by Gilles d'Aymery
He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds;
my other ears that hear above the winds.
He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea.
He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason
for being by the way he rests against my leg;
by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile;
by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him.
(I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not
along to care for me.)
When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive.
When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile.
When I am happy, he is joy unbounded.
When I am a fool, he ignores it.
When I succeed, he brags.
Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful.
He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion.
With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace.
He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant.
His head on my knee can heal my human hurts.
His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and
He has promised to wait for me...whenever...wherever --
in case I need him.
And I expect I will -- as I always have.
He is just my dog.
—Gene Hill, Tears & Laughter: A Couple of Dozen Dog Stories, Petersen Prints, 1981
(Swans - November 16, 2009) Why a loving, peaceful dog -- a true dog of peace -- would choose to pass away on the very day that commemorates the wreckage, sacrifice, and immense suffering our fellow humans are subjected to in the name of good versus evil and for the vanity of leaders and enrichment of war profiteers is beyond comprehension. Admittedly, a dog knows little about human self-destructing follies and cannot be faulted for missing the significance of that august day. Still, May 1st -- la fête du travail -- or any other day would have been more propitious, but it was not meant to be. Priam, our cherished and son-like companion died on November 11, 2009, at 6:00 am PST.
The toughest emotional ordeal was not his passing. I had seen it coming for months. He had recurring seizures, and the first time he fell on the floor of the house and released himself, I knew the time had arrived. At 5:30 am, this fateful day, I heard him breathing loudly and with difficulty. I turned on the bedside light and went to sit next to him. I caressed his head with as much kindness I could muster, and kept telling him, c'est okay Priam, tout va aller bien. Calme toi. Once again, he looked at me, right in the eyes, searching for protection, as he had done years ago when a car ran over his left paw. He simply looked at me, desperate, yet full of trust as always. I was going to save him again. But this was beyond my power. He quieted down and I went back to bed. And I waited silently. Twenty minutes later I heard a couple -- perhaps it was three -- loud moans and very heavy, saccadic breathing -- then silence. I rushed to his side. There he was, his beautiful head turned right at a 90-degree angle. I called upon him. Priam, bébé, Priam, non; il faut vivre; on va aller voir le docteur -- all words I knew he understood. He turned his head back toward me, fixed his eyes intently upon mine for a short goodbye and he slowly dropped his head against the floor, opened his mouth wide, let his tongue slump, and stopped breathing. He was gone.
My reaction was immediate and identical to what I experienced many a moon ago in my youth. Confronted with overwhelming pain one shuts one's mind and becomes so cold and guarded as to espouse total indifference to the event at hand. I recall 1974 when my grandmother died following a botched surgery in Toulouse, France. I was in Paris. My mother called and told me to come as fast as possible; grandma was in bad shape, had to go through surgery again, and wanted to see me. I drove all night long through rain and storm, totally cold-hearted. I arrived just in time at the hospital of Purpan, to see her lying naked on a table, being prepared for her second surgery (the first one was about removing a small part of her colon. It was deemed a safe and easy operation. A top surgeon was in charge. Everything went well except that her spleen was scratched, leading to internal bleeding -- hence the second surgical procedure.) I was embarrassed to see her naked. She looked at me, gave me a faint smile, and her hand moved up toward me. That's all I can recollect. We waited a few days until the news came that her heart had failed her. My mother was in speechless tears. My grandfather, her husband, was left in stone silence. A dead body was not supposed to leave the hospital, but we had entries with the staff. They told me to come and fetch her. I drove to the hospital in Toulouse. An ambulance was waiting. They put her body in and the driver followed me for the 18 miles back home. I did not shed one tear for the entire ordeal. We laid grandma's body on a bed. I spent the entire night with her as my mother and grandfather went to sleep. Not one tear. She was buried two days later in the local cemetery, before being transferred to the "family" grave in Cordes sur Ciel. My brother was finally part of the company. Everybody shed tears -- everybody but me. I was as cold as a glacier. Grandma was in many ways my mother and I could not envision life without her. And life has never been the same ever since...
I experienced the same emotional shutdown with Priam. I walked up the stairs to the kitchen, turned on the coffee machine, went to the office, turned on the computer, went back to the kitchen, poured some milk in my cup, topped it with the brewed coffee, went outside and lit a cigarette while drinking the stuff. Priam had released himself from bowel and bladder. I thought: "Need to call Jan. Need to clean the mess..." That was all. I walked back to the office and started surfing the Web and checking my e-mails. Then my own bowels moved and I released them in the proper, usual place. And I called Jan in San Francisco. It was 6:45 am. I must have awakened her, but she did answer the call. I said, "Jan, you need to come. Priam is really bad." We had a short back and forth conversation during which I refused to tell her that Priam had died. "Is he still breathing?" she asked. "I don't know," I answered. "Go and put your hand in front of his nose," she begged me. I walked down to the dead body, placed my hand as said, and could only muster, "I don't know Jan... Perhaps, faintly... You better come..." She replied, "coming..."
