Lying next to me in the grass, Finn tilts his twitching nose upward, registering every smell — moles, I presume, and grackles and chipmunk and deer. As I read, he gazes at the field before us, a broad expanse of yellow grasses bordered by oaks and interrupted here and there by the gray hump of a granite boulder. Behind us, my husband and daughter are reading in the coolness of the little red house. We’re spending the week away from Providence in this scruffy patch of western Rhode Island, on an old farm that belonged to my grandfather.
Finn, our eleven-year-old border collie, loves it here. In winter, I tell myself the ticks are dead and let him off his long tether. I love to watch him disappear into the snowy woods like an arrow. When he reappears at the back door he’s exhausted and happy, with clumps of ice in the white fur of his paws.
But today it’s hot. He’s been moving sluggishly. On a whim I put my book down, stand, and unleash him. He gets up but doesn’t run. He pants.
“You’re acting like a tired old man,” I say. “Come on, let’s take a real walk.”
I head down the dirt road and turn back. Finn walks slowly toward me, listing a little, then drifts to the side of the road where the poison ivy thrives. He squints into the bushes as though at a blackboard covered with equations he can’t solve. The poisonous leaves brush his snout. He pants.
That night as my husband sleeps, I hear Finn click across the sunroom floor and whine at the screen door. I rise and let him out into a moonless night. I follow, sweeping the damp grass with my toes in search of the tether. I attach him and return to bed. Before I fall asleep again, he’s whining on the other side of the screen. I get up, detach him, let him in. We do this dance for hours. At some point deep in the night, I stop feeling sorry for him and start feeling sorry for myself. I lean down until my face is close to his and whisper-shout, “This has got to stop! I have to get up and go to work!” Impassive, Finn stares at my knees, panting. I feel mean.
The next day bursts open, clear and bright, the red of the barn like a trumpet blare against the blue, blue sky. For the moment, the press of July heat holds back, lying in wait. My husband and daughter are still asleep when I rise. I pull on a skirt and a sleeveless blouse but leave my feet bare. I’ll step into shoes when I get to my office at the university. Finn stands in the sunroom, looking through the screen door. Did he ever lie down in the night, I wonder? I open the door and he steps out onto the grass and waits for me to attach him to the tether. I empty his water dish at the foot of the pear tree, fill it at the kitchen sink with cold water, and bring it back out. I crouch down, take his head in both my hands, and kiss the white stripe running up his snout.
“Be good, old man,” I say, and his eyes lock on mine with the border collie laser-gaze. “Be well.”
In the city, the streets are empty and the campus feels like it’s napping. Most people have taken this Friday, wedged between July 4 and the weekend, as a vacation day, so the sunny halls of the modern building I work in are deserted. The air conditioned quiet is my reward for showing up, I tell myself. After a few hours of slow work, I call the house for an update.
My husband answers in what my mind registers, absurdly, as iambic pentameter: “Our Finn is not a happy dog.” Earlier, my husband says, he took him to see Dr. Amy, the country vet up the road from the farm. When I ask what she said, my husband misses a beat. Then: “We’ll talk about it when you get here.”
My body feels concave, fragile. When I leave work, I walk carefully to the car so I don’t crack.
My family hadn’t planned to get a dog. But in the summer of 2001, when our children were ten and six, we were driving through the green fields and hills of Steuben County, New York, on our way home from my mother’s house in Pittsburgh, and I noticed a sign beside the road that said SHEEPDOG TRIALS THIS WAY. Below the words was the unmistakable silhouette of a border collie’s working crouch: rump in the air, front paw raised. We followed more signs down more country roads until we arrived at a flock of RVs cradled in a lush and shallow valley.
“Let’s just take a look,” I said as we got out of the car and headed toward a cluster of people.
A good distance away, a man in tall rubber boots blew a high-pitched whistle and a lithe, slinking border collie took off at a run. The dog zigzagged across the hillside, pushing a herd of sheep before it. Like a murmuration of starlings, the cloud of sheep spread and contracted, a solid form fluidly writhing, twisting on itself as the narrow-shouldered dog darted right, left, then right again, looping around the shape-shifting mass, climbing the hill and cutting back down to divide the flock in two, eventually driving each half into a different pen. All of it happened in silence under the expanse of cobalt sky. It was like watching TV with the sound turned off. I was mesmerized.
We wandered among the RVs, many of which had sheep or dogs in temporary pens beside them. The place smelled of hay and trampled grass and manure and fried dough. We stopped at a table with a banner that said Glen Highland Farm Border Collie Rescue. In a crate under the table a young, sweet-faced border collie was curled in sleep. My kids knelt to look at him. A woman wearing jeans and green rubber boots came over to us. She had Emmylou Harris hair and a no-nonsense air.
