My dog Arwen is failing. She is in pain. She can barely climb into the car for the rides that she loves so much. I am having as hard a time with Arwen’s pain as she is. I’ve given up a lot of things so I can afford the hundred dollars a month that her medication costs.
Arwen is only seven years old, but two years ago, she was hit by a car and her hip was crushed; her hind leg had to be amputated. She is a big dog, half malamute and half shepherd, and a trauma like that is harder on a big dog, and sometimes the pain medication doesn’t seem to work. So I am looking at a day not too far in the future when I will have to make a monstrous decision, one that I cannot bear to think about.
But even if it wasn’t for the accident, Arwen is a dog, and dogs, of course, don’t live as long as humans.
I remember my friend Richard the day he got a trembling black lab puppy that piddled in my lap when I held it. The puppy, named Stone, became Richard’s constant companion. You never saw them apart. One day, many years later, I went over to Richard’s house; we had become only casual friends by then and I hadn’t seen him for more than six months. He called, “Come in,” and I did and stopped, stricken. Richard was on his knees, feeding Stone baby food with a spoon. Stone, though old and gray around his muzzle, remembered me. He couldn’t walk, but he flapped his tail on the floor and lifted his head.
I felt such overwhelming pity; not for Stone, but for Richard; a tough and gruff man who had been brought to his knees in unspoken grief, gently spooning food into his dying dog’s mouth while crooning wordless murmurs of love.
And now I spend money I don’t really have to ease the pain of my beloved dog, my constant companion who used to hike up mountains with me and slide down on patches of snow yelping with joy, who would run with me when I went skating; miles and miles on a paved trail near our home, the bond of companionship so great that sometimes I would come to a stop just to rumple her fur, the dog that bounded through high weeds like an antelope, as graceful as a dancer, who now lays motionless on her side in the bedroom for most of each day, getting up only if I call and call again, then rising in a series of jerky stiff motions, limping to the door. And her muzzle is turning gray.
Even if it wasn’t for the accident, Arwen’s life would still end before mine, because dogs live only one seventh as long as humans. We all love dog stories, and cry over them. But there is only one writer I know of who has written of the pain of love between two species with different life spans. That was J. R. Tolkein, who, in the long appendix at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, wrote of the time when the human king Aragorn, took leave of his grieving queen, who was an elf. Tolkein described elves as nearly immortal. Though Aragorn had lived much longer than most men, the day came when he felt himself failing. He decided to give up the longer span of life he had been given. When the queen, still in the prime of her life, begged him to stay, he said, “Would you have me wait until I wither and fall…unmanned and witless?”
On this earth, we are the ones who make that decision for our lesser-lived dogs, who can be witless and drooling and but a bare semblance of the former companion they were, breathing but no longer really even there, and still we will feed them with spoons and buy them medicines we can’t afford and go on loving and trying to keep them with us, though we knew from the start that they were doomed to go before us.
Tolkein summed it up when he wrote of king Aragorn saying to his queen as he died, “I will speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world.”
He had it absolutely right. There is no comfort for such pain, not within the circles of the world.