Friday, May 22, 2009

On Sturdiness and Death

“Is she sturdy?” I asked Hillary. Not a question one asks generally about someone else, but this has been a time where sturdiness is critical. Hillary reported that she is, indeed, sturdy. She said that Boerboels, mastiffs from South Africa that start as a cute little round puppies, shaped not unlike a baking potato with short straw legs, will grow up to 150 pounds. “Then let’s get her.”

This was a bizarre and expensive decision. It follows a time of inordinate sadness in our house surrounding puppies. Cleo is not our first puppy this year, or our second. Cleo better stay around and grow up with Bodie and be the formative pup that he remembers and talks about when he is an adult. Just like Kiba was supposed to be, and then Ruby was supposed to be.

The passing of two sweet pups is incalculably sad. Kiba was a Ridgeback, like Dexter, but smarter. At 10 weeks, she could open doors by jumping up and grabbing the door handles with her paws. She would curl up in Bodie’s bed with him and sleep. And until she ran under the car in the driveway as I was pulling in from work, I thought she was the smartest dog I knew.

We buried Kiba in the garden and Hillary and Bodie decorated a stone with her name and placed it there.

Ruby, another Ridgeback, would curl up on your feet as you washed dishes, or snuggle into your neck as you were sleeping. She was only 8 weeks old and got too close to Dexter when they were each gnawing on bones. He grabbed her and shook her off to the side, breaking her neck. We buried her in the garden and everyone in the house sunk into a deep funk.

Real tragedy occurs on a daily basis here in Tanzania, making it unseemly to feel wrought over the loss of a puppy. Families are ravaged by malaria, AIDS, and malnutrition across the country. Basic illnesses are not diagnosed or treated.

But losing Kiba, and then Ruby, felt devastating. Somehow puppies embody simple innocence. They prance and play and grab and chew anything remotely within reach. They provide simple, uncomplicated love. Chewy and omni-pissing, but uncomplicated. Our simple job, in taking a puppy, is to safeguard them. Their not reaching adult doghood is damning of our caretaking.

A house with a puppy has a certain frenetic energy. Hairbrushes from the bathroom get dragged off shelves and appear in other rooms, stuffed animals from Bodie’s bed end up in the living room, wet with chewing, shoes end up missing insoles, and there are puddles everywhere. It was clear to us though, after Ruby’s passing, that this chaos was warm and comfortable and you just have to wear flip-flops more often. The house, even with a rambunctious three-year-old, felt morgue-quiet without a puppy.

Bodie has been mulling over the passing of these pups and raises questions about death now much sooner than were prepared to deal with. Bodie asks repeatedly if Ruby is still dead. He tells people, random people in the market or at the beach, that his puppy is dead. Recently he said that he is a good boy because he doesn’t kill anyone. (vs. Dexter, canis non-grata for a while). “You’re alive, and mama is alive and my friends are alive, so I’m a good boy, right?”

Despite the fact that Hillary and I are uncertain about any sort of heaven, we quickly relied on this safe and happy place as the easiest and most comprehensible notion for a three-year- old to grasp. Bodie now knows that Kiba and Ruby are in dog heaven, where they can run and play and chew expensive Italian shoes to their hearts’ content.

The sense of loss is not just about the pups. There is no way to go through this bizarre set of happenings that has at turned our garden into a puppy graveyard without thinking about the fragility of those I love. Perhaps because both instances were a simple breaking of bodies, both sudden and instant, it is too easy to picture tragedy around every corner. The simple assemblage of bones and blood and organs pumping now seem so fragile. I know that Bodie is indestructible -- he tells me so with a dishtowel clothes-pinned on as his cape. My imagining every moving car, swaying tree limb, or animal as imminent disaster will only speed Bodie’s inevitable journey to the therapist’s office.

With a renewed appreciation of the fragility of life, I am almost, not quite, but almost appreciative every time I step in a warm puddle of pee in the hallway.