“Hi, I’m Lillie,” she said. “Interested in adopting?”
I looked at my husband, who looked at me, smiling and resigned. I smiled back and turned to her.
“Thinking about it,” I said.
Minutes later I was filling out forms, promising to fence our yard, describing the border collie I’d had as a child, hoping we would be approved as a rescue family.
“Is this reasonable? Are we ready for a dog?” my husband asked as we drove away, but he and I both knew it was too late to wonder.
“Yes yes yes yes yes!” the kids shouted together from the back seat.
A few weeks later, in early September, the phone rang. “I’ve got a couple dogs I want you to meet,” Lillie said. “They’ve just arrived from a kill pound in West Virginia. When can you come?”
Toxic smoke was still rising from the ruins of the Twin Towers when we climbed in our minivan, left Providence, and headed west on the Massachusetts Turnpike. The children were quiet in the backseat. On the radio, E. L. Doctorow dolefully pondered the violence that had been done to his city, his voice full of sadness and restraint. But as the countryside enveloped us, the carnage grew more and more remote. Welcome to the Berkshires said a big blue sign. Another soon welcomed us to the Empire State. Gray barns and cone-topped silos floated past, and tired dirty-brick towns that had long ago abandoned their ambitions. In this newly wounded world, driving two hundred and fifty miles to rescue an abandoned dog felt an absence of malice. It felt like the only thing to do.
Glen Highland consisted of barns, outbuildings, and a farmhouse at the bottom of a long dirt drive lined with bobbing heads of Queen Anne’s lace. Fenced fields swelled in every direction. It looked like the definition for “farm” in a child’s illustrated dictionary. Lillie emerged from the farmhouse and strode over to where we stood beside our car.
“Time to meet the dogs,” she said. “Follow me.”
She led us to one of the small barns and opened a door marked OFFICE. Inside were two shabby couches, an old metal desk, and the stinging pee smell of a place where animals are at home and people are mere guests. Lillie opened a door. A jittery young female with a glossy black coat shot into the room and sprang around it like a cricket, frenetic and indiscriminate in her enthusiasms. We all leaned forward to pet her but kept missing as she wriggled and bounced and whipped around in circles. After a while Lillie shooed her out and called for Finn. Another dog appeared in the doorway, hesitated, and then, staying low to the ground, slid into the room like a spy slinking between doorways. The dog eyed the couch where I sat, jumped up, and leaned his whole body against me. He did not make eye contact. He was like a boy asking a girl to dance while pretending he wasn’t. I felt scared and in love. He continued to press against me.
“Looks like we’ll take Finn,” I said.
“That’s right,” Lillie said. “He just chose you.”
I’d imagined Finn would fit instantly and seamlessly into our lives, but the first few days were rough. He came with a case of diarrhea, which meant hourly sorties throughout the first many nights. He could be fearful; he snapped at a man who bent to pet him on the sidewalk, and howled and thrashed during his first check-up at the vet.
One evening after dinner, as our kids went upstairs to do their homework and we braced for another diarrhea run, my husband said, “Do you think this was a good idea?”
I froze, hijacked by panic. My eyes widened.
“Of course it was a good idea,” I sobbed. “Finn was abandoned, and now he has us, and we’re his family, and we all need him, because loving him will make us all better people!”
I heard how overwrought I sounded but I couldn’t stop crying. I was terrified — terrified because I secretly found this dog thing so much harder than I’d thought it would be. And terrified by the idea of giving Finn up.
Here is what I need to tell you: I, too, was adopted. Unlike Finn, though, I was not left in a box by the side of the road. In fact, the story I’d told myself my entire life — almost four decades — was that I’d been chosen. That my parents had waited and waited for me until at last there I was, a beautiful baby on a living room floor full of babies, and then they appeared, smiled and pointed at me as if I were a cupcake, and took me home, delighted.
Of course the story’s not true, but that never kept me from believing it. That happy scene served as my protection. It became my identity. The refrain I was chosen drowned out the other words that must never be thought, much less spoken, even though they were buried somewhere in my body, everywhere in my body: I had been given up.
Suddenly, there in that kitchen — though I didn’t understand it then — on some cellular level, my body remembered my abandonment.
This is not to say that at three months I was not brought home to loving parents and given a happy, stable, privileged life. But what about those first hundred days? What about that first day? That first night?
