Now that the book is almost done, just needing a little rearranging and editing, my thinking on the afterlife of dogs has evolved. Just this morning, the thought crystallized for me that I am the afterlife of my pets. I keep them alive by remembering. The story of Mu’s life is ultimately a story of loss and failure. Although Mu has found over 300 lost cats in 7 years of work, in more than 100 of those cases, Mu found remains of the lost cat, who was taken by a coyote or another predator. For the 300 cases that Mu solved, probably at least 900 were not solved by Mu & me, and many of those cats were never found. Even when we succeed, those cats will die eventually. And the premise of my book about Wakomu is that there must come a day in the future, sooner or later, when he will be gone from my life, and all I will have left is the book about him.
For many years now, and as I have explicitly stated in my previous book, A Voice For The Lost, the way to help cats and dogs, to find them at a higher rate when they go missing, to prevent them from going missing in the first place, is to form a deeper, stronger bond with our cats and dogs. Empirical evidence shows that those who have the deepest attachments to their dogs and cats are less likely to lose them, and more likely to recover them quickly, or recover them eventually if the search is long and difficult. I will always advocate for a deeper bond with our cats and dogs, for a number of reasons, including that it is better for us humans. Those who have had a deep bond with their pets will recognize that it also makes for a more painful loss, inevitably, some day.
When I lost Kelsy--when Mu and I lost Kelsy-- to cancer, I planned for it to be painful, to experience a significant but manageable amount of grief, as I had felt when I lost Porter and Tess, two very excellent dogs. As the days and weeks and months and years passed, I learned that the loss of Kelsy was an order of magnitude greater than any other grief I had experienced after the death of an animal or a human. I’ve had plenty of time to consider why that is, and I think it’s mostly due to the deep involvement I had with Kelsy. She was not just my pet, or my best friend. Kelsy was my working partner. It was my job to observe her closely as she worked, to read her body language and manage the search accordingly. Kelsy was an extension of my mind. Kelsy made me more than what I could be alone. The synergy of Kelsy and me working together is what helped us find those lost dogs that could not be found by any other means. Kelsy was also the subject of a nonfiction book and a science fiction novel, so she occupied my thoughts perhaps more than the average dog. When Kelsy died, truly, literally, a piece of me died with her. I became smaller, I became less, without Kelsy in my daily life.
Since Kelsy has been gone, more than three years now, I have never tried to avoid remembering her, even though it causes me grief. I couldn’t forget about her even if I wanted to. I have thousands of pictures of her, and her image pops up on my facebook memories almost every day. Even though, many times, when I think of Kelsy, I relieve that moment of her death, when I held her in my arms while she took her last breath, and a part of me died...even though I am forced to experience that pain more than anyone would want, it is much more common that my memories of Kelsy bring me pleasure. Kelsy added so much to my life. She allowed me to be so much more than I would ever have been without her. In a cold cost-benefit analysis of whether I ought to remember Kelsy every day, (as if I had a choice) a bean counter would say I am definitely better off remembering her.
Independent of whether I ought to think of Kelsy every day since she died, or whether it would make my life better to think of Mu after he is gone, and also feel the sorrow of the absence of him, I have come to realize that it is my duty, or my raison d’être, to help them live on after death by keeping them alive in me. I am the memory palace that Kelsy lives in. Kelsy’s Forest is a mnemonic device for me to remember facts, but also my mind is where Kelsy lives. It is a system of loci, a memory technique that is at least 2,000 years old. The way a system of loci or a memory palace is usually taught is that you would think of rooms in a building or a home, and you can attach memories to locations within the building. It is an effective memory technique, and it has helped me in many ways. In my case, I used a familiar trail through the woods, with specific native plants at each location. Spruce, Oregon grape, Douglas fir, alder, willow, oak, maple, sword ferns, Douglas fir, cedar, oceanspray, huckleberry, Madrona, dogwood, Salal, grand fir, cedar, hemlock, yew, and finally the cedar at the top of the stairs. I can walk down that trail in my mind, and remember whatever I want to. I used this system to learn morse code. My memory palace, Kelsy’s forest, is also a place where I remember all the pets that have shared my life. Chena, Gizmo, Heidi, Tanzy, Duck, Charlie, Smookler, Norbert, Porter, Max, Boots, Jinx, Wolfgang, Tess, Bear, Kelsy, Olive, Mu, Fozzie, Sky, Viktor, and Valentino. I can walk down the trail through the woods and revisit each of them. The way I have set up this memory palace, Kelsy walks with me as a I move through the woods. The collar she wears changes depending on the topics I am remembering. When I remember Kelsy every day, and when I use the ideal of her to create new memories, I give her a longer life by keeping her active in my mind.
As I’ve said elsewhere, a human and a dog are not just a human and a dog, two separate entities. They are one being, an ecosystem, a symbiotic being. The dog does his job, using his heightened senses and hunting ability, and the human does his half of the work, planning, talking, remembering. Or, in the modern era, posting cute pictures of the dog on Facebook. Now, a dog can’t really appreciate that his cute picture is on facebook, so that is up to the human part of this combined being to check a dog’s Facebook feed. Likewise, it is the job of the human half of the dog/human entity to remember the dog after he dies. We give dogs immortality, a life beyond death. Of any job or duty I’ve ever had, I can think of no higher calling, no more sacred duty, than to carry my dogs in my heart after I have buried them in the earth.
Randomly, some pictures of Kelsy came up from May 6, 2015. One of these pictures is probably my favorite picture of Kelsy, my favorite picture of all time, showing her standing on Kite Hill, looking alert, intelligent, strong, and beautiful. I’ve looked at this picture hundreds of times. If I knew how to paint, I could paint this picture from memory. When this picture came up on my phone today, I looked back at the other pictures from that day, of Kelsy fetching in Lake Washington, and many other views of her. This morning, I am reliving May 6th, 2015, and my time with Kelsy. She is immortal, and my life is better with Kelsy running around my brain.