I’ve finally moved from Emily Dickinson’s “Sweeping up the heart” phase of grief for my dog Chaussette to her “After a great pain/A formal feeling comes” phase. (Emily Dickinson makes a perceptive guide when navigating the waters of sorrow.)
My initial reaction to Chaussette’s premature death—she was barely a year old—was not just sadness, but indignation: I’d prayed for her to live so hard, for so long, that it didn’t seem fair that prayers so fervent had gone unanswered.
I wasn’t praying to an anthropomorphic God who sits in Heaven, wears white robes, and frowns thoughtfully; I’d had an epiphany during a Confirmation Class snack break when I was sixteen years old, huddled in a corner reading Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan. One passage discussed Spinoza’s conception of God and I’d looked up, dazed by the knowledge that what I’d secretly believed had a name: pantheism. I don’t see God as Creator; I see God as Creation. It was a spiritual concept far from what I had learned in Catholic school, but it struck closer to my heart than the Apostle’s Creed ever had.
Although I haven’t attended church regularly since I was a teenager, I’m still one of the “Nones” I heard about on NPR: A class of people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” for whom the world is a cathedral, and whose population seems (at least by some counts) to be increasing these days. As such, I pray silently every night, and I send up prayers of gratitude as often as I can.
I knew it was selfish to pray for a dog when so many people are bearing losses so much greater. But I couldn’t help it. Chaussette hadn’t just brought me joy in the conventional canine sense; her presence had helped me forge my way through a year of increasing despair, when my failure to find a job with a livable wage had left me feeling worthless; I would almost hope for an accident or a swift-moving cancer that would kill me quickly, without racking up medical bills, so that my husband and son could collect my life insurance.
It was Chaussette, with her constant energy and her constant needs, who pulled me through. Tending to her kept me from marinating in self-loathing. Her presence in my life was as vital as it was ephemeral.
Things are somewhat better now. Although I’m still doing the same low-wage, part-time jobs, I finally got health insurance for my family through Badgercare (in my son’s case) and through Obamacare in my and my husband’s cases. (With all due respect to any Republicans reading this, the Right’s persistent refrain that “the private market is working” is completely bogus when it comes to health care. I don’t know who the 80 or 90 percent of people with affordable employer-based coverage are, but my family and most people I know certainly aren’t among them.)
Since the premium and deductible for our private market health insurance plan had cost well over half of our annual income, getting these plans has reduced my financial anxiety considerably. I’m now encased in stone walls of equanimity that generally keep out the flame arrows of grief and panic that used to set me ablaze.
I wish I still had my dog, but she did her work admirably while she was here.