Photograph Credit: Dog Chapel, Jennifer Zoltanski
A Eulogy for Amber — Beloved Banshee Girl
It has been nearly one year since my dog Amber of 14 years died at home in my arms in the company of her three closest pals Toby, Remi, and the Professor. The event went as well as these things can go, like how I imagine a Viking Queen’s death ritual because it carried a certain nobility. That morning, Amber enjoyed scrambled eggs for breakfast and lay in sleeping on her bed next to the fireplace flanked by her canine friends, Toby and Remi. Our veterinarian arrived around 9AM and gave us a few minutes of private time. Next, we four huddled together on the floor in a pack, and I held her in my arms as the vet administered the medication that ended her life. It was quick. It was painless. It was peaceful. It was heartbreaking. The air got sucked out of the room and time stopped. We remained in our huddle for some time, sobbing and giving final long strokes of goodbye until it was time for the vet and her assistant to place Amber’s big body on the dog-stretcher. I covered her with a fleece blanket and tucked her favorite plush toy near her chocolate brown chest. They carried her out the front door by stretcher to a van parked in the driveway. It was February and icy cold. That was the end of our journey together. The rest of the day was deafeningly quiet, and nothing could be done to fill the void.
Amber in the Pearl
I like to tell people that Amber was my Mountain Banshee. As in the film Avatar, we interfaced and bonded for life. I like to believe that she chose me as her rider. Our journey began in the Pacific Northwest. I adopted her from a kill shelter not far from Olympia, Washington. She was about nine months old at the time. A stray, she came to the shelter with no name or history. Clothed in dark chocolate fur with glowing yellow eyes, Amber was elegant, gentle and already wise. We breezed through basic training classes with her tutoring me as much as the other way around. She had me eating out of her paw. We lived together in the trendy “Pearl” loft district of downtown Portland, Oregon where she mastered the minutiae of everyday urban life, such as riding in elevators and, when necessary, walking correctly on a leash. Off-leash adventures were regular and abundant—hikes at Forest Park, Hoyt Arboretum, and the trails near the Washington County Zoo where, occasionally, the muffled growls of big cats or the trumpeting of elephants could be heard off in the distance.
Amber in Oregon as a pup, 2003
Amber Goes to College
In July, we moved to Norton, Massachusetts where I had taken a visiting professor job at Wheaton College. Together with my elderly mother, Amber and I drove across the country following the Oregon Trail east on a trip I liken to Postcards from the Edge with all the bickering, heartfelt reconciliations, and other drama that happens between adult daughters and their mothers. Between sneaking Amber into hotels for overnights and helping my mother navigate her shaky self on a walker, I was relieved to get to my lodgings on the Wheaton campus, a lovely “tiny house” before small houses had such particular names.
My mother stayed for a couple of weeks, then returned to Oregon by plane. That
left Amber and me together, yet truly alone. I knew nobody on the east coast except a graduate school acquaintance living in the Boston area. We were backwards “pioneers” gone east. With time, we made friends, and discovered fantastic hiking trails. I cooked risotto almost every Friday night. We cross-country skied in the fields behind the tiny house at night by headlamp. We spent weekend hours walking miles of trail at Borderland State Park and, whenever possible, swam at Pud’s Pond. She loved swimming. We watched Phantom of the Opera at least six times on DVD. Life was sometimes lonely, but it was mostly good in large part because of my anchor, Amber Dog. She was my link to the human and natural world.
Amber at Wheaton College, 2008
Amber in the Berkshires
It is late August in The Berkshires. Mid-evening. Humid and warm. Windows opened with the buzz of crickets in the background. I am talking on the phone with my mother, as I do several times a week. Our talk gets interrupted by the “call waiting” beep. I put my mother on hold to take the call, and to my surprise, it is the Professor.
He wonders if I might be up for a nightcap. I balk, but then agree, telling him that my lights go out at 11PM. I give him my address and resume the call with my mother:
“Mom! I gotta hang up the phone! The Professor is coming over!”
(We had nicknamed him “the Professor” because he also taught at a college.)
“He’ll be here any second. I’ll call you tomorrow. I promise. Gotta run.”
No sooner had I snapped my cell phone shut than I heard a faint tapping on the back door. It was the Professor holding a bottle of Grappa. I invited him in, and as soon as he had stepped into the kitchen, Amber rounded the corner to greet the visitor. She lumbered over to him and gently wedged her head between his knees, a signal for him to rub the back of her ears. It worked. Within seconds, Amber melted into a slouch and then rolled onto her back to signal tummy rubs. The Professor obliges on bended knee. Amber’s signature greeting ritual. She was practiced in the art of unsubtle subtleties. The two of them communed like familiar old friends.
It would be untrue to say that Amber cemented my partnership with the Professor. That said, I took his attentiveness to Amber’s want for affection as a small but significant measure of his character. We had only gone on a first dinner date earlier that evening, and I had little by which to gauge him. Silly as it sounds, I had come to depend on Amber for her read of the world and the people we encountered in our travels together. I had by this time left Wheaton to take a professor job at MCLA, a college located in the outback of Massachusetts. As with Norton, we arrived not knowing a soul. We were 3,000 miles away from our people back west and at least an hour’s drive to the nearest airport. As before, we were mastering a new territory, and Amber had become, even more, the guardian of my well-being. I interpreted her open affection for the Professor that night as a cue that he was likely a good and trustworthy person. It turns out, she was right.
