I won't lie. Rex's passing was the worst grief I've faced in my life so far. Even weeks after the fact, I had bruises on my forehead from where I'd dug my fingers in while sobbing. Even when he'd been gone for nearly a year, during which time I acquired two new dogs for whom my fondness grew every day, his absence felt like a hole I was forever stepping around.
But it was not just Rex himself that brought out such melancholy. Upon his death, as though enduring a series of aftershocks nearly as traumatizing as the main event, I had the misfortune of receiving from several well-meaning parties a copy of a poem called "The Rainbow Bridge." Actually to call it a poem might be pushing it. It's more like a pitch for an animated children's television show that's been broken into lines of verse. Except it doesn't even always appear in verse form. Sometimes it's more like a five-paragraph essay. Often you see it printed out in a fancy font on pastel-colored paper, like a morbid wedding invitation.
The idea behind "The Rainbow Bridge" is that there's a vast green meadow "this side of heaven" where pets that were especially loved by their owners go when they die. In this meadow, which is also the entry point of a bridge that is literally made out of a rainbow and that leads to heaven, all sickness disappears and all injuries heal. The animals return to the spirited, bright-eyed creatures they were in the prime of life. In this meadow there is always fresh food and clean water and the sun always shines and the animals spend their days frolicking happily together, though they always miss the special human they had to leave behind on earth. Every once in a while, however, one of them "stops suddenly and looks into the distance." Body quivering, he leaves the group and runs across the meadow as fast as he can.
You have been spotted and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
And then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together . . .
I try to avoid this piece of literature at all costs. When- ever I encounter it online or run into it in a veterinary office, where it will frequently be laminated and tacked to a wall amid pet-themed thank-you cards from grateful owners, I avert my eyes the same way I do when approaching some- thing on the road that might be a dead dog. I do this not because the poem is bad, though it certainly is, but because by the third line my eyes will be glazed with tears and I will have to make a very conscious effort to shift my thoughts to something less personally upsetting than pet death. For instance, rectal cancer.
The Rainbow Bridge poem makes me cry because as much as I want to never see it again I want even more for it to be true. I want Rex to escort me into the afterlife the way he ushered me through real life—at least thirteen years of it. I want to believe that Rex will be there when I die because, like anyone, I am afraid of death and, like a lot of owners of "especially loved" pets (though most are smart enough not to say it out loud) he would bring me more comfort than any other creature, human or otherwise, I can currently think of.
And therein lies the irony of the dog exception. I may love dogs because they are so inherently without sap, because they are immune to manufactured emotion or self-engineered cuteness. And yet I express my affection for them in the most sentimental terms imaginable. I dump schmaltz on them by the truckload, cooing over my own charges in cloying baby talk, fawning over strangers' dogs in the park in the manner of a pervert casing the scene at a merry-go-round. I'll wait in line for an hour at my neighborhood's annual Pet Photos with Santa holiday fund-raiser, force my dogs to pose with antlers on their heads, and then make custom cards using the portrait, which I'll later decide not to send out for fear of seeming pathetic.
What does it say about the human need for mawkish emotion that, when met with some of the least counterfeit souls on earth, when graced by the presence of creatures for whom affectation is simply incompatible with their DNA, we roll them in sugar as if they were candied apples? What does it mean that people like me, who recoil in the face of culturally enforced cuteness, take the placid tabula rasa that is the essence of dogdom and write all over it in loopy purple letters? I used to think such carrying-on was for people who needed to get a life. Now I wonder if such carrying-on is proof of life. How can we deny the urge to cover the blank spaces with our gooeyist impulses, to take the unknown and fill it with rainbows and wet happy kisses? And what is more unknown than the contents of an animal's mind? What do we yearn for more than knowledge of what our dog is thinking—specifically, what he thinks of us?
Maybe only death is more unknown. Maybe the only knowledge more prized than a glimpse inside the mind of another living thing is a glimpse inside the end of life itself. And maybe that's because pets are, in a way, living embodiments of death. They guarantee us nothing other than the near certainty that they will leave us well before we leave them. They are ticking bombs that lick our faces. They are prescheduled heartbreak. They leave us no choice but to dread the Rainbow Bridge while secretly hoping it really exists. Our love for our pets is what separates us from the animals. Our love for animals is what makes us human. Which I guess is another way of saying it makes us both totally pathetic and exceedingly blessed.
Excerpted from Unspeakable by Meghan Daum. Copyright 2014 Meghan Daum. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.