NB: Riley's human is Lesley Day, the President and Founder of Chimps, Inc., a sanctuary specifically designed to provide lifetime care to captive chimpanzees rescued or retired from the pet and entertainment industries. You can learn more about how to help Chimps Inc. and their seven chimpanzees here.
That’s what we’re called. I would venture to say that we’ve known this about ourselves from the moment we could self-reflect. With absolution. Effortlessly. But to love is to be vulnerable. For instance, Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows were inconsolably devastating. And, as children or adults, each time we open our hearts to a companion animal, we know we are headed toward inevitable heartbreak. When they do move on, the void they leave can seem endless, but eventually the grief will transmute, with grace, to a precious ache — and with that ache comes the unlocking of yet another level we didn’t know we had, a deeper unfolding in our capacity to love.
I am a bit reluctant to admit that at times I will seek out the company of a non-human before seeking out that of a human. In my mind, I understand animals more. They are relatively straightforward, and you usually know where you stand with them. (Interestingly, the more highly complex thinkers, like great apes or cetaceans, can be an exception to this rule. Most folks who have worked with primates, for instance, can tell you that sometimes — just sometimes — an ape or monkey might pretend to be sweet, when really he or she has an ulterior motive.)
But with dogs, you know. If one doesn’t like you, he’ll make it quite clear. And conversely, if a dog loves you, you will find yourself on the receiving end of perhaps the most glorious phenomenon known to existence: unfettered love.
Riley was Lesley’s dog. At almost 17 years old, he was well tended to and much loved. That he was precious to his humans was clear, but also, his body was tired. He moved slowly, and for the last couple of days, he hadn’t eaten much of anything at all. This is, as we say, the signal by which they communicate to us, even though we often are not ready to hear it: I’m tired, Mom. I don’t want to eat anymore. I’m ready.
The vet was called. Everyone at the clinic knew Riley, so when the doctor and the technician arrived, they were quite moved themselves.
“Some are harder than others,” Dr. Pollock said, her eyes glistening, and we assembled around Riley in the last place he would fall asleep. Everyone took turns stroking him — Good boy, Riley, you’re such a good boy — until finally, peacefully, his heart beat its final and Riley’s spirit was set free.
It feels fathomless, leagues beyond anything our pragmatic minds are capable of understanding. And yet we know, with certainty, one thing: to have loved them makes it worth it. What else shall we do with our hearts for the time that we have them, but love? And to be loved in return by a dog — one who loves so easily, without shame or restrictions — is a lesson that we humans are still learning. In this way, they are light years ahead of us. And so we pick ourselves up again, brokenhearted, and we love again, and we learn again.
Thank you Monica. I love your writing and I love you. This moves me on so many levels right now. Thank u.
Your honesty regarding the vulnerability associated with pet ownership is brilliantly connected with an unexpected gift we can receive from the death of a pet. You say, "grief will transmute, with grace, to a precious ache — and with that ache comes the unlocking of yet another level we didn’t know we had, a deeper unfolding in our capacity to love." Wow! Such a positive evaluation of loss through death...
Also, I found your comparison of chimp motivations vs dog innocence to be fascinatingly logical if troubling.
Thanks for these insightful words of hope and evaluation.
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