Today I posted a photo that came into my facebook feed of a man holding his old beagle on the night before he had to put his dear friend down. It touched something deep in me; I’m still grieving for my old yellow lab, Lucie, who passed several years ago.
For some reason Lucie’s death hit me especially hard. Perhaps it was because she was so guileless; perhaps it was just the time and season of my life. But I have not been able to get another dog since then. It’s entirely possible that I will never have another dog in my life.
But the reason I’m even mentioning this is that it brought to mind one of the reasons I so value the Native way of understanding life. I wrote about it in Voices in the Stones: Life Lessons from the Native Way. I’m printing an excerpt of it here. It is a reflection on my experience with an elderly Dakotah man in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. He had been telling me about how his grandma had been able to talk to the animals and birds, and he was reflecting on how perhaps the animals didn’t hear us anymore. Or perhaps they have just chosen not to speak.
Let’s pick it up there. This is me speaking, not the Dakotah man:
“When I was a child my parents gave me a little black puppy.
I can remember holding her on my lap in the back of the family car as we drove home, thinking this was the greatest gift – no, the greatest miracle — any boy could ever receive.
I named her Boots because she had white paws. It was a simple name, without cleverness or guile. But it was my name, my choice, and Boots was going to be my dog.
For the next 14 years, “Bootsie,” as we came to call her, was my constant companion. She slept with me, walked with me, waited for me when I returned home from school.
She had a crooked smile and a crooked gait that made her amble almost comically when she came up to me wagging her whole back end after I returned from some adventure from which she had been excluded.
Like every child’s dog, she was the greatest dog in the world.
As I neared the end of high school, Bootsie’s body began to give out. Our nighttime walks became shorter and less frequent. Her step slowed, she developed a limp.
Soon she could only go a few hundred yards.
Bur her loyalty would not let her stay behind.
She would follow as best she could, then she would look up at me with her old grey muzzle and her white cloudy eyes, and would wag her tail gamely, as if in apology.
I would pick her up and carry her, laboring under her weight and feeling the heaving, uneven struggles of her labored breathing.
Eventually the day came, as it always does, when she looked up at me with an expression that said, “I can’t do it any more.” Something was passed between us, and I was called to that moment when a boy must become a man.
The next day I took her into the vet, and with tears streaming down my cheeks, held her tight as she shook and pressed against me while the vet injected the substance into her leg that turned her from my living, breathing closest companion into an inert mass that lay lifeless in my arms.
In that moment, something deep inside me died that would never live again. In a small way, it was the same thing that had died in the old man when we imposed our language and our western way of thinking on him and his people.
It had something to do with faith.
* * *
I was raised to believe that we humans are the apex of creation, made, as my Sunday school classes had taught me, in the image and likeness of God — the only element of creation possessed of an eternal soul.
It was not a deeply-held or well- thought-out conviction, it was just the way I had learned to understand the world.
But as I held my old dog in my arms and watched the light fade from her caring eyes, that conviction drained out of me as surely as the life drained out of her aged, trembling body.
I knew in that moment that I could never again embrace a belief that told me her spiritual presence and worth were inferior to mine. Her heart had been greater, her spirit purer. She had taught me about love, about faithfulness, about steadfastness and gentle caring. Her eyes had held a consciousness and understanding that was equal to mine. No one could tell me she didn’t have a soul.”
It goes on from there. But that’s enough. If this speaks to you, I hope you will pick up Voices in the Stones. It speaks to the lessons I have learned from my time among Native people and their ways. They have much to teach us if we have the ears to hear.
Here’s to the man in the photo and to all of us who have known and loved an animal in that way that has made our world and our hearts a better and softer place.