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You Gotta Have Friends. Or Maybe a Dog.

Maxine Chernoff Reads The Friend by Sigrid Nunez


Maxine Chernoff

One’s grief is transacted through many systems of release. In my case as my marriage was imperiled and possibly ending, I decided I needed a dog. Let me be clear. Never a dog person, I had had a miscellany of interesting cats throughout my life but only one dog, Bridget, a skittish miniature poodle, who gravitated toward my mother as her only relevant human when I was a child.

But in the summer of 2008, I suddenly began reading ads for shelter dogs badly in need of homes, and one in particular, part Lab and part Shar Pei, with a 48-hour expiration date at his shelter, became the dog I most definitely needed.

An organization drove Homer up from Merced. And sight unseen, I became the owner of an exasperating but lovable miscreant, whose first act once home was lifting his leg to relieve himself adjacent to my dining room table. “He’s always lived in a yard,” the rescue person explained to me: who knew?

Homer also had a penchant for digging, which became frenzied when we had to leave him in the house. In short order he destroyed a futon, a leather chair, and many blankets. He buried objects in the yard, including a purloined steak that appeared, mud-encrusted, in my bed one night. Was he sharing it with me?

As difficult as he was at home, my “menopause dog,” as I called him, was even more unpredictable in the world: he chased cars, bit a biker, and escaped to take walks by himself.

But Homer was also a miraculous reader of human circumstance. When my grandson at two wandered out of the house and headed down the driveway, Homer blocked him from the street, barking until we came outside to intercept him.

And when my husband and I were in our “final discussions” about our fate as a couple, Homer understood. I would say a lot to my husband’s not much. Observing his silence, Homer would half-moan, half-bark when there was a lull, as if to say, “It’s your turn. You need to answer her, guy.” The dog-mediator tried this on a number of occasions without much success, but I thought his effort was endearing: “Even the dog knows you should have something to say,” I told my disappearing partner.

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Forward to what I am reading, The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez, in which her deceased mentor’s giant dog, a Great Dane named Apollo, becomes hers. How she channels her grief into a connection with the dog and develops a deep and complex relationship to the animal is the main arrow of the plot. And as we learn about the mechanisms for coping, we are drawn into the dynamic of human and animal relationships that in their purity of emotion let us question our own needs and foibles as well as the sensibility of our pets.

The book, with its digressive, ruminatory style, captures what it feels like to live day by day with loss and the heavy weight of grief. And while the unnamed narrator couldn’t have prepared for the death of her suicided friend and once lover, she can help the aging animal achieve a good end.

This too reminded me of Homer, felled by his third and most deadly form of cancer. I sat with him on the floor while the veterinarian and her assistant administered the several mortal shots. After some time, they carried his body out into the rain. I stayed inside, feeling the world empty a bit around the negative space of his loss.

The Friend is a compendium for grief. The stunned narrator lets us witness the process as she collaborates with the canine survivor, whose own loss must be acknowledged— and is. That’s the tenderness of the relationship, how two creatures together mourn their missing, benighted love.

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Maxine Chernoff is the author of 17 poetry collections, most recently Under the Music: Collected Prose Poems. Former chair of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, she is an NEA Fellow, a winner of the PEN Translation Award, and a former visiting writer at the American Academy in Rome.

That Doggone Dog Of Mine ::: The Three Keys

My Dog & Me ::: John Hiatt

Doggy ::: Marvin Pontiac

Losing You ::: Byron Isaacs

Walk The Dog Before I Sleep ::: BC

A Dog’s Life ::: Nina Nastasia