When it was finished, I sat in the truck for some while, staring at the veterinary clinic. "After great pain," wrote a great New Englander, "a formal feeling comes." I have discussed these lines by Emily Dickinson with innumerable college students, but I always forget their plain accuracy till circumstances remind me.
Though Annie, my pointing dog, had shown remarkable valor in her pain, at length I needed to shut the suffering down. There hadn't been one cloudless patch on the final lung X-ray. She could no longer climb the stairs to my writing studio. She couldn't hold her bowels. Once so tireless in the field, she could, finally, barely hobble down our drive. And then, rather than walk with me 50 yards to the edge of the woods below our house, she would turn from me and hobble back.
How had she, in her condition, so much as breathed, let alone performed so brilliantly on grouse just a few months past? Now she was gone. Another cycle: They get tighter with time; they set as if in stone.
After a last trusting glance, Annie took the injection, then sighed and went loose in my arms. I hadn't been able to contain myself then; yet sitting behind the wheel a few minutes later, I wouldn't have described myself as shaken. The formal feeling. I feel it now and then after the break in a fever, when with a curious lucidity I think, I'm still here. In such instants, the world outside the windows seems splendidly composed, if disarming in its silence. Dawn will go down to day, day to starlight. Life will go down to death. But not for me quite yet.
This formal feeling also reminded me of other finales, particularly the close of some special hunt or some special season, when I've been wondrously taken by a joy in the purely and factually given: These are my friends, Terry Lawson and Joey Olsen. This is my truck, a six-cylinder stepside Chevy. This is my shotgun, a Fox Sterlingworth 16 skeet-and-skeet. This is my hunting vest, Tin Cloth Filson.
This was my pointing dog.
A south-to-north procession of crows, fighting the wind behind the veterinarians' place, looked purposive. Things always take their course. I once chose a puppy. The puppy became my mature and canny partridge dog. The dog grew feeble and died. I could call that death untimely. Yet what would timely be?
After years of Annie's blessed, instinctive company, my philosophical mood all but shamed me. I suddenly wanted an agitation back, something as strong as that unboundable sadness of moments before.
For good or ill, I got my strange wish soon enough. As I was headed through the village, I came up behind a BMW with a sticker on its rear bumper. At first I couldn't quite read the words through February grime and highway salt. But when traffic slowed, I made them out: ANIMALS ARE LITTLE PEOPLE IN FUR COATS.
God in heaven.