Amber and Toby in the Berkshires, Winter 2011
Much has happened since the move to the Berkshires nine years ago. I got tenure and bought a small but not tiny house. The Professor and I live together but in separate homes. I have many incredible friends and have a bunch of new fun hobbies. Six months after we met, the Professor adopted Toby, and he and Amber immediately became a bonded pair. Two years ago, I adopted Remi, a 10-month old Brittany rescue dog from South Carolina by way of Cape Cod. Elder Amber loved and mentored him from the start, and with little time he transformed from a recluse into a playful and confident boy. Good things. Over this time span, my eldest brother died unexpectedly from a brain aneurysm at age 54. He was super healthy—an Iron Man competitor and rock climber. Three years later, my mother died from problems related to stroke. Six months after this, my stepmother died from cancer. Family-wise, my world has become smaller, and my ties to the Westcoast have all but died out. There have been days when I did not want to get out of bed or leave the house. Amber helped me through. She would allow me to wallow for one day at most, but by day two, she made it known that it was time for her nature walk and no bones about it. Rain, sleet, snow and shine, we walked nearly every day of the fourteen years of her life. The last night of her life, we went on the neighborhood stroll with Toby, Remi, and Maggie (a friend’s dog). Although blind, Amber kept up with the pack, just as always, trusting me as her guide dog. Me seeing for her. Our last walk together on this planet.
I want to believe that Amber and I will be reunited someday. I like to imagine that we will find each other in Pandora, the parallel universe in Avatar. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t wish to reincarnate as blue and eight feet tall. I mean no offense, but I did not like the film except for its portrayal of the deep bond between the Na’vi and the Mountain Banshee. 10 months gone, I think about Amber multiple times every day. My heart still hurts and my eyes well easily with tears if I linger too long on the things I miss the most about her. The void remains, but it no longer takes up the entire house; it has been vanquished to the corners.
A Chapel for All Dogs
Make no mistake, dog death grief is no less painful than the grief we feel for our departed human loved ones. Yet, when your dog dies, no one brings casseroles or sends flowers or cards. There is no celebratory wake or somber funeral. There are no customary rituals to lament the loss or console the aching heart. There is mostly nothing, because nobody knows quite what to say or do or where to go to pay tribute. All the more puzzling, considering that humans have venerated dogs for millennia, as revealed in ancient cave paintings, stone carvings, and in remnants found in Viking burial mounds—proof of dogs honored for their hunting prowess as well as companionship. Modern tributes to dogs in customized calendars, coffee cups, Emoji, and thousands of u-Tube videos do comparatively less in the way of depicting and dealing with the loss.
Ancient rock carvings in Saudi Arabia show people holding dogs on leashes. Researchers say the carvings made 8,000 years ago could be the earliest depictions of man’s best friend. Source: http://au.pressfrom.com/news/offbeat/-47311-ancient-rock-carvings-show-dogs-being-good-boys/
Peruvian archaeologists excavated the remains of 137 dogs believed to be over 900 years old. They were found in an archaeological complex within Lima’s main zoo. The canine skeletal remains were nestled beside human remains, who were likely their companions and requested their dogs be buried with them after death. Source: https://www.archaeology.org/issues/233-1611/trenches/4912-trenches-peru-dog-burials
Artistic reconstruction of Viking woman warrior grave (Alvarez 2014) Source: http://www.medievalhistories.com/warrior-women-viking-age-scandinavia/
Dog Tribute Mug, 2017
A year ago, a friend told me of an extraordinary place in St. Johnsbury, Vermont called Dog Mountain, a site dedicated to memorializing dogs as family members. In 1995, dog-lovers Stephen and Gwen Huneck purchased more than 100 acres of farmland atop a small mountain. They converted the property’s barn into their art studio and built a network of grassy trails that lead to hidden benches, an arbor, a pond, and numerous dog inspired sculptures reminiscent of the grounds in Jean Cocteau’s classic film, Beauty and the Beast (1947). Five years later, the Hunecks built Dog Chapel; a one-room meditative space lovingly adorned with dog motif stained-glass windows and wooden pews. In October, I made my pilgrimage, with the Professor, Remi, and Toby, as one way to commemorate Amber. An estimated 10,000 people visit Dog Chapel per year to leave behind photos, poems, cards, and offerings in honor of their dogs. Seventeen years into its existence, after more than 170,000 total visitors, the Chapel walls are covered from floor to ceiling with rainbow-colored Post-It Notes, love letters, and photographs, a veritable paper mausoleum for the departed. Because visitors have covered the walls, people are encouraged to leave remembrances in scrapbook albums located at the entrance or in wicker baskets inside the Chapel itself. It is nothing short of cathartic. In this Chapel, we discover a 21st-century homage to dogs that hearkens back to earlier times when humans carved or painted the likenesses of their dogs onto cave walls, as if giving us the permission to tip our heads back to release a long and sorrowful howl of loss—Ow-whoooooo—just as our primordial ancestors might have done. Like the thousands of visitors who came before me, I found a spot to hang two favorite photos of Amber in the Chapel—at the bottom of one of the stained-glass windows. I left the Chapel with the October sun shining through the window and those photos, a translucent effect. My heart felt a tiny bit lighter knowing that my deep feelings for Amber, my Banshee Girl, have found a home in the company of thousands of other dogs and humans, just like the two of us.
Dog Mountain, 2017
Dog Chapel interior, 2017
Left to right, Amber, Toby, Remi. Days before Amber died in February 2017
In Loving Memory of Amber, 2003-2017