When Great Souls Die

My dog died on December 5.

He was almost 12 years old, and though he was slowing down and we expected this to be “the year,” I certainly didn’t expect December 5 to be “the day.” He seemed fine that morning. But by the time my Olivia started welcoming friends to her after-school birthday party, I knew. My dog, who for almost 12 years hated going outside, begged to go out, and parked himself under my new back porch, back turned to me. I called my mom in a panic, and she came and took him to our vet and family friend, Steve. The moment Steve told me the diagnosis – the moment hope died – was one of the worst moments of my life. Jake had something called “bloat.” It was inoperable given his age. All that was left to do was make him comfortable until I could be with him to say goodbye.

I called my ex-husband in agony. Jake was “our” dog before we had kids. I wanted him to be a part of saying goodbye. He left work early and joined my mom at the vet, and after the birthday party was over I took the kids to my dad and went to bid farewell to the longest long-term relationship I’d ever had.

Having never owned a pet before, nothing could have prepared me for the emotions that have come in waves the past few weeks. Within days of his death, I wrote the outlines of a future reflection on lessons that beast taught me. That is for another day, though. Today, I share someone else’s words. When I heard them, I couldn’t help but think of my dog and the final moments when his breathing finally slowed to a stop. It is from a poem by Maya Angelou, “When Great Trees Fall.”

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

I realize that losing a dog is not like losing a father, or a mother, or a husband, a best friend, a mentor. I have friends and neighbors who have faced those losses this year, and I can only imagine the heartache that accompanies those losses. But the relationships we have with our pets are intimate relationships, perhaps just as intimate as those we form with our fellow humans, or in my case, maybe even more so. The acceptance I received from my dog day after day is the kind of love that I can only dream of receiving from a person, and fail regularly at giving. What a gift.

Jake was a great soul. So were the people you loved and lost this year. I am comforted knowing that he is now keeping your mom, dad, husbands, best friend, and great teachers company, sitting at their feet, watching the children. He is a really awesome dog, and I will always love him.


1 thought on “When Great Souls Die”

  1. Christy, What a great reflection and I’m weepy once again. Jake would have been 13 in April. Teague will be 12! I guess we’ll have these emotional moments for some time. I’ll miss him standing in the midst of kids trying to open their Christmas presents & each of us scolding “Jake, get out of the way!’ I’m not looking forward to January and beyond when Christmas has been packed away & normal routines return. But wasn’t he lucky to be rescued & then enjoy a great life and his three kids. And weren’t we lucky to have him in our lives. As my favorite priest would say, “how good is that!” Love, Mom

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