There really are no words that can comfort or explain why when a loved one dies. The death comes as expected or not, but in its wake we enter a room or a place that the departed called their own and find ourselves at a loss. A great, silent loss that no matter how hard we try to rebuild the blocks defies our comprehension. And so we turn to words to try to give it structure and provide a beginning and an end to what we shared. A story.
Georgio Casellato Lamberti (or “Lan” for short) was a Shi Tzu dog, that my partner M. had befriended 17 years earlier at a pet shop here in Tokyo. He had white, chestnut brown, and black hair and a face that immediately reminded me of an Ewok, with great, liquid eyes and a black nose and lips that never smiled. I first met him nine years ago shortly after M. and I became friends. He was a humorless dog, constantly snuffling and snorting and completely without interest in other dogs during his walks. His interest in walks remained limited, at least by the time I met him, to doing his bodily functions and that was it. As soon as the chore was done he yanked on the leash to go home. It was for this reason that, for a breed of dog that normally weighs about 4 kg, Lan weighed about 7 kg and waddled more than walked. I only saw him run one time in all the time I knew him.
He never barked. Violence and temper tantrums were alien to him. He was a lover and not a fighter, though even the allure of the female persuasion never seemed to cross his mind. One time when M. and I were shouting at one another he walked over to us, stood there looking up until we noticed him, and then reached out a paw to touch M.’s leg, silently pleading for us to make peace. M. and I broke down laughing, partly out of love for him, partly out of sheer embarrassment.
As he grew older he took more and more to sleeping. He was plagued with ailments and pain, from a weak heart, bad skin allergies that left his skin constantly red and itching (until I suggested using baby shampoo and the allergies went away), cancer of the liver, anemia. Four years ago he started going deaf and blind. When we moved here to this apartment last year his hind legs were giving out and the new environment terrified him. For three weeks he cried constantly while bumping around the unfamiliar corners and walls. I’d never heard him wail before and the worry about the landlord finding out about having a dog in a place where no pets were allowed made that first month stressful and uncertain. There were times when I got so fed up with his whining and doing his mess all over the apartment floors that I wished he were dead.
Sometime around the middle of July his legs got worse and he had a hard time standing up. He was still alert and full of his doggy appetite, never getting enough to eat. Without his eyesight and hearing he took to scanning the room with his nose and every time we made dinner the waft of cooking food would shake him from his stupor and prompt him to find his way to his feet. When no food was forthcoming he’d let out a huge snort and plonk back down onto his pillow and fall asleep. M. and I constantly teased him for his lack of contribution to the household upkeep.
When we returned from Canada at the end of August, after leaving him at the vet for a week suddenly Lan took a turn for the worse. His legs gave out completely and he was no longer able to walk. He took to sleeping with his spine curled in toward the left and he’d struggle in pain or dizziness when we turned him over onto his left side facing right. The doctor didn’t know what it was. M. spent every spare moment nursing him, getting up at 4:00 in the morning to quietly and patiently hand feed him, wash him, talk to him. He lost weight, lots of it, so that the pudgy, waddling gentleman of indifference slowly wasted away to nothing but skin and bones. Even then he had the energy to crawl across the living room floor and attempt to reach the potty spot at the end of the entrance hall, even though he had long since been enclosed in his fenced-in pen. He’d hold in his bowels until we got home late in the evening, unwilling to relinquish that last source of dignity that had defined his world since he was a baby.
M. was beginning to reach her limits around the middle of December. She was exhausted and emotionally just hanging on. Sometimes it seemed as if Lan would hang by a thread for the rest of eternity, breathing and shitting and eating and sleeping. He was a tough little monster, and wasn’t going to go out without a fight. Then around the middle of January he began to fade. He stopped eating for days then would wake up with a voracious appetite, then stop eating again. His breathing grew labored, raspy. When we reached into his triple layer of blankets and hot water bottle his feet felt cold and often he made no reaction, giving us a fright. M. had to take him to the vet several times to change his food since he refused to eat his usual fare and more and more would only take the best choices in canine dining. I guess he intended to die a gourmand, none of that fiber-filled, grainy cereal that he’d been eating day in and day out for so many years!
At the end of January he started wheezing terribly. We knew then it was the end. One night, after two days of refusing to drink anything we took him to the vet in an emergency in order to rehydrate him. The doctor gave him an intravenous saline injection, but suggested that it might be time to let him go. His gums were a deathly white from anemia and he was so thin the doctor had a difficult time finding a suitable spot to insert the needle. Lan vomited up nearly everything that he attempted to eat, but after the saline shot he quieted down and slept all night without making a sound.
The next morning M. had to get up early to go to work. I had work, too, but remained home until the very last minute just to make sure Lan was alone as little as possible. He began to wheeze badly again and vomited bile and blood. I sat with my hand on his side until it was time to go and he had managed to fall asleep again. I hurried through everything at work so as to make it back home in time, just in case Lan was ready to let go. The silly and innocuous questions of a lot of the lazier and more immature students unprepared for upcoming tests made the waiting interminable. Their taking time and their lives for granted made me want to shout at them to start living and not waste the precious gift they had. Meanwhile Lan was struggling to breathe back home.