Like sleep, love has never been something I can bank. I am blessed to have been told I love you no matter what, I will love you forever (convincingly, ardently, earnestly, repeatedly), but I can’t seem to store that love for another time, ready to be pulled out of my heart’s back pocket on a bad day and applied where needed. I can’t catch and absorb and incorporate it — make it part of my body, like food feeding muscle, like milk building bones. Though I am deeply, richly nourished by the many ways in which I’m lucky enough to be loved, some of that love will always leak through the fissure that cracked open when I was given away. Most of the time I don’t think about this, because it’s less a thought than a state of being, an inert fact lodged in my soma. But sometimes, when I feel unseen, or worse, unwanted, I instantly shrink back into that discarded baby in all her utter and infinite aloneness, a turtle on her back in the middle of the road under an eternal night sky.
But Finn: I knew I could love him boundlessly. I could love him with a ferocity that would mend his crack, soothe his hurt. I couldn’t feel what it is to be unconditionally loved, but I could feel what it is to love unconditionally. I couldn’t heal myself, but I felt I could heal him. And that was a consolation prize in the truest sense of the word.
The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott introduced the concept of the “holding environment,” the literal and figurative gestures a mother makes that enable her baby to feel safe enough to come into being, to become herself. As I pleaded with my husband to be patient, promising to do everything I could to help the dog adapt, I felt the intense and desperate need for Finn to know — really know — that he was seen and loved and safe forever. Countless times over the next ten years, I would sit beside him, throw one arm across his shoulders, and trace and retrace that white stripe on his head, whispering a world of love in his ear. In the beginning, I think, I was his holding environment. But as time went on, he became mine, too.
I speed down I-95 toward the farm, the dread that Finn won’t be there sitting heavily on my chest. The year before, he had suddenly become very sick, and I’d had to face the idea that he might actually die. Now the possibility of his death is no longer new, and I find it slightly easier to grapple with an enemy that is not unfamiliar. So much so that as Providence disappears in my rearview mirror, a thought catches me by surprise: If Finn has died, I will bury him. Though my insides have always crazed like hot glass under water at the mere sight of him in distress, I will bury him makes me feel intact, even brave.
I brace myself for the turn onto the dirt road, the red house and red barn and the stretch of grass between them without Finn on it.
But he is there.
He is sitting up, panting with his mouth open wide, like he’s smiling and sticking his tongue out at me at the same time. He does not come to greet me with his whole body wagging. But he is there.
My husband comes outside. My daughter does not, which confirms what I already know: the news is bad.
“Finn is full of cancer,” my husband says when I get out of the car. “Dr. Amy says you can come talk to her in the morning.”
I look at our feet in the grass. I can feel my husband watching me. He’s right to expect tears. But strangely I don’t cry. I just hug him, nodding into his shoulder. We stand like that for a long time.
That evening dinner is a subdued affair. Sweet Rhode Island corn on the cob seems a frivolous food to be eating, but we do, chewing diffidently. I think we feel guilty for knowing what Finn doesn’t. We are patient with his restless comings and goings. We abide the constant panting. While my husband clears the table, I slip Finn a steak bone and go sit with him in the grass while he gnaws it.
“You’re so handsome, Finny. All the ladies say so.” I stroke his ears with my hands.
The next morning I drive the quarter mile to Dr. Amy’s home, where she tells me what she told my family the day before.
“Finn’s mostly healthy, but the x-rays show a tumor that’s filling his chest. He’s panting because every bit of his being is focused on getting more oxygen. The tumor’s squeezing his lungs into tangerines,” she says, making two fists to show me. She can’t fix it, she says. She can try to make him comfortable for as long as we want her to, but it’s a losing proposition.
I’m grateful for her frankness. There is no wait-and-see. Suffocation is the fast-approaching finish line. I have a fleeting image of my proud, square-chested fellow rescue tipping over sideways as he gasps for air.
“Would you like me to come to the house at the end of the day?” she asks.
It takes me a second to grasp what she’s offering to do.
In that moment, I know everything the day will hold. I will dig a grave. We will love Finn lavish amounts. He will die in the late afternoon.
I stop by the pond that is tucked in the land between Amy’s house and ours. I make a wish that the great blue heron will be there. Sure enough, he’s standing on the shore, long necked and putty colored with touches of slate blue. He sees me and ascends without ado, a majestic thing, his wings flapping languorously, his neck folding itself into an S, his long legs straight out behind him. He rises in slow, widening circles, and then, as though released from the spiral, he flies due west, up, up, up over the aspens and pines, and disappears. I stand there a while, forcing myself to hold the notion of Finn’s death in my mind to see if I can bear it.