It took her over two hours. I spent most of the time on the Web until a few minutes before she arrived when I cleaned the poo-poo and began preparing Priam's grave under a redwood grove where two of our old cats -- Bijou and her son, Luigi -- are already buried.
She parked her car in the driveway and walked toward me. Before she could reach me she burst into tears. "He is dead, isn't he?" she asked. I answered, "Yes, he is." "I knew it," she said as we embraced and my tears at long last came flowing down my cheeks as the water runs down the creek during the rainy season. We were together, at last. Only Priam was missing.
We walked down the stairs to the bedroom and sat next to Priam. Jan, devastated and uncontrollably sobbing, kept telling him -- a dead being -- how sorry she was for not having found the right medicine to keep him alive. (There was no right medicine, Jan. His time had come. All the MRIs in the world would not have saved him from his most probable brain tumor and his eventual heart failure. Time is not controllable, whatever the human mythology panders). Time, however, was not on our side. His body was getting stiffer. So, I left Jan and Priam and walked up the hill to fetch our mini Kubuta tractor. Drove it back down all the way to the small redwood grove located 100 yards from the house, and started digging his grave with the help of the backhoe.
Once satisfied with the depth and size of the hole, I drove the tractor as close as I could to the bedroom door. Jan went to grab a bright orange towel and laid it on the bucket so that Priam's body would not be in contact with the coldness of the steel loader. Even dead, his body deserved the utmost respect. Then we walked into the bedroom and with tender care, painfully carried and deposited him in the bucket. Blinded by a torrent of tears, I gingerly drove to his resting place and as gently as I could, dropped his body, which fell in place perfectly, with the orange towel covering most of him. Jan straightened the towel, as I drove the tractor away and shut off the engine.
Priam had two favorite plants for his morning pees -- lavender and rosemary. I suppose that despite what one would think was a legitimate objection by the plants, Priam was attracted to their breathtaking scents. So we went and gathered some rosemary and lavender and laid them next to his beautiful head, and scattered a few more all over his body and the orange towel. Do in death as you'd do in life. The scents are part of him.
His eyelids had not closed fully. It was like he still wanted to look at us. I gently closed them. And I caressed him one last time.
Heartbroken, I made use of the tractor again, and once the deed was done, I simply walked away. Jan stayed behind -- always been a stronger person... She gathered flat stones and one by one covered the entire grave, not wanting it to be disturbed or dug up by the wandering wildlife that takes possession of the land at night.
Priam's burial spot
Redwood grove and Priam
Then she joined me and sat in front of the computer screen and watched photo after photo of Priam's life mingling with ours. After a while, we walked back to his grave and sat by, hand in hand, reminiscing...
The night eventually set in. We were emotionally and physically exhausted. It was time to go to bed. We made sure that Priam's son, Mestor, was in; that so was Marcel, the cat we saved a year or so ago; and we retreated to our bed and our silent mourning.
Something was missing, however -- the sound of breathing. The space was empty. We practically did not sleep at all. The morning after was even worse than the morning before. There was a void that could not be filled, and, if countless testimonies attest, won't be filled for quite some time.
It may look like sheer sentimentality to some; the privilege of the booboisie happy-few that permits crying over a dog when so many humans die of disease, hunger, and wars. So be it. Call it self-serving sentimentality. Priam, however, could not do much to change the world, though he did a lot to change ours.
In 1998, as we were restoring the small house we had bought in 1993, we finally reached the point when we could get a few hens. The place was located in the San Francisco Bay Area. While it had a Menlo Park address, it sat in an unincorporated part of San Mateo County. As such, hens -- but not roosters -- were tolerated as long as the County did not hear complaints from neighbors. We had a rather big yard -- almost 1/2 acre -- that we had enclosed. I wanted hens and fresh eggs, which I had experienced in times past with my grandparents. Jan, the ever-accommodating friend and lover, agreed to it. The concern we had was how to keep the birds safe. There were hovering hawks and potentially deadly nighttime visits by raccoons. We needed a line of defense. What about a dog?
We thought of an Australian cattle dog. The daughter of a friendly acquaintance was working at the Humane Society of San Mateo. We asked her to notify us when the right dog -- a baby...I definitely wanted a baby -- got into the kennel. It happened a month or so later. We rushed to the place. They showed us the puppy. He was all over our ankles, rushing from his helper to us at lightning speed. A woman then took us in a room and started asking questions about our lifestyle, and the reasons we wanted a dog. We answered honestly. We said we were two very quiet people, looking for a dog for companionship and for safeguarding the hens we intended to host. "Are you ready," she asked, "to spend two to three hours a day taking care of a very lively dog?" "No," we answered. Then she said, "Okay, please follow me."
