That’s The Thing About. . . By Paul Vontron

Tuesday December 27, 2005

On Christmas some years ago, three months after my wife was killed by a drunk driver, I recognized for the first time that I’ve more or less never had a bad experience that couldn’t be bettered somehow by interacting with a dog. Others feel similarly. The biologist Lewis Thomas, for example, wrote the same thing about otters. He found it impossible to be unhappy while observing them. Neither dog nor otter would matter much to a murder victim at the scene of the crime. For those still living, however, other living things can be a help. 

At least for me. That’s the thing about suffering. It’s inadvisable, maybe even dead wrong, to tell another person when they should get over something. In the sufferer’s mind, the experience is proprietary. It belongs to him or her. Nothing of course could be further from the truth, as little is more universal than suffering, but there’s no point in saying so to someone whose heart feels broken. It gets precious, that feeling. I have met no end of persons who couldn’t imagine life without it: people who allowed themselves, often as not knowingly, to become completely joyless. Likewise, I have often wondered whether people who kill themselves, barring genuine psychological dysfunction, simply lack a sense of humor. 

Suffering—whether it is one’s own or another’s—can get muddled. My wife was murdered. My ancestors were persecuted by the Nazis. It happened to them, not me, but the world is teeming with people who don’t get the difference. There are those who feel that only capital punishment for the wrongful death of a loved one will relieve their pain, and those who do violence to one another on account of violence done to their ancestors. Some feel so strongly about the mistreatment of animals that they mistreat humans, and some devote their lives to saving helpless children in faraway lands while victimizing their own families. Strangely, in any case, the claim is they’re acting compassionately (toward loved ones, ancestors, animals, children, etc.), but compassion is the capacity to feel another’s experience, not make oneself over in its image. The truth is such persons are narcissists. The suffering of others has no meaning without reference to themselves. They are as dependent on it as they are on breathing. 

Maybe that’s the thing about dogs and otters, and for that matter apes, redwoods, and the rustle of leaves: all the world, if we’ll let it, draws us out of ourselves. We never have been, nor will we ever be, all there is. I owe this thought to a dog named Mackie. 

That Christmas day, I had never been sadder, and wanted to know someone cared. I drove unannounced to my friend Richard’s house. I’m pretty sure I cried all the way across town and was still crying when I knocked on the door. In a heartbeat, letting me in, so was Richard. Mackie, a gigantic Leonberger mix, wagged less enthusiastically than usual. Something along the lines of “This is not how people behave at the door” was amiss in his brain, so the corresponding sweep of his tail didn’t send rugs, coats, umbrellas, and even furniture flying as it normally did. Still, he was happy to see me, and signaled as much by firmly inserting his nose in my crotch. 

We sat in the living room at the front of the house, looking out at grayness. The wisteria across the bay window was a twisted bare gnarl. Liquidambar leaves skittered down an otherwise empty street; everyone who celebrated the day was busy doing so inside their homes. Richard had a twinkling tree and hot cider. I sipped a cup as we sat silently for awhile on opposite sides of the room with Mackie stretched out attentively on the floor between us. Finally, we talked. It was gruesome. I couldn’t get through a sentence without sobbing. 

And then it happened. As we talked, or tried to, Mackie looked back and forth, sometimes whimpering, and sometimes lifting a paw to say, as children will do in a classroom when they know the answer to their teacher’s question, “Call on me!” But it didn’t work. All he got in return was a soft “Shush” from Richard. So Mackie upped the ante. 

Richard kept an old wicker bed of Mackie’s beneath the bay window. He had outgrown it ages ago, so it became his toy basket. Mackie began to fetch them, one by one, and offer each to me. He was sufficiently large that, standing in front of the ottoman I was sitting on, we were pretty much eye to eye. At first, I reached out a bit and patted him, and Richard likewise took notice by smiling at his dog. “Good enough,” thought Mackie, “I’ll get another.” And so it went, raggedy plush squirrel followed by smelly rawhide followed by toeless sock until after eight or so retrievals Mackie finally got his favorite: a yellow rubber ball with a black smiley face on one side and “Have a nice day” on the other. A squeaky ball. Surely, no one could resist a squeaky ball. 

He brought it over, stood in front of me, looked me in the eyes, and munched the ball once. “Squeak!” I patted him. “Squeak, squeak, squeak!” Again I patted him and maybe, I’m not sure, smiled for the first time in a lifetime. “Squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak!” I burst into laughter. So did Richard. Mackie wagged triumphantly as I kissed him on the head. Richard looked at me, smiling wildly through his tears, and said “Fucking dogs.” I replied, “Yeah, fucking dogs.” 

That was years ago, but I can still honestly state that I think of Mackie nearly everyday. When he died peacefully of old age just last May, Richard called me, hysterical. I went right over. We sat on the floor in the living room, stroking Mackie and struggling through the same words we’d struggled through once before. When we took his corpse outside and lifted it into Richard’s truck, I happened to notice a rustle of breeze through the liquidambars. Not really thinking anything in particular, I said “A beautiful sound, isn’t it?” Richard nodded. And then I thought silently, “It will always remind me of Mackie.” To this day, it has. That’s the thing about the world. It draws us out of ourselves. 

Some might say Mackie knew how I felt that Christmas, and wanted to comfort me. Maybe, maybe not, I couldn’t say. I know this for sure, though: He wanted me to pay attention to him, not just to myself and my precious suffering. That’s the thing about suffering. It gets precious.