In essays and illuminating stories, Jon Katz reminds us that grieving the loss of an animal we love is natural.
I read most of Jon Katz's newest book, "Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die" (Villard Press, 166 pages, $22), with my ancient border collie, Boscoe, sleeping at my feet. From time to time, I felt the need to reach down and scratch Boscoe's ears as I read, because Katz's sad book hit close to home.
"Going Home" is a very personal account of getting through the death of a pet, told through Katz's own life and through stories he has collected from friends. If this sounds trivial to you, then you are one of the people whom Katz warns the rest of us about:
"Like it or not, non-animal lovers, and even some animal owners, are quick to brand people as weird if they show too much grief over the loss of an animal," he writes.
Katz knows that grief is not weird. "Embrace it," he advises, "and allow it to take its course." In this collection of wise, calm essays, he also addresses indecision and guilt, because, of course, we are often responsible for deciding the moment of death. Sometimes we decide too soon, sometimes too late. And either way, the decision, he notes, is agony.
In one chapter, "A Perfect Day," Katz writes about a Minnesota veteran named Harry who devoted one full day to his dog when he found out that Duke was dying. For that one day, Duke got hamburger and bacon instead of kibble; was allowed to play with no corrections; was taken swimming and ball-chasing and hiking; slept on the couch with his head in Harry's lap. The chapter was published in Slate as a stand-alone essay and received more than a million page hits. Do we love our dogs? Oh, yes, we do.
Katz is the author of 20 books, most of which are about his dogs and life on his New York farm. He is famous for never anthropomorphizing his animals; he allows them emotions but not introspection.
This book breaks no real ground; any of us who has lost a pet has already grappled with the things he covers. Katz's writing can occasionally be stilted and he tends to repeat himself. But these are quibbles; his book will be a huge comfort, I think, to anyone with an aging, beloved pet, anyone who wants to weep but is embarrassed to admit that the tears are for a dog.
Katz doesn't talk down to us; he addresses us directly, and though he is writing about emotional situations, his writing is never mawkish or overwrought. He is like our soothing grandfather who has seen it all.
The stories he tells are interesting, but mostly his book simply acknowledges the anguish that comes with a pet's death. When Boscoe's time comes -- he is 16, so that will be sooner rather than later -- that is what I will be looking for, too.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.