She led us to the kennel, where cages after cages were filled with dogs waiting to be adopted. In one of these was a tiny little thing. As we came up to its prison, it raised its head slightly and looked at us in the eyes. It was a look that seemed to mean, "why bother, why am I still alive, what are you people doing here?"
That little thing had been found, or abandoned, in Oregon -- not many inhabitants and dog adopters there. The staff thought that "it" -- remember, he is still an "it" -- would have a better chance to be adopted in the Bay Area where the human population is much greater. "It" was so cute! -- about 8 weeks old.
Little thing kept looking at us. "Any interest in me, folks? I've not been that lucky so far -- though, I reckon, I'm here and still alive..." The helper took it out of its cage and we walked to a bigger outside enclosure with a concrete floor and a tennis ball. The little thing walked back and forth between Jan and me, smelling our scents (remember Priam's favorite plants?). Then the helper grabbed the tennis ball, and threw it. "Little thing" ran to fetch it and brought it back to Jan. Jan threw it again, and "little thing" did its dance again. We were sold within minutes. (For the record, the trickster, who now was in the process of becoming a "he," never ever repeated the tennis ball feat!) It was July 16, 1999. We were summoned to sleep on our decision and come back the next day to sign the adoption papers and pay a couple of fees, which we did. Two days later, July 19, we picked up the poor thing that had just been fixed and was heavily sedated. Jan took him in her arms for what became an extraordinary bond between the two of them, and we drove home.
Now, we had a dog and we were up to getting chicks. How were we going to get "it" to become a "him"?
That night, "it"/"he" slept on the linoleum floor of our washing room and did all its/his natural calls. We quickly learned to use The New York Times to save the lino!
Still, "it" had to become "he" -- a necessary shift in our mindset. That creature was no longer a thing; it had become part of this childless couple and, objectively, needed to be known, acknowledged, recognized, as a part of the human selves -- "our" dog...though we learned quickly that, "We never really own a dog as much as he owns us" (Gene Hill).
Jan made a long list of possible names, but, having the indulgence of being the alpha male, I ignored her list and decided he would be named "Priam," pronounced Pree-am in French. (He would ultimately become trilingual: He spoke and understood the canine language and understood both French and English.)
Priam, for those in the know, was the King of Troy (in Greek mythology), but that's not the reason I chose the name. Priam was a dog that my grandparents had in the mid nineteen sixties, another chien perdu sans collier. That "Priam" I would meet during school holidays, the only times I was not being constantly maltreated by my own progenitor. I loved him much and he always looked like he was waiting for me when I came back -- as though I had never departed in the first place.
I wanted the "little thing" to remind me of that small window in time when a dog was embracing me as my supposedly "human" progenitor (to this day, I cannot call him my father) was destroying me. Jan, the ever-accommodating one who had gone on a business trip, went with the name.
Priam came into our lives with a lot of pee and poo-poo, but he promptly, within a few weeks, got his compass and found the yard. Then he grew up amidst cats and newly acquired chicks, whose food he enjoyed with abandon. He played with all without any hint of aggressiveness.
Priam in repose
Priam at attention
Within months, he became the friend we've known till this sad day. He cared about the cats. He defended the hens and could smell or hear a raccoon in the middle of the night, rushing out to attack the intruder, which he did with a measurable amount of success though we did lose a chicken occasionally. What he could not do was defend them against the hawks, which would fly down at high speed and try to grab the head of a hen (we lost a few over the years). He looked at everything, including us, and the occasional visitors, with constant attention, amusement, bemusement, and sensitivity. What counted most for him was to be with us. Where we were, he was.
Priam and Gilles
Gilles and Priam
For almost 4,000 days, he graced us with indubitable loyalty, day in and day out. In that entire time, we parted with him for a few days just twice. First, we went to the East Coast, visiting Maine and Swans Island, before joining with Frank and Nancy Wycoff in Oneonta, upstate New York. We left him in the care of a local kennel. The second time, for a visit with Milo Clark and his wife Lee on the Big Island of Hawaii, we had a colleague of Jan baby-sit him at home. There was the other time, a one-night May 2004 stint in Santa Rosa (Northern California), where he was taken away from me by force, as violent pigs took me to jail on the charge of driving under the influence of alcohol -- a charge that did not hold water in court, but took one full year to clear at much expense. These pigs imprisoned him in a "humane shelter" as they did me in an inhumane jail. The next morning, still stunned by the inhumanity of the pigs (hear me, J. Ortiz, I.D. # 16630?) I rushed with the help of a taxi driver to the location where Priam was held hostage -- a location I could not figure out by myself.
