Writers and Their Pets: Bill Roorbach

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The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and over the coming months I will also invite other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets.

We also ask contributors to the series to tell us about their favorite pets from literature. Here’s what Bill told us: “My favorite pet in literature would be Rex, who was James Thurber’s boyhood dog—an American Bull Terrier who brought a dresser home from the dump, among other great feats, and who dies one of the most moving deaths in literature in Thurber’s short essay, ‘Snapshot of a Dog.’  And then there are Thurber’s dog cartoons, but that’s another matter.”

We hope you enjoy Bill’s essay.

—Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

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Desmond was very old and stiff and weary. In his last years he wouldn’t ski with me anymore, but only hobble down to the gate in the old stone wall. Every morning. There he’d wait till Wally and I returned an hour later. And rejoin us for the 100 yards back to the barn. He wanted at least to be part of the ritual.

Then one fine cold morning in heavy snowfall he came with. A full mile into the woods, taking up the rear as always, Wally far in the lead, I scooting along, constantly checking back: the old man was with us, spry as a puppy. At the turn though, the spot where our grand loop headed into the back mile, Desmond wasn’t there anymore.

I skied back to look, tracks quickly covered by the falling snow. Well, he’d headed home is all.  But home an hour later, he wasn’t there. I skied back down and called and followed every set of tracks Wally had left and Wally checked every passage of every coyote and fox and fisher cat and turkey and squirrel and we spent several hours but Desi was gone.

In subsequent days, of course, I searched diligently—nothing but acreage back there—and never found a single sign. The dog had disappeared, taken straight up to dog heaven no doubt, sublimated into the sky like snow and ice on the coldest days: solid to vapor with nothing in between.

Wally, no spring chicken himself (13 years to Desi’s 15, but a big, big dog to Desi’s medium) waited after that at the back doors at bedtime, whining: Desmond’s still out there! And on every ski and then walks as spring came in he searched the woods nose-wise, thoroughgoingly—doggedly, if you will—no game path left unexamined. Finally, Sunday, April 2, 2006, while he stood waiting in the kitchen for the next mission, he threw a big sigh and collapsed to the floor.

At the emergency vet down in Lewiston he died in my arms, put down, dead of grief, also kidney failure. I held my hand on his heart, felt the last beats. Later, I called my elderly parents. My dad, no dog lover, said Mom was fairly lucid, which hadn’t been true for months. She knew who I was and asked how things were going. I told her about Wally and she said, “These animals with their short lives teach us so much about death.” His ashes are still on top of our fridge. I can’t let them go, not yet. He’s our one representative, Desi having opted for the wolf death: leave the pack, die alone deep in the forest.

Two weeks later, on April 16, Easter Sunday, my mother died, too.  I got there in a cloud of tears (six hour drive down to Connecticut from Maine), got there an hour too late and only sat with her body. As the months of mourning proceeded I found I kept returning to my time with Wally, his heart stopping in my hands, and that was (impossible to explain) deeply comforting.

My wife, my daughter and I, we thought we’d never get another dog, but that next Thanksgiving we picked a beauty from a litter of 12 goldens.  She had a brown spot on the crown of her head and was my (at the time newly seven) daughter’s favorite. The name comes from the Gipsy Kings song “Baila, Baila, Baila,” which the kid had been listening to obsessively, constantly: Dance, dance, dance!  And dance she does, all the year around, over Desi and Wally Brook and into the forest, always up for a run, always with a stick.

Bill Roorbach’s newest book is Life Among Giants, a novel.  His dogs Wally and Desi and other pets appear in his nonfiction books: Summers with Juliet: A Love Story in NatureInto Woods: EssaysTemple Stream: A Rural Odyssey; and even in Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature, which is used in writing programs around the world.  He lives in western Maine, where he writes full time.