BY JD DUNBAR
NOVEMBER 26, 2023
There are no prescribed guideposts for losing a family member of this caliber. How do we mourn the loss and celebrate the life of our pets? Since there is little social acknowledgment relative to a pet’s death, the grieving is usually a lonely sojourn, with expected (fairly accelerated) recovery. People are confronted with only sorrow shallows without common rituals that accompany human deaths. Yet, my husband lost his best friend, and I lost my dogter. (Yes, that is a word.)
Whiskey River was named for a Willie Nelson song of apt lyrics. She certainly lived them. Whiskey so consummately took care of my spirit for 13 years that I believed she would outlive us. Then she died.
Lasagna and flowers appeared on our doorstep. There were texts, cards, calls. (We live in a stunning neighborhood and Whiskey was quite a celebrity around here.) People would sing out her name when they saw us, as though each encounter with Whiskey was cause for celebration.
This outpouring spurred me to consider perhaps we should try something inventive to celebrate Whiskey’s life in a public-private fashion and invite all who said her name as a positive affirmation, along with their dogs. We told a close tribe of our strongest supporters (family members and best friends) so we had a core team who volunteered to help us with this uncanny, “driveway memorial” called, “Walking Whiskey Home.”
There was a flyer with compelling photos and an invite to bring cookies, along with your dog, to our driveway. I don’t what my expectations were. Elation would have been a handful of people and Whiskey’s favorite dogs, including her bereaved boyfriend, Murphy, a Goldendoodle from three doors down.
The weather was gloomy, humidity as heavy as my heart. But it cleared a bit before the appointed hour. Gulp. There were 40 beating hearts in our driveway, 12 dogs and 28 people among us. Even those who couldn’t be there were, as our daughter-in-law recorded songs, “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” to signal a start and “Moon River” as a finale. Her distinctive voice soared above the collective sadness and made us feel conjoined. Initially the dogs rejoiced in this Driveway Dog Park, a cacophony of joyful barking. They were given treats and a selection of Whiskey’s toys.
Whiskey had coalesced an amalgam of neighbors, friends, and dogs alike, who not only tried to lift our spirits, they felt this sense of loss as well. We grieved in that driveway as a family community. We lost a Princess Golden, elegantly coiffed as a creature of stature and grace … who nonetheless was in zealous pursuit of the perfect patch of grass. She was known globally, and has friends in Australia, Alabama, Canada, Ethiopia and Scotland, an international imprint all in one Golden Retriever.
In the entire sum of her charmed life, Whiskey never got lost, because she had no desire to run away. She always wanted to have us within her gaze, even with snow frenzy, or on fervent chases with Murphy to frighten off errant squirrels. We never had to suffer the heart race of a missing dog, because we were entrenched in our dependence.
We learned that night of “Walking Whiskey Home,” a couple of weeks after her death, that she still had a mystique, a power to compel people to come, even those who did not even own a dog, but wanted to share. People felt that they were validated and they said so. I know what you thinking … yes, some eyes were wet, but there was no mass weeping. It was evident that our dogs contribute to coalescing our community. And though we likely would have met our neighbors without Whiskey, it is because of her that we love them. We have bonded together over this unalterable communion of canines. Nearly every person there spoke, and our neighbor shared a prayer in closing that will forever be an imprint. When John concluded, I realized most of the light had leaked out of the day. I had prepared comments but didn’t say them aloud. I only noted that the dogs were completely calm, curled around their owners’ feet. And then, unbidden bells of a distant church rang at an unscheduled time that nevertheless punctuated the event.
It is deafening silence to listen for the soft pad of her footfalls coming toward me, knowing with a heart sink, I will never again feel the unbridled joy of her cold nose on my skin. William Penn, the founder of our state of Pennsylvania, likely foresaw his legacy. A friend of mine created artwork around Penn’s quote. She found the quote in my home and wanted it to live there, even as she has already left this world. It says, “Love beyond the world cannot be separated by it.”
JD Dunbar is the PA Rural-Urban Leadership Program Director (RULE) and Penn State Extension Senior Educator-Leadership. She is an international public speaker on leadership and communication. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.
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