Things I Learned From My First Dog, Murphy

who died this weekend

We said goodbye to our dog Murphy this weekend, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, fourteen years old, and in the last stages of metastatic laryngeal cancer. He had been “our dog” for less than three months, prior to which he was D.’s dog, and before that our friend P.’s dog. The precise moment that he became ours, in fact - a member of a kin group that also included me - had been marked out for me in advance: “he’ll become your dog when you have cleaned up his piss on your own.” I did so for the first time, as it went, the night before D. and I moved in to our new apartment. Murphy was happy to become my dog too, I think - less because of anything intrinsic about me, and more because he was so absolutely his own dog. So he had a generous and abundant sense of his own domain, a broad and optimistic method of relating to others. He was so happy to be himself, to assert his entitlements and respect his limitations. It is one of a few things that he was better at than me.

So I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few days of what I learned from Murphy. There was always something careful and experimental in his manner, even when the experiment in question was “what happens if I piss here,” which he ran many times, always producing the same findings: one of us will cheerfully clean it up, and perhaps playfully admonish you while we do so. This manner was surprising in that it didn’t contradict his conspicuous and chaotic practice of freedom - his very obvious delight in going where he wanted to go, regardless of whether he was supposed to or not. (The human area on the roof!!) The former seemed to enhance the latter, in fact: he was questing, rather than wild, in his wanderings, and never merely confrontational - which would have been to show a weakness. 

He had a certain moral clarity, too, which I admired and miss. He was capable of distinguishing between actions that were good by virtue of being in his interests (giving him a treat), and actions that may have been good, but may also have been self-interestedness disguised as benevolence (cuddling with him for too long). On the small number of occasions, over the three years of our friendship, when I appeared before him convinced that I had done something wrong, that I had violated a spoken or unspoken bond of trust, he appeared before me and held space. I mean this literally, by the way. Although he obviously couldn’t decipher the particularities of my narratives about myself, he was intuitive when it came to the basic vibe, and able to look at me consistently and clearly, his gaze neither exonerating me prematurely nor further recriminating. Patient with his own limitations, he was also admirably patient with those of others. He didn’t pretend they didn’t exist, and he didn’t vilify anyone.

He was easy going. He had his creature comforts, and, provided access to them, was prepared to confess himself happy. He was a Dickensian in that way - his happiness was not dependent upon any outcome, but upon the unimpeded rhythm of his living. Hence his general physical manner, when it did not look like an experimental quest (which mostly happened outside, I suppose), would be called pottering. He would fuss with different objects around the house, tinkering like a little engineer, making sure everything was up to code. When it was, he was satisfied and found something else to snuffle at. When it wasn’t, he would stick around the object, nudge it, nudge it again, perhaps try to put it in his mouth, and finally, if all else failed, attempt a bark - always only “attempt,” because halfway through the bark would rotate a couple of tones and emerge as a whimper, any aggression dissolving into a puddle of adorable self-pity, and inevitably an appeal to me or, more usually, D., would be made. He found pleasure in maintenance.

He was - and there should be a better word for this, but here goes - rather stupid, and not just in the sense that dogs can’t speak or abstractly reason or whatever. Murphy especially did not seem always to heed the lessons of his own experience, or to devise effective strategies for obtaining even his short term goals. But then again, I wonder. I never saw him denied anything he wanted, and certainly I would never have denied him myself, even if he had been “bad” - which I almost never saw. He swam in a lagoon of absolute love, where there was only perfect abundance. So perhaps it would be better to say that his intellect existed in its medium, and its medium was sufficiency and self-acceptance. He didn’t carry around plans and schemes he didn’t need, and he did not allow himself to become neurotic, questioning, as I do, whether or not he deserved his good fortune, or whether it was truly provided in the spirit of benevolence. 

He did not think unduly about his appearance, did not groom excessively - and yet always looked the dandy, “bed head” and all, sleepy-eyes and American charisma. I’ve got nothing to add here. It was one of the ways in which his was a model masculinity, perfect and delightful in itself, and holding no special moral for me. But damn, he was good to look at.

He knew (I have already indicated this) how long he wanted to be held for, and when he wished to take his body away to a scene of perfect self-possession, at the end of the bed. He drew his boundaries kindly and unambiguously with people he trusted. When he got overheated, or a little smothered, or just wanted to twirl around in circles for a bit (I think I will remember him a circular dog, trying to find his spot), he would break, and depart. And in such moments, there was no use D. or I trying to keep hold of him - he was gone. He knew when and how he wanted to be held, to be touched. 

The truth is that animals have not generally loved me. It is one of the more novelistic facts about my life, a universally legible signifies that there is something suspicious or disreputable about me. That I was living in bad faith. For the first few months of my friendship with Murphy, I was so steeped in mystification and shame that, invariably, when he would step on my balls when clambering over me, I would refuse to move his foot, or my balls, but would rather sit, and sadly admonish myself, perhaps vaguely grateful that finally someone was paying me back for my grandiose crimes against the universe. (D., you won’t be surprised to hear, was gently infuriated by my moral weakness: “move him off your balls for god’s sake!!!”) I don’t know whether Murphy liked me at first, but I know he liked me in the end. I think he was the first animal to do so, really - and certainly he was the first animal I loved. 

I miss him painfully and overwhelmingly. I was holding his little body when he died, crying as I haven’t cried for years, sadness and panic choking and screwing up my face. I could not accept that I was responsible for this loss, or partly so. The truth is that the cancer was the first cause, but what good is that? It was unbearable to accept that I owned a part of the decision that would end this little life. I felt guilty and unprepared. As Murphy fell to sleep, and with D.’s arms around me as well as the lad, I found myself only able to say “not ready, not ready.” But he was ready, and he was peaceful. He had the most tremendous capacity for love I have ever witnessed. I don’t know how we’ll go on without him, but in the end he gave us a last gift: his calmness and his acceptance. Just before he went, we offered him a final spoonful of peanut butter - he had had a lot over the previous few days. But he had had enough, and politely declined. He held us, with patience and grace. And in his wake, I suppose we hold each other, and I try to hold on to the lessons he taught me - so many, and so necessary, and so dear.