The Last Lesson We Learn From Our Pets


As part of an ongoing Ploughshares series on writers and their pets, novelist Bill Roorbach movingly remembers his dog Wally, who was dying of kidney failure and had to be put down:

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.” …

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.

Dusty is now fifteen and a half and incontinent. She has to wear a diaper now, and has countless warts that disfigure her but cause no actual harm. I’m approaching the moment when these decisions will be forced upon me. The other day, I simply wondered whether I could “put down”, i.e. kill, my beloved beagle. But there will surely come a point when compassion demands it. The last time I held such power in my hands – collectively with family and friends – was helping enforce my friend Patrick’s desire not to be resuscitated if he succumbed to AIDS. Oddly, I got Dusty as a way to remember Pat; he had a beagle from the same breeder, and Dusty always somehow brought my dead friend back to me.

It will be tough. But in these things, I’m sure Dusty will also guide me and Aaron. Dogs know how to live better than we do.

Why would they not know better how to die?