When my last class ended I rushed home as fast as I could. It was about 1:00. I reached to door at about 2:00 and unlocking the door and kicking off the shoes and dropping my coat and bag on the floor I ran to Lan’s side and kneeled down beside him. I held my breath and peered hard at him, hoping I’d see the slow rise and fall of his shoulder as he slept. It seemed like time stopped. There was no movement. I knew he was gone. I squatted down beside the pen and placed my hand on his head. Still warm. He had died only a little while earlier, but had died alone. That was the last thing that M. had wanted. That he would die alone.
I went numb for a long while, not knowing what to do or what to feel. All I knew was that I needed to let M. know what happened, but that I didn’t want her to break down in the middle of the street or at work. I contemplated what had to be done about the body, and thought about going to see the vet, but even though I was much less attached to Lan than M. was, I found that I couldn’t move and that I still didn’t want to see Lan’s body moved. So I went about cleaning his pen and neatly folding the blankets and sheet so that Lan looked clean and comfortable. Then I searched online for pet crematoriums and information on what needed to be done with dead pets in Japan. I got no where not being able to read the level of Japanese necessary, so I gave up and just sat beside Lan, stroking him.
At around five M. sent me an email asking how I was and then how Lan was. I wrote back briefly, in Japanese, “You should come home.”
She replied, “Is Lan okay?”
I answered, “Just come home.”
I went out to buy some dinner for M. and me, then some flowers for Lan, and while I was waiting for the take out food to be fixed at the store I got another email from M. telling me she was near the station. I stopped by another store for some candles for Lan and met M. at the station.
We said nothing, just walked hand in hand back toward our apartment. While we walked M. silently began to weep and I held her as close as I could.
M. being M. she was up at the crack of dawn the following morning. She spoke little, but was full of energy and purpose. When we had eaten breakfast she discussed with me what we ought to do about Lan, so we looked up information about nearby crematoriums and found a temple where there was a long tradition of cremating and keeping the graves of pets. M. made a number of phone calls and then we gently prepared Lan, wrapping him in his favorite blankets and placing his body in a big Boston bag so we could carry it in the taxi to the temple.
Looking back now I’m surprised by how beautiful and cheerful that day, two weeks ago, was. M. and I managed to joke about Lan’s bad humor and constant royal demands. Between laughter and fits of sobbing we brought Lan’s body to the temple and were ushered into a small reception room where Lan’s body was placed in a basket.
The funeral director was a woman about our age dressed in fashionable black slacks and jacket and speaking with a deferent and quiet voice. She explained what would take place and what we should do. We were led to the back of the temple were a building with a smoke stack stood among some huge gingko trees and asked if it was all right to burn the body with the blankets. Then we were led back to a traditional, tatami mat waiting room where we sat talking and drinking green tea. An hour later the funeral director returned. “The bones are ready to be viewed,” she said.
I really can’t express what it felt like when we were taken back to the crematory and we stood waiting as the door to the retort was opened. What slid out was a black tray of bleached bones and the shock of the transition from Lan to those bones almost made my knees buckle under me. M. broke down crying. The cremator was obviously familiar with such reactions and stepped forward to show us the second vertebra of Lan’s spine, which in Japanese is called the “Nodobotoke” bone ‘Throat Boddhisatva”), because it resembles a Buddha with his hands out. M. managed a smile as she peered closely at the bone. “Ah, that’s why the bone is called, ‘Nodobotoke’,” she said. The cremator gently placed the bone on the tray and handed us each a pair of bamboo chopsticks. My hands were shaking as I joined in the Japanese tradition of “Kotsuage”, placing, with chopsticks, the bones into the urn that we would bring home.
We then made our way to the pet temple proper, where rows and rows of pet graves lined the hall. Many of the graves were open with small offerings of the pets’ favorite foods lining the boxes. I stood at the end of the hall watching M. make her lonely way to the alter and regretted the anger I had shown during the last few months over her hanging on to Lan. Maybe for the first time in our relationship I clearly understood how devoted M. was to Lan and, strangely, in those circumstances, to me. She beckoned me to kneel beside her and together we lit a stick of incense and prayed for Lan.
Two weeks later it snowed. I was sitting at my desk working on test correction when I glanced out of the window and saw snow drifting down in the dark. I called M. and together we stood by the window watching it come down.
“Lan would hate this!” M. said.
“He definitely liked his comforts,” I added.
“I’m sure right now he’s lying somewhere with his face pressed right up against an infrared heater,” observed M.
“I always wondered how he did that without burning his hair off or melting his eyeballs,” I continued. “Maybe he was made of asbestos.”
We took a walk in the snow and laughed at the stray snow bombs that the telephone wires dumped on us. The streets were empty and silent as most people slept, oblivious to the silent change the city was going through. M. and I snapped photos of one another, both of us smiling.
Each time we return home Lan is waiting there in his corner. M. lights a candle and a stick of incense and cheerfully waves good morning. Sometimes it all hits home and she breaks down weeping, but she always looks up and smiles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m just happy that Lan lived a life in which he was loved.”