Several years ago, while writing for the New Yorker, E.B. White published a poem about the death of a cow. He prefaced it with a newspaper clipping telling how “Sir Hanson Rowbotham’s favorite Red Polled cow” died following having been “bitten on the udder by an adder.” It is a humorous verse noting the unusual manner of death and, wordsmith that White was, playing on rhymes and near-rhymes pulled from the English town, the cow, and the snake (“What is sadder than udder stung by adder?”).
The first line of White’s poem reads, “Toll the bell, fellow,” and, though this is not a humorous piece, I’ll borrow it, as it seems appropriate for relating the loss of a loyal companion. The health of my little dog, Blackie Chan, took a sudden turn this last week, and he died on Thursday. For him, the sound of a bell ringing out a death knell seems appropriate. With the clapper partly wrapped in leather, the sound would be clear and bright as it struck one side…then dull and muted when it hit the other. He was here, up for anything…and now he’s gone.
Blackie Chan came to live with me three years ago. He was eight years old, and had been a member of my daughter’s household since birth. Kate’s kids were nearly grown, and she was going to start travelling for work. I already had Rosa Parks, who was one of his litter mates, so I offered to take Blackie Chan in. He quickly adapted to this home, and I learned to love him right away. Along with my big dog, Darla, it was now a three-dog household.
Rosa Parks came to live with me as a puppy. She’s always felt comfortable with her self-chosen #1 status. Darla came to me after spending nearly all of her first six years in a shelter. She tries very hard to please, and to always do the right thing. Blackie Chan was the latest to join our family, and was determined to fit in. No dog ever worked harder at it. Blackie Chan melted my heart with the seriousness and sincerity he put into every single activity or interaction.
When I mentioned a walk, he’d keep up a steady bark (“Let’s go, hurry up,” he seemed to be shouting) while I put on shoes and jacket. Though Rosa Parks often lags far behind, and Darla takes her time exploring every smell, Blackie Chan stayed right beside me, always facing forward, with intense concentration, as if it were a task that he needed to get right. He put that same earnestness into everything he did, from waiting on his rug for dinner to be served, to standing to greet me when I came in the door.
Though he took his job seriously, Blackie Chan could always make me laugh. He was so small that barking, or even a sneeze, would cause his front legs to rise right up off the ground. Nearly blind, he was often hilarious in his efforts to follow my voice. He used his own voice to comical affect. He didn’t bark at birds, squirrels or the road truck as the other dogs do, and often put on a look of stunned confusion when they’d go on a tangent. But, if he wanted in from outside, or help getting down from bed or chair, his whine was impressive. His persistent bark was used mainly to tell me to “get a move on” when he was waiting for dinner, a treat, or a walk.
For his whole life, Blackie Chan never gave up his efforts to gain the “prime sleeping position” next to my pillow. Our nighttime ritual consists of treats and pats and ear rubs, when I tell each dog how pretty, how smart and how exceptional they are. I finish with, “you guys could be in the Westminster Dog Show!” Then I turn to switch off the light. In that pause, Blackie Chan would always bare his teeth and snarl at Rosa Parks, in an attempt to get her to give up her spot. She never did. When I turned to face him, he wore a small smile and a look of perfect innocence (“that wasn’t me…I don’t know who was growling”) as he settled down to sleep in the curve behind my knees.
I laid Blackie Chan’s body in the grass while I dug his grave. I wrapped him in the same pink and yellow blanket he had arrived with three years ago. I spread flower seeds over the soil, and built a small cairn of flat white rocks to mark his resting place. I think of all the joy he brought to this household, in his time here. I miss his presence, and I’m sure I will for a good long time.
Toll the bell…the small black dog is dead.