Art, tragedy, my son, and the death of a dog

I don’t normally do this kind of thing, because I feel that the innards of my family and life are not fair subjects for a blog. But we have recently had an event in our lives that I think holds some lessons worth sharing, simply because it is so common yet so difficult.

The other day our dog, Sadie, was hit and killed by a car. She was an unusually sweet dog, and we loved her dearly. I was the only one home — Louise was at a conference hundreds of miles away, and Nik was away at the state arts high school he attends in Minneapolis. The death was mine to discover, mine to address, and mine to pass along to others in the family. It was not a good day.

After I talked to Nik, I wrote him an email. I’m going to post a version of it here because I think it has something of value to say about art, tragedy, and growing up. It is a letter written from a father to a son who has found a calling in the arts.

Hi Nik,

I’m sitting here alone on Saturday night. I’m glad you’re at your friend’s, because it is good to be with someone at such a time. It lets you hitchhike on other people’s energy and gives you, to the extent that they are there for you, someone with whom you can share your sadness and grief. Being alone requires something different, because you have to go wherever your emotions take you. It’s not an easy course.

My greatest solace is knowing that you share my sadness. I think you and I loved that dog in a special way. She was a rare dog, in that she played no favorites. She loved mom because they were both girls, and she somehow knew it. She loved me because I was always here and we shared more private time than anyone else. She loved you because she knew, at heart, that she was your dog and that her job was to please you.

The sad irony is that one of the reasons I got her was because I wanted you to have something that would bring out the softness in you at a time when you were shaping your adult emotions. I wanted you to have that experience of having a dog’s pure love looking up at you, so it would call forth the same pure love from you. I wanted you to have something you could hug and talk to and tell your secret feelings to at a time when it is hard to do those things with a parent or a friend.

And she did all those things. I did not think that I was going to get her so you could have a life lesson in tragedy and loss. But that’s what’s happened.

Beyond the specifics of her death there are two things I want to say. The first I will leave to the chapter on “Tragedy and Suffering” in Letters to My Son. Please read it. It says much of what I want to say.

But there is something else that I didn’t say in there, because I did not know when I wrote it what path you would follow in life. But because you have decided to be a creator, I can say it to you now.

If there is one single great gift that art gives the person who chooses to follow its path, it is the ability to use tragedy and suffering to create. In Catholicism, there is the belief that the wine and bread become the sacred body and blood of Christ when they are consecrated. It is called “transubstantiation.” It is the miracle of changing something from one thing to another without changing its form.

Art can transubstantiate suffering, partly by opening you to a common human experience that makes you understand the suffering of others, but also by giving your creativity a richness and urgency that you otherwise would not have. I know how this works in writing, and I know how it works in sculpture. I also think I know how it works in music and dance. I am not sure how it works in film, but I know that it does, because it works in all creative endeavors where the heart must inform the work of the mind.

There are things you cannot say in words — feelings you have, heights and depths you cannot articulate — and the only way they can come out is through your art form. It may not be direct — usually it is not. But what happens is that as you create, this emotion pushes through from some deep place and informs the way you see, feel, choose, and express. What was an unutterable emotion changes into a emotional charge that runs through your heart and mind and into your work. It is a magical thing, and you must embrace it as one of the true gifts of the difficult and sometimes lonely creative life.

I know how to use this. I know how to gather it in, to hold down the scream that wants to break out around the edges, and to make it drive my sensibilities when I sit down to write. But it took me years to understand myself and my own emotions to gain this control. You may not yet have that, or you may feel that it isn’t applicable to what you do. But, I assure you, in some way, that it is. The heart knowledge that Sadie’s death has given you will find voice and expression in your work.

This is our memorial to Sadie. As she has been buried in the ground, so, too, has she been buried in our hearts. But the doggie that’s buried in our hearts will rise up and be a part of everything we make. She increases our understanding of love. She increases our understanding of loneliness. She increases our understanding of sadness and the fragility of life. She shows us the importance of not holding grudges, of always offering forgiveness, of valuing family. In dying, she reminds us that being rich and clever and well-known are nice, but that they are nothing compared to the deeper human values of caring and compassion. And in being reminded, we are reminded to try to make those values shine forth in the work that we do.

It is a dark gift that her dying gave us, but it is a gift nonetheless. I want you to think of that gift when you think of her, and let the pain you feel gradually turn to strength and understanding.

It will be slow. But it will happen if you have the strength and courage to use this to open rather than to close and wall up. You will find your own way through it, and it will not be the last tragedy and suffering you will face. As someone once said, they are required courses in the school of life, not electives. How you learn to deal with them and to transubstantiate them into something positive and creative is the measure of your manhood.

Go read that chapter in Letters to My Son. And cry as much as you have to. I have been sobbing and wailing like a baby for the last few days, and I have no shame for it, though I do not wish to do it in other people’s presence. For me, the depth of my grief is the measure of the depth of my love. And because Sadie was an innocent, both that grief and that love are almost childlike.

Find the strength to make your schoolwork important during this tough time. And know that the grief will dissipate and disperse day by day. Go moment by moment, accepting the emotions that come across you, but taking care to do the things in life that you have committed to do.

She was a sweet and wonderful dog, and we’re going to miss her.

I love you,

Dad

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