Where is the threshold between love and what orbits outside it nigh enough to be a spoof? In my opinion, it's the burden of disgust. If you can look right at your sidekick's vomit, rashes, lumps, drool, at the unravelling that renders us all destitute sacks of biology, and still be at par: It's love.
The concept of unconditional love is dangerous, of course. It keeps bad relationships going long after they need to end, it drags us through morasses of suffering and servitude just to try and corroborate the bond. But I'm talking about humans, here. Dogs are entirely different.
In Eileen Myles's new book Afterglow: A Dog Memoir, the celebrated writer and poet shells out great detail of their beloved pitbull Rosie's physical decline. "The sun highlights all the wrinkles in her barrel chest. A soft torso that used to be strong but the width and the heroic bone structure, ripples and inclines now say where the muscles were. She doesn't care. She wears her body like her favorite clothes," writes Myles, finding valour in Rosie even as she weakens. Their lives together make a love story. "Mainstay of my liturgy for sixteen point five almost seventeen years. She was observed. I was companioned. Seen."
It's fair to find descriptions of affliction overwhelming. It is not pleasant to visualize how a sweet pitbull named Rosie withered. But it is in this portrayal of decline that the love story gains muscle. As death comes closer, Myles lifts Rosie higher up, fortifying her slow exit with a buoying sense of awe, not just for young Rosie but for old Rosie, dying Rosie and dead Rosie, too. "I took such great care of her when she was dying," Myles writes. "I relished it. She made me go slow. I'd hear the rustling of her limbs and I'd run to her because she couldn't get up and there was generally a puddle already there. In my house I have beautiful wooden floors. Now I had a pile of facecloths, torn towels, rags. … I made sure she was really comfortable. … I felt less ambivalently loving than I have ever felt in my life. Now I know what love feels like."
I'll add a second, albeit trickier, criterion to my threshold of allegiance: that it continues into death. "I've been gone from your life for seven years. But believe me – I am keeping an eye on things." (This is Rosie talking now.) When my own steadfast dog died (on a Saturday morning just like Rosie), I felt her absence in my saddened existence but gained the sense of having her as my guardian. On an otherwise promising Friday night last September, as I pinned myself against a streetcar on Dundas Street in Toronto to avoid being hit by a speeding BMW, as I squeezed the front of my body against the streetcar's blessedly still exterior before it moved again, I thought to myself: this is her. In head-to-toe black, alone, at night, emboldened by the verve of a new crush I was on my way to meet, I jaywalked like a holy idiot and nearly died, but I was saved. I dreamed of my dog for a week after that. "I'm assuming you know everything now cause you're god, right?" says Myles, writing to Rosie. "A dog is looking down from the sky. I'm standing in a field waving. I'm sorry I let you go."
Much of Afterglow weaves through various experiential sensibilities, with Myles having stepped outside narrative convention. One particularly charming portion is written by Rosie, a dispatch from the afterlife. "Everybody's life is just this kind of picture," Rosie writes. "People get dogs to help them construct it. Feel it Eileen. Heart to heart. … This is what it is to be a dog. Weather and feeling and knowing. That's why you let us remain."
There's something maladroit about grieving a pet. Human people mourn human loss every day. Myles seems to understand this. Without minimizing Rosie's relevance, Myles situates an undercurrent of levity and acceptance throughout. Rosie's is a voice of reason, her wisdom prodigious in the duality of dog and death. ("You learn a lot about what's in the room from this position," says Rosie of her canine height.) Their story does not end when Rosie dies. Still, the retelling of Myles's final moments with her – the last meal of carne asada, how the only parts of Rosie that seemed alive any more were her eyes and mouth – are truly ruinous. "How will I ever let go of you girl. The first one ever mine."
On Christmas Eve, 2005, as it became clear my grandfather was going to die soon, my sister and I shambled down the carpeted hallway of his retirement home with slabs of concrete in our chests. Though much was still uncertain, my sister said she knew we'd never see him again. She didn't mean alive, necessarily; she meant as we knew him, the person on which our identities as grandchildren depended. It was an obvious-enough sentiment, but one that changed my understanding of companionship, whether human to human or human to dog (or human to horse, human to any co-dependent stimulus you wish). There's the grief for the being that is dying and then there is the grief for the part of ourselves that's going with them. Myles went into that veterinarian's office as part of a duo and left without its other half. Writing Afterglow was a way to keep talking about Rosie, says Myles. It was a way of making sure the pulse of that camaraderie still taps.
For 15 years, I had my beautiful hound. Like Myles, I am not finished thinking about her. Did she grant softness unto me or did she simply extract it? I still don't know. I know that during her tenure, my dyed-in-the-wool Hamilton dad became a guy who says "I love you" at the end of every phone call, and I know that as my childhood home was burning down, I bolted out the front door with her collar in my fist. As I stood barefoot on the wet road awaiting the fire department, she was at my side. Without her, there is less grace around me, at least on Earth.
Or maybe not. We channel the worst fears about ourselves into animals that oblige us, and when we lose them we're back to the drawing board. Our pets save us from identity crisis. As Rosie says, that's part of their purpose.
"You were always my boat," Myles writes. "You brought me space and peace. I put you in the middle of my life and you never steered me wrong." At the end of Afterglow, as Myles disperses Rosie's ashes into water, they write that, "No matter how much you loved someone their ashes or just their dead body is this joke." Perhaps out of context it sounds a little bleak, and yes, the scene is crushing. But as Myles and their companion swirl the powder of their dogs into the water, they laugh.
That their suffering can be softened is thanks to the beasts who made love simple.
Carly Lewis is a Toronto-based writer.