The other day, a Chicago tribune columnist wrote a very personal piece about the death of her family’s dog. By the end of the column, Scout, the dog, had been given its due respect as a 14 year, integral part of the family that had adopted her. The writer’s words evoked poignancy, introspection, reverence and reflective gratitude regarding Scout. Also, the writer noted how Scout’s death sounded a bell toll of larger, symbolic meaning, particularly for her two daughters, whose early childhoods and even young adulthood were shared with Scout as they all grew older. Pets typically do not outlive their keepers. One can be cold-blooded about that likelihood or mourn such passing as this columnist did, and quite eloquently at that.
I don’t have a pet, and not since my increasingly distant childhood have I had one around me. My reaction to the column was empathic, nonetheless, as life is inherently inclusive of loss, of family members, friends or even a pet. But my emotional response was triggered, I’m pretty sure, not from any specific remembrance of personal loss, but rather because the piece was so well written and concisely expressed. I admired the style as well as its elegiac content. At the same time, I couldn’t help think that the writer’s skillful rendering of how a pet’s dying could so effect a family likely would not tug at too many heart-strings in certain other parts of the Chicago area. For instance, the South and West Sides and their mini war zones where random shootings have racked up dozens of deaths–mostly of young people–at a rate that is alarming and absurd. Grade school kids are picked off just standing innocently on a front porch, or by a bullet zinging through a window, carrying cruel fate with it as it finds a baby’s crib. It’s hard to imagine how families in these neighborhoods could feel that a dog’s death could symbolize a portentous passage from one phase of life to another, whether or not they had a dog. If they did own a dog, it too would exist in a not-so-safe and secure world, and if the family pooch gets picked off while peeing in the back yard, the parents are likely to thank the fickle finger of fate for sparing their offspring, who will live to see at least another day. In the mean streets of gun-infested neighborhoods, it’s all dog-eat-dog in world where life is cheap and often very short. In these violence-prone areas, a dog’s death is just a another cold-blooded fact of life. Tough luck, Rover. Life sucks, you know? then you take a .32 in the chest.
Not to diminish Scout’s demise, but her page two tale of passing seems such a luxury in comparison to the plight of the families whose lives are shattered in senseless, random gun play week after week after week. One family gets to live the American Dream–a nuclear family, as the columnist put it–in apparent peace and security, so much so that when its dog dies (of old age) its “obituary” gets a prominent place in a major daily newspaper. It had a wholesome existence, from the sound of things, along with the rest of the solid middle-class clan.
The folks in the urban kill zones, on the other hand, are “when it bleeds it leads” fodder for the local newscasts (before moving on to weather and sports) and an implied, if never overtly stated, indictment against law enforcement, public policy and the apparent institutionalized marginalization of the underclass, all of which contribute to the mindless violence. Scout’s keepers, far removed from such socio-economic cause/effects, fussed and fawned over her for longer than many of the dead minority children were even alive! The reality gap between Scout’s life and the quality of it up to its death and those of the inner-city kids who can’t count on making it through junior high alive is about as wide as the Grand Canyon. Depending on one’s perspective, that Canyon gap can be seen as an awe-inspiring wonder of nature, or simply a large opening on the earth’s surface filling with despair.