The location of the grave is easy to choose. Only fifty feet from the house, it is visible from the places where we spend most of our time — the sunroom and kitchen and pear tree. It is the place where Finn used to disappear into the woods when I let him run in the winter and the place where he’d emerge again, exhilarated and wide eyed and wolfen. Spongy with star moss, the spot lies under a slender but tall white chestnut whose long-fingered leaves will form a sheltering canopy.
Even though I have never dug a grave before, I figure it out fast. I slice my spade into the earth, lift the dirt, and place it to the side. I do this again and again and again for long minutes, until I’ve marked out a rectangle slightly longer and wider than the body that will go in it. Then I simply dig out that shape with a shovel. I slice through tough, stringy roots and pull out pieces of old terra cotta pipe and fist-size rocks. I try to make the walls more or less straight and the bottom flat. I’m lucky; I have all day to dig this grave, and the day is taking its time. Finn ambles over. His panting is relentless, but eventually he finds a way to lie down nearby, propped up Sphynx-like, his head erect. I know he doesn’t know he is watching his own grave being dug, but a hushed contrition inhabits me just the same. And yet, the slow digging is weirdly consoling. It feels reverent. It is as small, quiet, and unassuming as an act can be and still be holy.
I dig and dig, and while I do I talk to Finn about the day, point out the flitting dragonflies, comment on how beautiful and clear the air is and how distinguished he looks. I dig and dig and dig until I look up and realize that I am standing in a grave.
Still panting, Finn rises and moves to sit in the shade of the Norwegian pine. He’s backlit by the sunlight gilding the western field, where the thrushes dip into the knee-high grass. His long quivering tongue has taken on a brickish cast, but his saliva is clear and drips from his tongue like water. The more desperately he pants, the wider his smile. His eyes are bright, slightly wild looking, even blind. He snaps at the occasional deer fly. The air cools.
In all the world there is no finer smell than the smell of Finn’s paws. They are white, and each is adorned with a little tuft of fur. The pads are scratchy-rough and the fur between them improbably soft, and the smell is the happiest thing I’ve ever smelled. They are sometimes cool and damp and sometimes warm, but they always smell deliciously of clean dirt, like something fundamental and good and safe and right. I lie next to him now where he sits in the grass and caress the tufts with my fingers. I gently lift a paw to my nose. It smells of my other favorite smell, the pond — wet, slightly metallic, elemental — where Finn had waded just the day before.
In the early days, just after he came to live with us in the city, Finn would sometimes escape into the wooded park across from our house. Once, he disappeared for hours. We kept vigil on our front steps.
At one point my husband murmured, “What are we going to do if he doesn’t come back?”
My little girl raised her hands and let them drop. “Die,” she sighed.
Now a teenager, she comes out of the house and walks over. She drops to her knees and buries her nose in another paw. Finn obliges. We are comforted.
The phone rings.
“Vet’s on her way,” my husband says.
I hold Finn’s paw tighter. A hummingbird dives into the mass of orange flowers on the trumpet vine growing by the barn. A few minutes later we hear a car door opening. I lift my head to see Amy walking toward us holding a black satchel, like a doctor on TV.
“Hi everyone. Hey, Finn.” Her smile is warm and a little melancholic. She looks at each of us. “I thought we could talk for a little bit. But first I’m going to give Finn a tranquilizer to help him relax.”
My husband gently holds Finn’s head while Amy gives him a shot in his rump. We arrange ourselves in a semi-circle in the grass. We don’t look at each other. We stare at Amy as though our survival hangs on her words. She speaks softly and clearly, like a teacher or a funeral director, passing her hand back and forth over the tips of the grass as if it were braille.
“I’m going to shave a small patch of fur from Finn’s foreleg so I can insert a shunt. That’s where I’ll inject something called pentobarbital. In less than a minute the drug will send him into what I call a plane of deep unconsciousness. It’s like a state of profound relaxation. It will be so deep that all his major organs will stop working.” She looks up at us and then continues. “Because of the tumor, there’s a small chance that at that moment, fluid will come out of his mouth. It could be clear or green, and it could be mixed with blood. You might notice a reflexive breath or a muscle twitch.”
She adds that his eyes won’t close.
We nod, each of us a child.
