NASHVILLE — There’s a story my husband has been telling for nearly 15 years, since not long after United States forces invaded Iraq. In a news report, American soldiers were going door to door with bomb-sniffing dogs, trying to persuade the citizens of Baghdad to adopt a well-trained pet.
Many Iraqis regard dogs as unclean, and American soldiers were making the case for rethinking that policy: Baghdad would be safer if dogs were housed throughout the city, sounding the alarm whenever an enemy tried to plant a roadside bomb in the night. Also, a dog will love you unconditionally.
The Iraqi homeowner in the story looked at the G.I. and shrugged. “Then you would be loved by a dog.”
My husband thinks this story is hilarious because it reminds him of the small-town Southerners and country people he grew up among — and also because it is so deeply at odds with the attitudes of suburban America, with its pet strollers and doggy day cares and canine pulmonologists. Iraqi soldiers would have no better luck persuading suburban Nashvillians to banish their dogs to the yard than American soldiers had in persuading Iraqis to invite a dog into the house.
As a measure of how deeply dogs are embedded in our own lives, consider what happened when Emma, our 15-year-old dachshund, died last month. Three friends brought flowers. One brought chocolate. One brought a homemade strawberry pie. One brought a barbecue supper and an original poem. Two little girls who loved her made candle holders. (“I need some water, some glue, a jar and a lot of glitter,” the 7-year-old told her father.) On Facebook, 158 people wrote messages of condolence.
The outpouring of kindness reminded me of the days just after my mother’s sudden death, when it seemed that everyone I knew brought flowers and food and sweet notes. It might seem disrespectful to compare the loss of even the dearest animal companion to the loss of a beloved mother, but it makes a particular kind of emotional sense. Everyone has a mother, and the profound grief of losing her is one most people instinctively understand, even if their own mothers are alive and well. Everyone who’s ever loved a dog knows the true depth of that loss, even if they’ve never met the specific dog being mourned.
As it happens, Emma was my mother’s dog first, and losing her has been a double grief. I miss her inimitable sandwich-snarfing, bookshelf-climbing, purse-raiding, cabinet-unlocking, smoothie-stealing, ever-grinning rascal self. I miss the way, even in her nearly blind, completely deaf, partially paralyzed old age, she wanted to be right beside me, tugging her little bed till it was directly under my feet while I worked.
I miss her, but I also miss taking care of her — rushing her to the emergency vet at least three times a year for eating everything from chocolate bonbons to rat poison, carefully dispensing her medicine twice a day, constantly pushing the chairs under the table to keep her from climbing up and launching herself off from the table’s full height. Protecting Emma from herself felt like a way to keep caring for Mom even years after Mom was gone.