The Art of Remembering
By: Ellen C. Caldwell
It started off as a love-hate relationship. Toby and I hated Rocky; he loved us. But sixteen and a half years later, I was devastated to say goodbye to him.
Rocky was my family's dog that we got when I was in eighth grade—exactly one year after getting our kitten Toby. My mom had finally cracked and allowed my dad and brother to get a puppy. The final straw had been that my then-eight-year-old brother asked my mom if he could get a leash to walk our kitten. Soon after that, a mother at my brother’s elementary school brought in a stray puppy to attempt to find him a home. My brother—and family—were the lucky winners.
Rocky started off like any good dog does, by courting those who have no interest in him. I felt badly that my new kitten’s space was being invaded by a birth enemy. Rocky spent his puppy days (and many thereafter) chasing Toby around the house like our very own resident Tom and Jerry. His downtime was spent trying to get into my forbidden room to roll around or do his business.
Probably much like other family's dogs, Rocky re-taught my family to love. To love him, to love one another, and to love each other more because of our love for him. My sister uses a psychological term to explain this—something similar to triangulation, which refers to indirect patterns of communication between family members. But I use it to explain the importance of pets. Because it only took a few years for me to fold and love him dearly. Pets magnify our love and help us to see our love in others.
When I think of Rocky, my mind flashes to something like a video montage of the sixteen-plus years we spent with him—taking him to the beach and all over LA, playing with him in the backyard, chasing crows and squirrels (a shared hatred my dad has managed to pass along to our new dog), accidentally leaving a back door open so that Rocky could take himself on his own usual walking route in what we now call “Rocky’s big day,” or finding him after he had gotten into our closed dining room and on top of the table to eat an entire top layer of brownies daintily off a bottom layer so that he might not get caught, and so on. He was an integral part of the family, as indicated by his inclusion in our annual family Christmas photos.
And so Rocky taught us, or perhaps reminded us, to love strongly and unconditionally. But also, he taught me to remember.
When I was ten, my family's first cat Thumper went missing on Thanksgiving Day. While I think we all feared that a coyote had gotten him, I was convinced he was just lost and missing so I posted signs in the neighborhood with my brother. But at some point, during those sad days, my dad found clumps of Thumper's fur on our front lawn. It took my parents a while to have the courage to tell my siblings and me what had happened (or so it feels like it did); and so we kept hoping that he was simply missing during those first days or weeks. (Memory is funny like that—I have no real concept of how long it took my parents to tell us or how long we were looking for him.)
Eventually we found out the truth: Thumper was dead, he had been killed on our front yard, most likely by a neighborhood owl or coyote, and there was nothing we could do now to protect him or bring him back. But even at just ten years old, I had wanted to do something with his fur—in remembrance, in respect, and in one last gesture of love. Things got busy and the fur was forgotten for some time.
My mom had put it in a box that ended up on a shelf in our laundry room. Once when our family friends and former neighbors were over, I overheard my mom showing our friend the box with the fur and laughing a bit. In hindsight, I think she was laughing out of sadness, the way I do now when I start crying and laughing tenderly, thinking about Rocky or my grandparents. But at the time, it hurt me deeply because I had wanted to do something to remember our dear cat and instead I felt like that desire was somehow funny and not the right thing to do.
With Rocky though, it was a different story. My parents had just driven out to Washington DC to spend a year there, so I was living at their house with Rocky. He was a mutt that our vet lovingly termed a boxhua, or boxer-chihuahua mix, because that was the closest combination of animals he could see in Rocky. At this point, after a lifetime of running hard and playing hard, Rocky was now most interested in sleeping hard.
He had aged gracefully, with a grey snout that arrived at the same time as my dad’s greying hair. At age 13, he tore his ACL while playing with my dad in the backyard. My parents approached the decision to take him to surgery with some trepidation. But after our vet assured my dad that he thought Rocky had at least another good three years left in him, they didn’t hesitate. And we got that bonus time with him.
But, three years later, as he was rapidly deteriorating, I was in charge of him as not only the unlucky decision maker, but also the lucky memory maker. On walks around the neighborhood, his back legs started to give out and when it would happen he would just look back at them, more confused as to what was happening than he was in pain.
