I remember vividly the first time I heard the song "Puff the Magic Dragon". I was three, and our family was visiting friends in San Francisco. This was in the early 60's, before the era of hippies and acid rock at the Fillmore. There were still Beatniks then, and the coffeehouses featured folk music and poetry readings.
The family we stayed with had teenagers roughly the same age as my older brothers and sister, and they were happy to share a little California Culture with their visiting old Florida neighbors. This meant a folkathon in the Rec Room, complete with Bongo Boards and Kingston Trio 45's. But the Little Kid got bored, so one of the gang decided to play a kids song.
I sat and listened, enraptured, to the whole story of Puff the Magic Dragon and his unlikely friendship with little Jackie Paper, who had somehow found himself in the Land of Honalee. But I was wholly unprepared for the ending. "Dragons live forever," sang the always-plaintive Peter Yarrow, "but not so little boys." Suddenly, I was in tears, despondent over poor Puff, now sad and all alone, frolicking joylessly in his once-happy Land of Honalee.
It's interesting to note that Puff isn't so much a song about a boy and his dragon, as it is a song about a dragon and his boy. We identify with Puff, not little Jackie Paper, and we're sad because Puff is sad: lonely, abandoned.
This was my first real emotional experience with the concept of death, of losing something precious. It would happen again, later, when I saw the movie Old Yeller. Then again, for real, at the age of seven, when I lost my puppy Penny, a victim of a hit & run.
Mom let me stay home from school that awful morning--she knew I would be useless. And indeed, I spent the entire day sobbing, wishing I could go back in time, wishing I would wake up and it would all be a nightmare. But it was real, unchangeable, and my seven-year-old self had to come to grips with the reality that little Penny wouldn't be waiting for me--yelping excitedly and leaping up to lick my face--when I came home from school in the afternoons. Ever again.
It was hard for me to understand, at that tender age, the tangible relationship between the emotional joy we get from loving and the devastating grief we experience at its loss. We don't grieve over the death of a toaster. But we mourn the passing of our parents, the ending of a relationship, even the finish of a favorite book. These things enrich our souls and become part of our emotional being, and when they end we experience the chilling emptiness of their loss. For me--an introverted, awkward seven-year-old boy--losing Penny meant losing everything I cared about, everything I loved...my reason for getting up in the morning and my motivation to get home in the afternoon.
Puff the Magic Dragon isn't about physical death, per se, but about the death of imagination and playfulness and that innocent sense of wonder that are the hallmarks of childhood (actually, it's open to many interpretations--some of them ludicrous--but this is the one that co-writer Yarrow has endorsed). Losing Penny at the age of seven was an early lesson in grief, but it was also an early lesson in coping, that mechanism that's essential to dealing with life as an adult.
So why is it that--almost a half-century after it happened--thinking about Penny's death can still make my heart crumple up, and still bring tears to my eyes?
Or maybe I'm asking the wrong question. Maybe I should ask: what is it about dogs that turns a grown man back into a 7-year-old child?
I try not to let it be so obvious. When I'm meeting clients for the first time, I try to keep my enthusiasm in check, discuss fundamental issues like their dog's specific behavior problems or the principles of operant conditioning or somesuch, but deep down inside I'm thinking "Oh Boy!! Doggie!!" Sometimes, it's all I can do to keep from rolling around on the floor or romping through their backyard with their pup. I try very hard to make a good, professional first impression. Playtime can come later!
Those of us who had dogs in our childhood tend to favor dogs in our adulthood. Same with cats and other pets. I wonder how much of this is an attempt to hold on to our childhood sense of wonder, our personal Land of Honalee? Are we spending our lives trying to replicate the emotional bonds that meant so much to us when we were kids? For many of us, our dogs or cats were our "safe" friends, the friends who always understood us and never judged us and never betrayed us. But then we grow up, and our childhood pets get old and die, and a little piece of our childhood dies with them.
And then we get new pets and start the process all over again. Puppies and kittens bring out our Inner Child, and lifetime bonds are formed. But we almost always outlive them, which means the pain of loss is always there, hanging over our consciousness like dark, foreboding cloud on a balmy day. Play, your Inner Child tells you, go frolic in the Autumn mist and romp in the fields and chase butterflies now, while you can, because they don't fly forever.
I was a 42-year-old child when Pip came into my life. A tiny, sickly little dachshund/chihuahua mix, she was the smallest of a litter of 8 we were fostering for the Humane Society. Pip had a heart murmur and some kind of congestion issues, and she had to be fed with an eyedropper. We bonded right away. One night I woke to find her whimpering beside my bed: she had climbed out of the crate she shared with her siblings to search for me.
The seven siblings eventually got adopted out; Pip stayed.
And stayed, and stayed, and stayed. Pip was my Sancho, my sidekick, my permanent shotgun rider. And she was insistent, too. When she wanted my attention, she would rocket up to my face and give me a nose-bump. I called them Nose Missiles. No matter what I was doing, she had to be either by my side or--preferably--in my lap. I learned to work "over" her: I'm surprised I didn't acquire a version of carpel-tunnel syndrome with the odd positions I had to assume just to write on my keyboard. And if I didn't give her the attention she required, she would simply mount my keyboard until I did. This once resulted in a total wipe-out of everything stored on my computer, including a 250-page first draft novel and a prodigious collection of photos and mp3s...none of which mattered to Pip, whose only concern was that I redirect my attention away from the screen and back to her, where it rightfully belonged.
She was right of course. It wasn't HER fault I didn't back up my work like you're supposed to. She wasn't concerned about my data collection or early attempts at being an author, she was only interested in ME. How could I argue with that? The butterflies don't fly forever, after all.
I forgave her and bought a flash drive.
No matter what kind of pain or hardship or emotional turmoil I was going through, Pip was there to lick my face and remind me that there are butterflies to chase and fields that need romping. Her bright disposition was infectious; even in her old age, kids would run up to her and ask me "Can I pet your puppy?" Sure, I told them, then warned them about possible Nose Missiles.
And when it was time for a walk, she was always first out the gate, eager to rush into the lead, barking all the while, like a bugle call for a cavalry charge, a signatory Arf!-Arf!-Arf! to clear the way of interlopers and let the Tribe advance. CHARGE!
Eventually she would fall to the rear, happy to mosey along and sniff the flowers at her own pace. But not going was not an option. No matter how creaky her bones and joints got, Pip was always game for a walk. Y'all go ahead, she would seem to say, I'll just saunter along at my own pace. She never worried about me getting out of her site. She knew I would wait for her. She was my BFF, my Inner Child's doppelganger. We were Friends For Life.
And then, on yet another awful morning, her life came to an end. And there I was, a 55-year-old-seven-year-old, sobbing uncontrollably as I watched, once again, a little piece of my childhood die.
It's happened countless times before, and it will happen countless times again before I succumb to the inevitable end myself. It's the eternal dilemma of pet ownership. We endure the devastating pain, again and again, because we know that there is always an abundance of love and childlike sense of wonder preceding it. The love is worth the loss.
And is it really a loss? Butterflies don't fly forever, but we chase them while we can and savor the memories to the end of our lives. The only reason these losses hurt is because the things being lost were so treasured to begin with. Wisdom is keeping all the memories close to your heart, and making more while we still can. We all have our Pips and Pennys, and though they may be gone, their memories are permanently etched in our minds. They're still with us, offering up nose missiles and chasing butterflies, while they frolic in the Autumn mist in the Land of Honalee in our hearts, where dragons live forever.