“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
The other day, while rummaging through a stack of unsorted papers, I came across a card that had been mailed to me about this time last year. Noting by the return address that it was sent from our veterinarian, I knew it would be a standard-issue expression of regret for the loss of our dog, who we had paid good money to have the vet put down a few days before the card arrived. Reasoning that I might as well have a look before tossing it in the recycling bin, I opened and read the card. It contained a stock expression of sympathy for “Darcy” (unnecessary quotation marks get quite a “workout” in “American” English). “You made a caring decision,” read the message, which was nestled in a field of little paw prints.
Well, ok, I thought. This is more sympathy than most folks get when they lose a cousin, and although the card misused quotation marks and didn’t contain a discount coupon, the sentiment seemed reasonable. But included within the card was a smaller card containing the text of a poem that I had seen on display in the special room within the vet’s office where customers wait with their soon-to-be-iced companions. A truly atrocious poem of uncertain provenance, “Rainbow Bridge” is six stanzas of mawkish reassurance not only that our dead dog will go to heaven, but also that we will be reunited with them there. This struck me as an ambitious claim, especially compared to “you made a caring decision,” which seemed reassuring without presuming too much.
According to “Rainbow Bridge,” dead dogs end up in a grassy meadow that functions as a timeless purgatory between heaven and earth, where they hang out in a roving pack of fellow mutts until that magical day when they cross over said bridge into an interspecies heaven where they experience a blissful moment of reunion with their human pal. A single stanza of this literary gem should suffice:
For just at that instant, their eyes have met;
Together again both person and pet.
So they run to each other, these friends from long past,
The time of their parting is over at last.
Even setting aside the deplorable quality of this ditty, which made me wonder if I should ask the vet to administer the pentobarbital to me instead of to Darcy, there are a number of problems here. First, the poem presumes not only that the reader is on board with the concept of heaven, but also that they want a bunch of dogs around when they get there. The poem does not specify whether there are fleas, ticks, or canine flatulence in heaven, or whether in the suburban parts of heaven you are required to pick up your angel dog’s feces with a plastic bag.
Even if you do subscribe to the idea of heaven, and even if you don’t mind a bunch of yelping dogs joining you there, consider the other problems with the “Rainbow Bridge” account of immortality. If this is really heaven, how do we know that all pet owners will make it through the pearly gates? Judging by my Silver Hillbilly neighbors, I’d be surprised if half of us are admitted into the land of fish fries and harp recitals. We’re more likely to end up in a very hot place—but one with more whiskey, which we might prefer in any case. And what of the dogs themselves? Assuming that the canine Saint Peter (or is it Saint Bernard?) has any standards at all, you’ve got to figure that most of these shoe-eating, garden-destroying, butt-sniffers are likely to be reunited with their masters in the underworld.
I’m also appalled that this poem is so patently illogical. Why relegate dogs to the timeless verdant meadows first? How about just sticking the non-heaven end of the rainbow bridge into the vet’s office and expediting the process of doggie salvation? And then there’s the troubling point that while this card is intended to reassure me, it presupposes that I am consoled by the contemplation of my own mortality. Sure, I’d like to be with Darcy again, but when it comes to reuniting with the dead my goal is to put it off as long as I can. Finally, the card from my vet indicates imprecisely that this poem is “inspired by a Norse legend.” This is an indirect reference to the Bifröst Bridge, which in Norse mythology is a burning rainbow that links this world (called Midgard) to Asgard, the realm of the gods. But the thirteenth-century Icelandic Eddas clearly foretell the collapse of this bridge, which in any case is perpetually aflame and spans a river of boiling water—an apocalyptic vision of the afterlife that is a far cry from the blithe reassurances of the insipid “Rainbow Bridge.”
But here’s the problem with making fun of this ridiculous poem: it hurts like hell to lose your dog. As I waited with Darcy for the vet to come into the room to dispatch her, I was as choked up as I’ve ever been. Researchers who study emotional attachment and separation have found that the bonds we have with our pets are often comparable to those we have with our fellow humans. To make matters worse, we are often confused about how to reckon the loss of a pet, because in the case of these nonhuman loved ones our culture has no ritual of parting—unless you’re willing to count reading freaking “Rainbow Bridge” through streaming tears in a veterinarian’s office. The nerds who study this stuff use the term “disenfranchised grief” to refer to a form of very real sadness that we nevertheless aren’t quite sure we’re allowed to feel. As one grief geek observed, “socially sanctioned mourning procedures, such as funerals, do not occur following the death of a pet, even though research shows that they are critical to the healing process.”
We named Darcy for the song “Darcy Farrow,” which features references to western Nevada’s Walker River and Carson Valley, and which includes these words in its final stanza: “They sing of Darcy Farrow where the Truckee runs through, / They sing of her beauty in Virginia City too.” She was a wonderful dog, a true member of our family who was gentle with our young daughters but also tireless in the field with me. I’ve done the redneck math: Darcy and I walked more than 12,000 miles together across these remote desert canyons, playas, and mountains. It is impossible to share that much time with a dog—that many beautiful experiences of this remarkable land—and not become bonded in a deeply meaningful way. Several years ago Darcy was pack hunted by a band of coyotes and was sliced to ribbons before narrowly escaping. When she came limping home, her fur matted and blood-soaked, I thought she was a goner. But the vet shaved her down and stitched her up, and though she looked like a canine Frankenstein for several months, she recovered fully and lived to walk another few thousand miles with me.
When it came time to say goodbye, it didn’t do any damned good to tell myself that Darcy was “just a dog.” As a confirmed desert rat I knew that I should take my dog, gun, and shovel out into the sage and take care of this myself. But when that inevitable day arrived I just couldn’t do it, and that is how I became a reader of “Rainbow Bridge.” That is also how I came into possession of a small, cedar box containing dog ashes, which were produced at additional expense when, in an already excruciating moment, I learned that my dog’s body would be disposed of as “clinical waste.” What difference should it make what becomes of a dead dog, however much beloved in life? I still don’t know the answer to this question, but in that moment it was an easy call to trade money for the assurance that my 12,000-mile trail companion wouldn’t leave this world in a dumpster.
It is finally time to finish this story. If ceremonies of mourning are necessary to grieving, and if our culture lacks rituals of parting from nonhuman friends, then we’ll just have to act like the resourceful, imaginative people we are and invent one of our own. The unusual desert rainstorm that has blasted us for two days is now over, and the sky has begun to clear. The wildfire up in the hills to the south has finally been extinguished, and the Washoe Zephyr has at last ceased howling. I’m taking this little cedar box, and a wooden-handled spade, and an ice-cold IPA, and I’m hiking up onto a nearby hillside that is graced by a single juniper. There I’ll dig a small hole in this sandy soil before raising a toast to Darcy and our shared trail. Then I will kneel down among the sage and plant my dog. As a final gesture, I’ll stand at attention and read aloud the terribly sappy “Rainbow Bridge.” Although it will be impossible for me not to laugh, it is also certain that I will weep, because that is so necessary. My newly developed ritual will of course be inadequate, but it is a memorial gesture that must pass for reunion here in this remote desert, which is our only earth and also our only heaven.