Eventually, though, his pain became too much and I could tell his body was giving up on him and beginning to shut down. I called my siblings to come over and my dear veterinarian friend Brian took pity on us and drove into LA to put him down in the comfort of our house. Rocky was lying in the backyard and my two siblings and Brian were sitting around him, petting him and postponing the inevitable a bit. We were asking if we could do anything nice for him as a final gesture and token of love, when my sister asked if we could give him a cupcake. Ever since he had gotten the rather large sampling of brownies off of our dining room table, Rocky had a sweet tooth and would go crazy at the smell of baked goods. And by chance, in an effort to kill time and keep my mind occupied, I had made cupcakes for my siblings that morning while awaiting their arrival.
And so we grabbed a chocolate cupcake and let Rocky eat it out of our hands, licking every morsel down to the frosting. And then Brian gave him the necessary shots as we said our tearful goodbyes, telling him just how much we loved him.
We had some old tree stumps in our backyard resembling something out of Lord of the Rings. I moved one of those over to the spot where we had buried Toby three years prior, and where we had put Rocky down. I nailed Rocky's dog tags and a tag for Toby onto it. My sister moved a framed picture of Rocky downstairs to the front table you see when you first enter our house through the front door. My brother had drawn this framed image when he and Rocky were still in their youth. For the year following Rocky's death, I kept flowers in the vase on this table by the frame and when they needed to be replaced, I moved them to dry on Rocky and Toby's stump in the backyard.
It was somewhat of a ritual. I liked having the flowers around and I liked seeing the drawing of Rocky. Partly it helped me to process things, because as anyone who has lost a pet knows, the first thing you expect to see, hear, and touch when you walk in your home is your pet—and this is especially hard to break anticipating after so many years. The act of consciously remembering the loss was important in this way. Actively buying flowers was part of this too. So the front door area became a monument and the backyard tree stump was a memorial. I would sit out there when I was sad or thinking of him. I didn’t even tell my brother about my quiet memorial rituals in the backyard, but somehow he knew or felt that it was a special and sacred space too. Because about a month after putting Rocky down, I was going to Hawaii, so I asked my brother if he wanted me to bring anything back for him. And he said “yes” in his quiet manner. “A lei for Rocky.”
I was a Classics minor in college. Something about the ancient Romans and Greeks had always appealed to me. And as an undergraduate, reading Euripides and Sophocles was a guilty pleasure of mine amidst my other dry, assigned textbooks. The story of Antigone had always really resonated with me—both in high school and later in college. In this classic tragedy, Antigone defies Theban law and King Creon as she risks her life to mourn and reclaim the body of her dead brother, who is considered a traitor, in order to secure a respectable burial for him.
After Rocky’s death, that story started to make more sense. It wasn’t that I had to fight to bury or remember Rocky, but I understood more and more the desire and guttural need to do so—why someone like Antigone might go to such extremes to claim her brother’s body to say goodbye to him properly and on her own terms. I don't know what happens to a soul, to our souls, or to our pets' souls when they leave us, but there is an innate part of us that needs to both remember and to open a space to process that loss continually and continuously.
In the director’s commentary for the film The Last King of Scotland, 2007, Kevin Macdonald describes a morbid scene they filmed at a hospital morgue. It features Idi Amin’s grim punishment for his wife Kay who had an affair with another man. After having her killed, Amin egregiously orders that that she be brutally dismembered. During the filming, Macdonald tried to explain to the Ugandan extras that he’d like them to moan and cry loudly. But something wasn’t clicking and he wasn’t making himself clear nor the scene powerful.
Finally an extra asked what they were crying about and when he told them, they said, “Oh we shall cry the way we would at a funeral.” And instantly, loud and haunting deep howls came from the building. This is mourning in Uganda—and in most countries outside of the U.S. This is where death is personified and processed through the living. It seems that in much of mainstream America, we need to learn how to mourn. Or at least we need to be reminded.
In Greece, women wear black and sob to the wind for months and even up to the three years’ prescribed mourning time. And I get this. Some part of me, even as a child with my first cat, craved this. And so what I realized that year after Rocky’s death was that having a space to go when I was sad or upset made me feel better. It was both a physical place to process, and a physical cue that it was okay to process at that time and place.
And through Rocky, I learned how to remember.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.