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For dog lovers, one of the silver linings of the coronavirus pandemic has seen our ranks swell. What started as a trickle last spring turned into a stream in summer and fall: dog adoptions and puppy pictures. On Twitter, I mostly follow journalists, foreign policy experts, and current or former government officials. Over the past few months, the normally fixed posts in my feed have often been replaced by “Some personal news: Welcome to the family [Astrid or Gus or Lola or Caesar]! “Accompanied by a mug shot of a puppy with big eyes.
These announcements always brought me a touch of joy – one that was enhanced by my own awareness of the value of a dog’s (or, for some people, a cat) companionship in this loneliest year. Dogs bring so much joy and love into our lives. And yet, as my grandmother says: “They are only given to us.” A dog’s life is long enough to love them, long enough to define chapters of our own lives through their presence, but also short enough to know that we will likely survive them and feel the pain of losing them .
We adopted Cleo, a handsome, solid, retired black racing greyhound shortly after my current husband moved from Switzerland, where he was finishing his PhD in physics. Research, after Washington, DC, where I worked in the Obama administration. Brian is an extrovert, and while extroverts can write dissertations, long hours alone take their toll. I’d come home from my State Department job at 10 p.m. exhausted to find Brian ready to speak. (And talk. And talk.) After a few months of this nightly energy level mismatch, I said, “Maybe we should have a dog?” He readily agreed.
So, in the summer of 2012, we drove four hours north to a medium-security correctional facility in New Jersey to meet a greyhound who was on a foster care program. (After retiring from racing, the dogs were loaded onto trucks going north from Alabama and Florida, and some of the detainees at that facility looked after the dogs while they waited for their adoption.) An hour later we were – two excited people and a scared dog – drove home together.
Six months later I got a desperate phone call from Brian: Cleo’s leg, he said, had “ripped” in an accident at the dog park. I rushed home to catch him walking down a street in Dupont Circle, a 6’3 ”lanky man, tears streaming down his face, with a helpless 70 pound lanky dog in his arms.
Cleo recovered and when the three of us moved to Vienna on my diplomatic assignment the following year, she became a spiritual host at the many formal events in our house. After the guests arrived, as they mingled into the large living room, Cleo gently tiptoed down the massive wooden stairs and meandered silently through the assembled ambassadors and dignitaries, surveying the scene without disturbing a single conversation, and the Quietly assessing the crowd before retreating upstairs to wait for the evening’s festivities to end.
Once she could have uncovered an undercover agent: It was whispered that the wife of one of the Russian diplomats in Vienna was an agent in the FSB (one of Vladimir Putin’s spy agencies). The few times I met the woman in question at social events, she never said more than a greeting and only seemed to speak in very laborious English. One day I was walking in a park with Cleo, and when we came across the Russian diplomat’s wife, she exclaimed in perfect English without thinking, “My goodness, what an exquisitely beautiful dog!” (“Aha!” I thought.)
Last summer we camped Cleo in the mountains of Sangre de Cristo to leave the country for a socially distant change of scenery. Greyhounds are not camping dogs; Their long lines, graceful curves, and sharp angles make them elegant, but not particularly sturdy. So it was that we decided on an unusual weekend in Colorado – it started raining when we pitched our tent on Friday evening and stopped at the campsite on Sunday morning. She was so meek and waived judgment when we sat there 24 hours after our ordeal, two men and a greyhound in a three-person tent listening to the rain splashing from the sides. She looked at us as if she didn’t want to say, “Why are you doing this to me?” (which would have been fair) but instead “Well guys, at least we’re together … I guess?”
We took her to the vet late last month for a routine teeth brush and returned home diagnosed with aggressive bone cancer. A week later, on the warm afternoon of Easter Sunday, I carried Cleo back so she could sit and watch as I pruned the tangle of rose bushes that had emerged from the March snowstorms. She watched me carefully for a while as I prepared the thorny bushes for rebirth before I sighed. Her neck dripped from the side of her bed so that her head rested gently on the wooden boards of the deck.
Cleo was older than our engagement and marriage – “we” were the three of us for most of our relationship. Brian and I both spoke to her and sometimes used her as a medium to talk about each other. When we did that, we referred to her simply as “dog”. As in “Dog, can you believe we have to live with his jokes?” or “Dog, why didn’t he empty the dishwasher?”
In the last few weeks as we said goodbye, I was occasionally embarrassed by the way my voice cracked or tears ran down my face. Exactly or not, I realized that I feel like it is socially unacceptable for an adult to visibly grieve a pet. I felt like I had to apologize for suffocating.
When I look back, I am impressed by how dependent I have become on her companionship (especially noteworthy since she slept most of the time we spent together – greyhounds are notorious sofa potatoes and sleep twenty hours a day). She was a comforting presence – trusting, loving, responsive – through the ups and downs of the past decade. When the ground moved it was constant. When I was in doubt, she was adamant in love.
It is not that I confuse or associate their death with the loss of a person; I also knew this loss. There is no need to make morally objectionable equivalences to describe this particular affliction. I know that her death does not destroy the world in any cosmically meaningful way. But her death is a break in my world.
In fact, it’s not the similarities with losing a loved one, but the differences that make losing an animal a special kind of pain. Just as the love dogs give is the purest and most direct kind of love, so the grief we feel when they leave us has a unique – undiluted, uncomplicated – quality. There is no regret for conversations we haven’t had. Grief does not have tentacles that envelop or excavate aspects of our own identity. When I cried for Cleo, I cried for her absolute goodness, not for unresolved parts of myself.
With that in mind, perhaps the lesson I can learn from this experience is not that we should worry about pretending we animals mourn the way we mourn humans, but that we should strive emotionally, humans to mourn in a way that is more Similar to how we mourn animals: simple, generous, pure – without judgment or regret.
It’s funny how it seems like we’re the stewards of animals – we feed them, we go after them, we clean up – and yet at some point we realize that it is really them who take care of us. Last year I knew Cleo was getting old; she had started to slow down. As I tried to understand the massive loss of life in the pandemic, the grief of so many families, and the way a biological disease was uncovering new social and economic ones, I was – to be honest – spending more non-stop time with Brian When we both got married, I would occasionally sit next to Cleo, hold her head in my lap, and whisper, “You have to get us through this pandemic isolation. And by that choice. Please do this for me. And then you can go if you have to. “
And she did. She took me to Joe Biden’s inauguration and Brian’s and my vaccinations. And then last week she left. Good dog.
Dan Baer is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; He served in the Cabinet of Governor John Hickenlooper as Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education from 2018 to 2019 and from 2013 to 2017 US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Follow him on Twitter at @danbbaer.
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