Eulogy for a Dog
Max loved to eat cat-
biscuits at the Sweetwater Motel
where we found him.
A truck driver fed him biscuits
every day outside his courtyard
room. My wife and I watched
the dog through the restaurant
window, his methodical search
left no shrub-dirt un-inspected
for food that someone might have
Only a two-month-old collie—
shaggy black, a white diamond
on his nose—already showed
signs of remarkable intelligence
and survival skills. In the motel
restaurant at a nearby table,
the trucker saw us looking at the dog,
sensed our compassion. So he asked,
“Do you want him? He’s just a stray
that I’ve fed. I got to hit the road.
I named him Max.” I stared back
with that thanks-but-no-thanks look.
Max raised his eyes by the door
from the courtyard, lifted his ears
as if he heard when we said we couldn’t
leave him like that, not with a serious
infection—his white fur streaked red.
So we took him to the Vet,
planned to find a home for him.
Max shivered, his teeth rattling
against each other as we took him
away from the only home he ever knew.
I fetched the napkin-wrapped biscuit
I had slipped in my pocket. Offered it
to Max, speaking words he didn’t know
but understood my tone. His eyes
spoke one that I understood.
We finally found him a home,
Max, a Border collie, with long-nose
instincts, would watch over our house,
protecting it from wolves—
neighborhood thieves—while anxiously
waiting for my return.
Every time I got out of the car,
he’d herd me like the sheep he’d never see,
corral me towards the car, away
from the front door, keeping me with him
a little while longer. I became the lamb.
He spoke with deep-throated sounds
and gave me that gate-keeper-smile.
The brown shimmer of his eyes, still
as spring water.
How unreal it is to have unconditional love.
I read the Bible, go to church, try to love
my neighbor as myself, even when he’s a jerk
but sometimes I just don’t feel like it.
When fast isn’t fast enough while driving
down the highway, and some SUV is breathing
on my bumper, it’s hard to show brotherly love,
patience for the ignorant, let alone a deep sense
of forgiveness, especially when the driver nearly
sideswipes me in a road-rage maneuver, fingers
flying from both hands.
When they executed Timothy McVeigh
for the Oklahoma City bombing, I rejoiced,
but much to my surprise, the Book of Numbers
was keeping a different kind of score. I wasn’t
supposed to have reveled when they stopped
his heart with potassium chloride. But I did.
When I, in my too-busy schedule, would forget
to hug Max, spend a little more time with him
after being gone for hours, or not leave him out
in the cold when the air was bittered with ice and
I didn’t bring him in, he didn’t hold it against me.
Instead, he’d spring straight-up on all fours,
a one-hundred pound “fur covered jumping bean,”
always thankful at my homecoming.
Now, when I read the Good Book and see that
I’m to go out into all the world and make disciples
of men, teaching them, I can learn how to do that,
because some dogs must be God’s disciples.
Max was one of them.
IV. Milk Bone
It still sits on the dashboard
of my blue Honda Accord
even after four years
when I got the call from my wife.
I was away reading poetry
at the Mudpie. She found him
lying sickly by the door.
We all have enemies who try
to poison us with words
that don’t always have a smell,
or poison our dogs with sweet
antifreeze. I don’t know why
such cruelty exists. It was too late
for the Vet.
She placed his head on her lap
to comfort, gently stroking him.
Every time he heard a car approach,
he struggled to lift his head,
ears sagging limp, yet listening
for the familiar sounds of my car
that was still an hour away, anxious
to hear the sound of my voice, and
waiting for that last milk bone biscuit
I would bring.
One day, I will take it to him.
[Originated in the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project (March 2014*) and subsequently published in a dog anthology by GreyWolfe Publishing (2015)
* All work from this project was only temporarily published on the tupelo Press site; it is no longer available there.]
“Eulogy for a Dog” was one of the most difficult poems to write and it took me four years to be able to get past the first line before I started to get choked-up on the words. I reasoned that when I could write a poem about Max, my Border collie, the grieving would be sufficiently behind me that I might be able to let another dog in my life. Max died from suspected poisoning and, I reason, by the same folks who have broken into my house and/or garage four times between November 2013 and February 2014 (and earlier).
I suppose I have harbored a deep sense of guilt for his loss, and for the loss of several other dogs, even as far back as fifty-seven years. Yes, even as an eight-year-old, I felt responsible for the death of a four-month-old boxer whom I had fed watermelon. In my young mind, I reasoned if I hadn’t done that, Leoncito (meaning little lion in Spanish) wouldn’t have needed to go outside to pee, and run out into the street, and get hit by a speeding car. The dog died in my arms. Sadly, I must have harbored that sense of guilt for every dog I had lost.
I started to tell you about those very special dogs in my life but found it to be too difficult to do. However, despite the pain, I can say that it is very liberating to have written this poem. Let us never underestimate the therapeutic value of a poem.
The last time I tried to write a poem for Max was a little more than a year ago (February 2013), but I failed miserably. Instead, however, I was able to write one for Mike, another big dog, a lovable mutt, who had died of natural causes three years before Max’s death, but whom I should have put down to spare him the pain. But my being able to write “Of Demons and Dogs” encouraged me; it was a sign that my grieving would not be indefinite (in the sense of my feeling that I would not ever be able to get another dog).
“Eulogy for a Dog” perhaps should be called “Eulogy for Max,” but I want people to know from the get-go that Max was a dog. The style is mostly that of a conversational narrative, which is necessarily prosy. However, I try to lift this into poetry with attention to rhythm, some good turns of the line, and of course, good images whenever possible. I strived to give a good pay-off at the end of each section, which arguably renders them as four stand-alone parts. This might be considered a piece of creative nonfiction written as a poem.
I plan to get a dog this spring.