She reaches into the bag and withdraws an electric shaver, the kind barbers use for crewcuts, or to neaten up the neck. Finn has been weaving among us, resisting the tranquilizer’s effects. Suddenly his legs fold under him and he’s down. He stares at the trees across the road, still panting. I kneel beside him, caressing the length of his body. OK, Finn, it’s OK, my hands say. Amy clicks on the electric shaver and in one small upward movement bares a little area of skin on his leg. I make myself watch the beveled edge of the shunt enter his vein. Finn doesn’t flinch. Amy inserts the needle into the shunt. It’s fat, like a truncated turkey baster, and filled with blue fluid. She holds it in one hand and presses the plunger slowly with her other palm. She presses hard, as though against resistance. My hands are spread wide and flat on Finn’s side. If only my hands were bigger, I think, I could hold you completely. Then, under my palms — the merest breath, a slight heave of the ribs, an exhale. The dog’s body goes still. I look at his mouth, watching for a stream of fluid. None comes. His beautiful brown eyes remain open. This cheers me briefly; it’s as though he is still there. With both hands I caress him from snout to ruff, over and over. I whisper his name. My tears land on his head, like Rapunzel’s on the prince’s face after he’s fallen into the briars. I am hoping he knows what I’m dying for him to know, hoping, absurdly, that he is aware of us there with him. I remain intent on caressing him, on feeling him under my hands. Willing him to feel me. I’m not ready, after all, I think, I need five more minutes. I need to tell him one thousand more times how utterly he is loved, I need to make sure he knows he’s not being abandoned. Somewhere in me is the seed of a feeling that even in this endless, slow-rising day, I have fallen short. The feeling grows into a thought, but it is too late for doubt or remorse or declarations or even one last look in the eye, and the thought dies.
Amy leans forward and places the stethoscope on the white triangle of Finn’s chest. She stares past him into the grass, listening. The tilt of her head looks sorrowful, as though from inside him Finn’s heart is telling her something terribly sad in the smallest voice in the world. After some minutes, she takes the stethoscope out of her ears.
“Would you each like a bit of fur?” We nod. She deftly clips some from Finn’s ruff, a tuft for each of us, and one for our son, who lives far away.
“Could you please also clip this?” I ask, stroking the spray of fur on his left back foot. She does.
“We call these toe slippers,” she says, smiling as she places the curl of white fur in my palm.
Still crying, I stand and get the faded beach towel I’ve put just inside the door. Amy and I bend to shift Finn’s substantial, still-supple body onto it. When we lift it, her side is higher than mine and the dog’s head flips back disturbingly, folding flat against his body like an origami crane. I have the rear, so I raise my end of the towel a little more, and his head flops back to its natural position.
Amy and I make our way down the grassy slope to the grave, Finn slung between us. My daughter is crying and her father is trying not to. I step down into the hole and with Amy’s help lower Finn carefully to the dirt floor. Down here, the thought of covering him with earth suddenly seems barbaric. But I’m afraid if I stop I won’t be able to continue. I need to protect his beautiful face, with its white stripe and knowing eyes, the face that is his alone, the face we’ve looked at and loved for so many years, the face that was smiling at me less than an hour ago. Awkwardly straddling his body, I fold a corner of the towel over his head. Then I reach up and take a shard of terra cotta pipe, using it to slide some earth down onto him from the pile beside the grave. I reach up and my husband grasps my hand and helps me climb out. We all take turns lowering shovelfuls of dirt onto his body with exquisite tenderness. But no matter how gently we do this it feels violent and final. Finn is about to be literally, irrevocably gone. Watching him disappear under the dirt is far worse than holding him as he died. I want to beg his pardon, not for stopping his heart but for putting him underground. I can’t find words.
Back in our house in the city, I stare through the skylight at the new moon and weep for our dog, alone and helpless under the silencing weight of the cold earth. His absence is as tangible as a presence. Again and again I step into the backyard where he spent his days and slam into a void like a force field. My husband says he hears Finn’s nails clicking on the hardwood floors in the night.
And yet, weeks later, something shifts. It’s another warm, fully realized summer day. Sitting on the back steps after work, I suddenly realize I’m not picturing Finn dead, Finn buried, Finn entombed. I’m not talking to him in my head, promising we haven’t forgotten him. Instead, in my gut a strange and quiet gladness begins to bloom, as though something wonderful has happened and I’m the only one who knows it. I am cradling Finn’s memory. Is it his good life I’m holding, or his gentle death? It is both of those things, I think, and it is also him alive inside me, our union no longer marred by suffering. All that’s left is the essence of what mattered, the uncomplicated knot of our connection.
Image: by huw, licensed under CC 2.0.
Oh dear Sarah. I’m hardly ever on FB anymore but saw this. It still makes me cry. Beautiful. Sending this to EiBall and Caroline. Bisou. Min
Great piece. Is Denis still writing? –Bill Dowell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is so well written and held me every step of the way, as you held your dog, and as you were held yourself. Thank you for sharing this work with the world.