Monday, April 14, 2008

The Abyss

It has been a week now since Charlie died and I am more depressed than I have been since adolescence. At moments I feel like I am teetering on the edge of the abyss, that if I'm not careful, I will give myself over entirely to despair.

I have experienced the grief of losing people close to me before, but losing a pet who was such a close friend and companion for so many years has exposed me to grief of a new magnitude. It is grief mixed with guilt and helplessness. People who are dying slowly from disease or at the end of a long life can communicate with words what they are going through. Dogs can't. They trust us to read their moods and expressions. There were times when I was sure Charlie was pleading with me, "Why aren't you helping me? Why aren't you making me better?" I could only look into his eyes with sorrow, feeling the guilt that I was somehow responsible for his cancer and the helplessness of knowing that it didn't matter what we did, his cancer was going to kill him. I'm sure he was thinking, "You fixed my knee when I injured it. Why can't you fix this?" He might as well have been praying to an indifferent God for all it would matter.

People who saw Charlie and me together would sometimes ask what I did to end up with such a good dog. I would tell them that we had formed a strong positive bond when he was just nine weeks old. It was based on praising the good behavior rather than punishing the bad. After a while, Charlie lived for that praise. He aimed to please. If I reprimanded him, he was devastated, sometimes sulking for hours under the furniture until he worked up the nerve to approach me and lick my hand in penance. The reassuring pat on the head would set his world back to rights every time.

The cancer violated our trust. Charlie received three months of continuous punishment without having done anything to deserve it. How could he be expected to understand? How could I expect him to forgive me?

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