In 1969, I was nine years old, and I wrote in my journal how the family dog, Tenner, lay in my big brother’s bed, her pink tongue lolling out to match the red bedspread. I called her my “black mama” because she was a dark, German shepherd mix, and I’d grown up with her. Her longevity was due to her not ever having peed on Dad’s Triumph Spitfire sports car or pooped on the living-room carpet. Tenner’s canine and feline housemates had pulled such stunts just before they “ran away.” Of course, I grieved my pets’ absence, but in my family, grief was ignored as well, partly because it acknowledged loss—which our version of Christian Science denied even being possible—and partly because it made the griever vulnerable. I lessened my grief by making up stories about my pets being found and taken into loving homes. Years later, in my adulthood and over beers and chuckles, Dad admitted that he took our pets to the animal shelter while we were at school. Apparently, the joke was on me, but it became less funny when my son’s guinea pig died when he, too, turned nine. I helplessly listened to his sobs through the walls and doors. It was a new emotion for him, but I realized that I had felt the same emotion at his age but had stifled it. I wanted to be a good Christian Scientist and a good son.
Although in dog years, Tenner was older than I was, I played the dominant-species card and bossed her around. One day, I came home and caught Tenner being naughty. She was on my brother’s bed, all cozy. As she wasn’t supposed to be on the beds, I was glad that I’d caught her because I wouldn’t want her to “run away” too. I sneaked up and pounced on the mattress. “What are you doing?” I scolded.
But she ignored me because she was dead. I backed away, some primal instinct keeping my hands off a dead thing that might be contaminated, even though it was Tenner, even though I wasn’t certain she was dead, even though her eyes were half-open and her tongue lolled out pink. I felt numb and a bit depersonalized.
I experienced profound grief for the first time. It was much more intense than my grief had been for sparrows, horny toads, or dogs and cats that “ran away.” My black mama was dead. The rumor was that a neighbor who resented dogs running wild around the neighborhood had poisoned her. I ran wild around the neighborhood, too, and I routinely irritated the neighbors, so it was a concern of mine. I made up a story about Tenner being the leader of a pack of unrestrained dogs that chased the neighbor into his house. That made her dominant and powerful until that neighbor tossed her poisoned hamburger, and she died passively, asleep on that red womb of a bed.
I grieved alone, which isn’t optimal at any age but was something I got used to. My earliest journal entry was about losing Tenner and how I wanted to raise her from the dead in the way depicted in the stories of how Mary Baker Eddy raised a baby, a little girl, a man crushed by a wagon, a personal assistant, and even her own husband. I thought it was possible because so many of the adults around me said that it was. Then I took my inability to bring Tenner back to life as yet another failure. Of course, today, I see the insane distortion of my little-boy religious belief, but I hasten to point out that most people have a similar belief, only it’s set in adult terms and regards special humans from a more distant past.
I imagined Tenner at Mark Twain Elementary, lying by my desk or perhaps on my bed, napping naughtily. Reminded that she was “only a dog,” I needed to move on and get over it as everyone else in the family had. After some weeks, my grief eased, but I was left more vulnerable and anxious. God’s protection didn’t apply to dogs? I mean, I guessed I knew that, sort of, but I thought that because she was a family member and all…
So beloved dogs were still vulnerable to misfortune. Had my parents known that? I wondered. They wouldn’t mislead me, would they? I hid my tears and put on a strong-faced mask. Witness the continuing growth of a chameleon, this one even more vulnerable than the last, but also manifesting harder skin and acting as if I didn’t care as much as I really did.
Still, I wondered, where was Tenner, my black mama? She just disappeared. I didn’t witness her wrapped up and carried out of the house. There was no memorial service, no grave, and no discussion of our loss. My already simmering existential angst grew to a boil.