we put into the world. Or is it that forgiveness becomes a form of capital we spend to the great shock of our enemies, an investment from which we draw the interest of turning enemies into friends? After every trip to the vet, on the heels of cavity exams every sane creature loathes, Savannah forgave Jill and me. We never had to ask.
In the afterglow of thinking of her, I adore considering how living so might change humankind. What might the news look like if everyone were so devotedly kind to everyone else? My job -- as a writer of news and fiction -- would so beautifully change.
Within an hour after putting her into that permanent sleep, I sat weeping at our kitchen table and wrote an open letter to Savannah. It let my grief out to run, with the memory of her a comfort at my knee. I leave you with a passage of it here, and a wish that the news of our future days will improve, changed in some small way by the legacy of Savannah.
“You tracked to the child who lives in me always. In this man you found a boy who loves you, sweet girl. Even in death, somehow you will always lead the boy in me home. I will follow your trail. And together, in the grand wet and muddy fun places of memory, we will be glad.”
Michael Cogdill is 24-time Emmy-winning television journalist from the South. His Southern novel, She-Rain, set in Western North Carolina, contains two narrative threads dedicated to the memory of Savannah. She-Rain debuted nationally March 31, 2010. Michael is represented by FSB Associates and Ascot Media.