In the years following the blockbuster success of 2005’s Marley & Me by John Grogan, the number of memoirs that focus on loss and grief—particularly around beloved pets—has grown. One of this year’s most intriguing titles along these lines is NBCC Award–finalist David R. Dow’s Things I've Learned From Dying (Twelve, Jan.). PW caught up with Dow to talk about his dog Winona and why these memoirs resonate so strongly.
Tell us about how you came to write this memoir.
This book weaves together the stories of three painful deaths—those of my father-in-law, who was also my dear friend; a client of mine, whom I represented for 10 years; and Winona. What I noticed was that, in many ways, Winona’s death was the hardest of the three for me to deal with. I think there were several reasons for that. One is that I had much more time to prepare for the other two deaths, whereas Winona went from being healthy to being at death’s door almost overnight. But I don’t think that was the only reason; it also had to do with the relationship I had with her. My wife and I got her when she was six weeks old, and she was with us until she was almost 13. And during that time, she and I spent close to 24 hours a day together. I mean that literally. [My wife]Katya was still practicing law when we got Winona, meaning she could not take a dog to her office, but one of the many great things about being a professor is that I could and I did. Winona had just turned five when our son Lincoln was born, and even though she still came with me to school every day, it was clear that she thought her new job was to take care of him. Lincoln was not quite eight when Winona got sick, and when it happened, it was not at all gradual. It was like stepping off a cliff. I don’t know who in my family it was hardest on.
Did you discover anything new about your bond with Winona through writing about such a heartbreaking loss?
I have not actually counted pages or words, but I suspect that I talk about Winona on fewer pages than I do the other two deaths, and yet those are the pages that affect me the most. I think Winona believed she was letting us down by dying. I know some people will say I am anthropomorphizing her, but I really do think that. I talk a little in the book about how protective of Lincoln Winona was. I think she believed her job of looking out for Lincoln was incomplete. At the same time, I felt like I had let her down by not recognizing sooner that she was ill. I think she could sense the responsibility I felt. And at the end of her life, the qualities that defined her seemed magnified. I am not a religious person, but I am convinced that even up until the moment she died, she was trying to comfort me, trying to tell me it was not my fault, trying to be the same pillar of support she had been for my family her entire life.
What do you think it is that makes pets such a special part of our lives?
Obviously I can speak only for myself here, but for me, pets are the only beings who see who you really are. We all have different facets of ourselves, and the facets we share with others depend on what our relationship with them is. My colleagues see some aspects of me that my clients do not. My clients see some things my friends do not. But dogs see everything, every facet. They know you in a nonverbal but profoundly deep way, and they love you completely and without reservation. When we lose them, we lose a being that loved us more truly than any human being possibly can. As I mention at the end of the book, we have a new dog. His name is Franklin, and he is a rescue dog. He is really nothing like Winona, which is good both for him and for us, and especially for our relationship with him. But I tell him every day that Winona is present in our relationship. She taught me lessons I will never forget, and Franklin is the beneficiary of those lessons. Some wise person said that heaven is the place where all your old dogs come to greet you. The only reason I want to believe in heaven is so I can believe I’ll see Winona again.