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What Fiona Apple and Jimmy Stewart Know About Loving -- and Losing -- a Dog

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As a writer and a dog trainer, I have to say something that might sound snobbish. But here goes: I really don't like when people write about their pets.

"Twee" is the word that comes to mind when my brain scrolls through most of the pet writing I've come across. So much of it is done by people writing as if they were their cat or dog or whatever. Or they write to their dog.

I've read entries into these genres that have been excellent. E.B. White had a knack. The play Sylvia comes to mind.  And, of course, there's always Garfield. But mostly, this stuff is tweeeeeeeeeee.

I think that one of the reasons these writing ploys are so irksome to me is because they ring of the belief many harbor -- that secretly, dogs can talk. Or read. Some of the most intelligent people I know seem to believe this: "But my dog speaks English," is something I hear about twice a week. And I can only guess the beliefs of the least intelligent among us -- like the guys my dad recently overheard at the Nashville airport discussing which bullets work best to kill zombies.

Dogs can indeed understand some verbal language (although they're far more fluent in human body language). And, if you define reading as an understanding of symbolic language, they can also read. But, by and large, they don't have a great appreciation for literature, unless its bound in leather. Yummers.

Personally, being a writer, I love my dog's lack of talkiness. He communicates just fine without words. As someone who needs, like, 1,000 words to express the simplest thought, I really appreciate his laconicism.

But some people who write about their pets really write about their pets -- and they do it in a way that speaks to the hearts of other humans who have also had significant interspecies relationships. Most of the finest pet odes I've come across have been elegiac. If there is one way in which being a dog owner is harder than being a parent to a person, it's that it's a relationship that a human knows will very likely end in heartbreak: The unevenness of our lifespans is a bitch.

Here's an entry into the pantheon of those who can write about animal love in an honest, anti-twee manner: Fiona Apple. I was touched today when I read the note she wrote to her fans when she decided to cancel her tour because her dog is dying. She writes, in her letter:

"Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life, that keeps us feeling terrified and alone. I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time."

Her epistle reminded me of Jimmy Stewart's poem about his dog Beau, which he read on the Tonight Show in 1981. It's such an honest account of the impending loss of a loved one.

We so often put the love for our pets as a peg or two lower in importance than the love we are supposed to feel for people. I can imagine many thinking it frivolous to cancel any kind of trip or business obligation because of a pet dying. In some situations, maybe it would be. But I can only applaud someone who can so eloquently express what it means to feel a deep love for an illiterate, non-verbal species that licks its own butt. I wish it were that easy for us to love each other.

Here is Apple's letter in full.

It's 6 pm on Friday, and I'm writing to a few thousand friends I have not met yet.
I am writing to ask them to change our plans and meet a little while later.

Here's the thing.

I have a dog Janet, and she's been ill for almost two years now, as a tumor has been idling in her chest, growing ever so slowly. She's almost 14 years old now.I got her when she was 4 months old. I was 21 then, an adult officially -- and she was my child.

She is a pitbull, and was found in Echo Park, with a rope around her neck, and bites all over her ears and face.

She was the one the dogfighters use to puff up the confidence of the contenders.

She's almost 14 and I've never seen her start a fight, or bite, or even growl, so I can understand why they chose her for that awful role. She's a pacifist.

Janet has been the most consistent relationship of my adult life, and that is just a fact.

We've lived in numerous houses, and jumped a few make shift families, but it's always really been the two of us.

She slept in bed with me, her head on the pillow, and she accepted my hysterical, tearful face into her chest, with her paws around me, every time I was heartbroken, or spirit-broken, or just lost, and as years went by, she let me take the role of her child, as I fell asleep, with her chin resting above my head.

She was under the piano when I wrote songs, barked any time I tried to record anything, and she was in the studio with me all the time we recorded the last album.

The last time I came back from tour, she was spry as ever, and she's used to me being gone for a few weeks every 6 or 7 years.

She has Addison's Disease, which makes it dangerous for her to travel since she needs regular injections of Cortisol, because she reacts to stress and to excitement without the physiological tools which keep most of us from literally panicking to death.

Despite all of this, she's effortlessly joyful and playful, and only stopped acting like a puppy about 3 years ago.

She's my best friend and my mother and my daughter, my benefactor, and she's the one who taught me what love is.

I can't come to South America. Not now.

When I got back from the last leg of the US tour, there was a big, big difference.

She doesn't even want to go for walks anymore.

I know that she's not sad about aging or dying. Animals have a survival instinct, but a sense of mortality and vanity, they do not. That's why they are so much more present than people.

But I know that she is coming close to point where she will stop being a dog, and instead, be part of everything. She'll be in the wind, and in the soil, and the snow, and in me, wherever I go.

I just can't leave her now, please understand.

If I go away again, I'm afraid she'll die and I won't have the honor of singing her to sleep, of escorting her out.

Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes to pick which socks to wear to bed.

But this decision is instant.

These are the choices we make, which define us.

I will not be the woman who puts her career ahead of love and friendship.

I am the woman who stays home and bakes Tilapia for my dearest, oldest friend.

And helps her be comfortable, and comforted, and safe, and important.

Many of us these days, we dread the death of a loved one. It is the ugly truth of Life, that keeps us feeling terrified and alone.

I wish we could also appreciate the time that lies right beside the end of time.

I know that I will feel the most overwhelming knowledge of her, and of her life and of my love for her, in the last moments.

I need to do my damnedest to be there for that.

Because it will be the most beautiful, the most intense, the most enriching experience of life I've ever known.

When she dies.

So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and reveling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel.

And I am asking for your blessing. I'll be seeing you.

Love, Fiona

Featured illustration by Joyce Patti, used with permission.

This post originally appeared on TheDogs

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