Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Fictional Casey’s Real-Life Counterpart

Still Counting opens with Casey, a cancer-stricken Labrador retriever, being put to sleep. As I shopped the manuscript around, I heard a consistent comment about the opening: very powerful but perhaps too sad for many readers. My Wild Rose editor felt the same way and asked me to tone it down. Which I did.

I fully understand this emotional reaction because I wrote most of the scene through teary eyes. Two years ago on December 27, 2013, Ruby, my sweet and gentle 12-year-old Lab succumbed to cancer of the spleen. I often refer to it as the saddest day of my life, which strikes some people as odd. I have, after all, lost my parents and grandparents to illness and old age. I’ve lost friends to suicide, auto accidents, and illness. So how could the loss of a dog be sadder than the passing of a loved one?

I actually don’t know the answer to that question. Sometimes I think it’s because our love for dogs is free from emotional baggage. It’s steady and unequivocal. There are no memories of difficult moments, harsh words, broken promises, or any of the other zillion ways that people invariably disappoint each other. Sometimes I think it’s because dogs are totally dependent on us. They view us as God-like creatures who can make food and fresh water magically appear. 

Most of the time I think it’s because – to paraphrase Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire – they complete us. They serve as life-is-way-too-short role models. Ruby loved everything. No matter what she was doing, it was the best thing she could imagine doing. And if I interrupted her rapture while she was playing fetch, swimming in the ocean, or chewing a favorite toy, she was never hesitant. She was always excited to move on to the next activity because that was going to be even more fun.

We have a plaque in our house that reads, “May I become the person my dog thinks I am.” I often think the more appropriate wish is that I become the kind of person Ruby would have been.

Phil Fragasso

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