It’s Simchas Torah and Herschel Won’t Dance Anymore
Amelia and I went on one final backpacking trip this past summer before we moved to Maine. We took our big, loyal, and lovable Great Dane, Herschel, with us to the Pine Grove Furnace section of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania. Starting from the state park, we made our way to a nearby pad-site / shelter.
It was sweltering. Herschel took the hike hard. After we came home, he began to favor his front right foreleg. The vet at first thought it was strained, and we gave him medication and kept him relatively immobilized before, during, and after our move.
It was difficult when we first arrived in Bangor, living out of a second story HoJo room. Traversing the stairs for the bathroom was problematic. We hoped he would improve when we moved into our new home, but he did not.
Finally, as he essentially morphed into a three-legged Dane, we took him to the vet here. The diagnosis was ugly and terrible. Herschel has bone cancer, and there’s a giant hole in his bone. It hasn’t spread, but he’s in considerable pain. It’s not unusual for large breeds, and at 8, Herschel is living up to the unfortunate Great Dane name of “the heartbreak breed.”
In a testament to his unwavering loyalty, Herschel still allowed a toddler to climb all over him without complaint. He lets Amelia snuggle him without a whine.
But he hurts. The pills help, but he hurts.
Dancing with the Torah during the Simchas Torah hakafot, my mind was on Herschel. How he’d frolic and run so hard around our old yard that he’d kick up dirt like he was a racing greyhound. How he steals my side of the bed every damn night. How he’s such a good sport with the girls, how he’s indulged everything from pink tutus to being Nezzie’s noble steed.
If Torah is a gift to the Jewish people, what is a dog? Our devoted friend is scheduled to be put to sleep this Friday. For 7 years he’s been there for us, eating our furniture, counter surfing, mustering the kind of slightly ashamed that made him that much more wonderful. And now he won’t be. I’ll come to bed and I won’t get kicked in the middle of the night when he has one of his running dreams. I’ll have a spot on the couch when I come to the family room.
Amelia won’t have that big fawn lug waiting for her by the door. This will be hardest on her.
The Rainbow Bridge is grief-counseling pabulum made up in the 1980s by man- or women-children that need a fantasy construct to cope with loss. I hate it when people think it is helpful to invoke that mess when consoling someone who has lost a pet.
My sense is that our time together on earth is it, and when he’s gone, he’s gone. I know I’ll wake up from time to time because my brain will tell me I hear one of his Dane-loud yawns. I’ll swear I heard him lumber up or down the stairs. But that’s it. He won’t be waiting for us in the sweet hereafter, or there’s no justice in the universe. A soul like his deserves elevation beyond having to linger for us.
The reality is, my dog is in pain. Life has become pain. Death is release. We had hundreds of hikes, thousands of times we just loafed on a coach, thousands of times he nudged my arm when I was working at my computer, hundreds of thousands of moments we can revisit in our memories. In the meantime, it’s just time for him to stop suffering.
There’s no green pasture. There’s a Herschel-sized empty spot on our couch and in our lives. That’s what makes him real, before and after. We will always know that he was there, and weighing as much as any of us, we will definitely know that he is not now there. And we will remember.
A section from Lord Byron’s Epitaph for a Dog:
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.