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The contributing essay writers in the book are: Carolyn See, Michael Chitwood, Robin Romm, Jane Smiley, Joe Morgenstern, Judith Lewis Mernit, Melissa Cistaro, May-lee Chai, Anne Lamott, Samantha Dunn, Billy Mernit, Monica Holloway, Linzi Glass, Jacqueline Winspear, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Victoria Zackheim, Jenny Rough, Sonia Levitin, Thomas McGuane, and Mark Doty, (plus a poem by Ted Kooser).
We ride stories like rafts, or lay them out on the table like maps. — William Kittridge
The idea for this book came when my twenty-six-year-old horse, Robin, had to be put down because of acute laminitis. I adored this horse. He was a sorrel fox trotter with a white teardrop on his forehead and U.S. branded on his flank — a souvenir from working as a trail horse for the U.S. Forest Service. My husband bought him at auction for five hundred dollars, and he came to live out his retirement at our place in Montana. I knew nothing about horses, and frankly I was past the age when anyone sane takes up horseback riding for the first time, but I fell in love with Robin. He was so patient, so forgiving, that he made me feel like his own personal horse whisperer.
I wrote about his death on my blog, saying how much I had loved him and how hard I was grieving for him. I received a lot of comments, including one from a veterinarian friend who suggested there should be an anthology of such pieces about the love and loss of an animal. I realized this was the kind of book I wanted to read — how other animal lovers got through their loss, how they made meaning out of it. Grieving for an animal can be a pretty lonely place.
So I wrote to writers whose work I admired, both friends and strangers, and asked if they’d contribute essays for this book. Everybody responded, passionate about the stories of their animals — the funny, crazy parts, as well as the grief at the end of the animal’s life or when they had to give the animal up for reasons beyond their control. They brought so many different angles to my original idea that this anthology grew deeper and far richer than I had originally imagined.
I’ve always lived with an animal — or multiple animals. When my daughters were growing up, we had three dogs, four cats, and a rabbit. One of the dogs was a Newfoundland named Jennifer who was the size of a small bear and loved to sleep in our bed with her huge head on the down pillows. One of the cats, Crazy Alice, insisted on sleeping in our bathroom sink. Another cat, Yeager, got hit by a car, had his pelvis crushed and rebuilt, along with an expensive tail amputation, and then, after he recovered, raced out into traffic again to have his jaw shattered, and once more survived. (Our cats then became indoor cats.) And Sidney, the youngest of the cat gang, would fish tampon tubes out of waste-paper baskets and then appear jauntily holding one in his mouth as if smoking a cigarette.
Then there was Winesburg — the cat I rescued in New York when I was still a teenager. When she died almost two decades later, we had been on a long journey together, both in miles and time — half my life in fact.
Here’s the thing about losing animals: they take a piece of your life with them when they die. They love the best in you, they share your days and nights, and then they’re gone and there’s a hole in your life — this vanished past they’ve taken with them.
In California I live with two elderly cats, Stuart and Charlotte, who joined me as kittens when I was newly divorced and then became my bridge through single life to a second marriage. They’re now eighteen years old. Stuart, the bon vivant of the feline world, has failing kidneys, and Charlotte, his shy sister, is diabetic, requiring two insulin shots a day. I worry about them. But I think one of the lessons animals can teach you is how to live in the moment; and at this moment, as I type these words, they’re happily sprawled on my desk, purring in the sun.
Last summer when I returned to Montana, I visited Robin’s grave out in the pasture by the river — this dear valiant horse whose gentleness and patience gave me the gift of knowing and loving a horse, who made me a whole lot braver than I actually was. I remembered how he smelled of wind and hay, the softness behind his ears, the way he’d nuzzle me when he hadn’t seen me for a while — and gratitude began to move the sadness out of my heart.
In the following pages, twenty-one writers put into words what it’s like to love an animal — in all its joy, frustration, craziness, humor, grief, and gratitude.
During World War II, Joe Morgenstern’s parents found a unique way to get rid of his beloved childhood dog: he remembers how Mr. Fluff was enrolled in Dogs for Defense for the war effort. Billy Mernit, though terrified of pit bulls, fell in love with his new wife’s pit bull, Molly, and, he writes, “I was her dutiful bitch in no time.” Jane Smiley sat by her horse’s body after he was put down, and writes of staying with him “long enough to recognize that he was not there, that this body was like a car he had driven and now had gotten out of.”
Judith Lewis Mernit’s two dogs, who died within a week of each other at age seventeen, taught her about conflict, love, and loyalty, causing her to revise what she thought she knew of their relationship and what she herself knew about love. Robin Romm found a stray she adored who embodied hope for her, but she had to give the puppy up when her other dog, named Mercy, terrorized it. When one of Thomas McGuane’s horses had to be put down, his veterinarian told him that “we had to change our perspective and try to understand that animals accept what happens to them. And it’s not as if they don’t know. They know.” Jenny Rough fell in love with a photograph of an old cat with kidney disease up for adoption on the Internet, and learned something important about herself from her obsession with her virtual cat.
When her dog died at home, Anne Lamott felt that “something huge, a tide, had washed in, and then washed out.” Carolyn See remembers the coyote mix who appeared, starving and thin, in the canyon where she lived, and how with time and love, Isha became part of the family, turning into a coyote diva and turning Carolyn’s daughter Lisa into a love slave. Michael Chitwood, preparing for his new creative writing class by finding quotes about “why we write and what the real subjects of writing should be,” periodically went out to check on his ailing sixteen-year-old cat, The General. “The General’s story will be concluded,” he writes, “but it won’t be finished. That may be the truest thing about a story. Even when it’s over, it’s not over.”
If you’re an animal lover, you have stories. I hope our stories deepen and confirm your understanding and love of animals, entertain you and make you laugh, and also comfort you if you’ve recently lost a pet. C. S. Lewis once wrote, “We read to know we are not alone.” On the following pages are the stories of kindred souls who have cherished their animals, mourned their deaths, and eventually learned from them what’s truly important in life.
(excerpted from Cherished:21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost, published by New World Library 2011. Copyright: Barbara Abercrombie.)