There, they would not let Priam go until I had proven that his rabies shot was in good order. Of course, I could not prove anything from where I stood. I begged, I shouted, I cried, until they let us go. Priam rushed out in the parking lot and released a huge amount of pee and shit that he had retained until getting back with me.
With me he was, day in and day out. No Gilles without Priam, no Priam without Gilles -- le Gilles de Priam, et le Priam de Gilles, as I kept telling him over the years.
But Priam was not about me. He liked me, he was deeply loyal to me, but his true calling and love was Jan. He had a passion for her. Every evening he would sense and hear Jan's car commuting back from work, and rain or shine would rush to greet her, tail wagging widely and barking in abandon. When we moved to Boonville in the summer of 2004 and Jan had to commute on a weekly basis leaving on Monday mornings to San Francisco and coming back to Boonville on Friday afternoons or evenings, we patiently waited for her. On departure, he would go with her to the car, then look at me and I'd tell him, Jan, elle va revenir... ("Jan, she's going to come back"). He'd stay out until the car disappeared and would trot back into the house. On Fridays, I'd tell him, Jan, elle va venir, tu sais... ("Jan, she's coming, you know") and his tail would wag, and he would wait until, long before I heard any engine sound, he was running along the driveway to greet her and receive from Jan's hand the traditional welcoming bone.
While he would spend part of the day on my bed and stay with me in the evening, the moment I turned the light off he would jump down and go sleep on his bed. Then, in the morning upon awakening, I would find his head reposing on the side of the bed to greet me. (Another mystery with dogs -- and cats too: They know before you do that you are waking up!) With Jan, on the other hand, he would sleep all night long on her bed, tightly ensconced against her body. Or when the two of us were together, he would once again depart when the lights were turned off, but he could not wait to jump on the bed once I had awakened, dressed, and left the bedroom. Jan was his true love (I confess that she is indeed much more lovable than this cranky Frenchman with a Gallic temper!).
Buck, Priam, and Tee, August 2000
Buck and Tee are also resting.
They were the faithful companions of Helen and Steve Mader.
Beside loving Jan and being friendly to all, he had another love -- not just food or riding in the car, but water. The ocean, ponds, puddles, were his favorite places of entertainment. Some go to the movies, others play video games; he swam and rubbed his body wherever water was at hand. Jan would throw a wooden stick and he would rush to retrieve it as far as he had to go. Throw the stick, get it back, throw it again, and get it back again, and again, and again for an hour or so. Then he would happily make a mess of the car's seats! One day, after a long water excursion, on our way back to the car, being who he was -- a friendly fellow to the human bipeds -- he saw an open door and jumped right in and shook the water off his body. Unfortunately, it was not our car but that of two young women who watched the mess in awe, as they were not particularly amused by the theatrics. They still managed a smile when, on my prodding, he jumped out and rushed to greet them. He had his way with people. No one ever held a grudge against him.
Priam, July 2000
Priam, August 2000
Life is a routine. Days are following days. It can be very prosaic. We do as we can, all of us, and work or struggle for what we think is worth working or struggling. Then, suddenly, an event shatters that sense of emotional quietness. That event occurred in the spring of 2006. A deliveryman from UPS drove up to drop off a computer purchase. Priam, all barking in full tune, ran to the truck door. The deliveryman, unimpressed, used to countless occurrences, stood at ease with a cookie in his hand. Priam jumped on the steps of the side door but instead of reaching for the cookie, he went "fly-catching" and fell back on the ground. He immediately stood up and started running toward the house, wobbling and losing balance. He fell, breathing profusely. It was his first seizure. The UPS man was apologetic -- "I did not do anything..." he mumbled (in America, we all fear tort suits...). I took the computer box in a hurry and dispatched him even faster, as I ran to Priam who was still breathing loudly. He looked at me -- oh again, Priam looking into my eyes, asking for help... I was stunned. I stayed with him for minutes that looked like centuries, and we walked back together into the house -- and I called Jan -- the last line of defense -- who told me to get him to the local Boonville veterinarian.
I did. An old man, whose accented mumbling I hardly understood, and who had previously diagnosed that Priam was suffering from an acute case of arthritis in his rear legs and would be dead within a year at the very most, told me that the seizures could be fatal. From his office I called Jan and sobbingly related the prognosis.
Jan did not let it happen. As we had done previously, we traveled to the veterinarian in Ukiah, CA, who had prescribed medication for Priam's arthritis (Novox, Omega-3 fatty acids, Glucosamine, and Arthroplex). Poor Priam had become a drug-addicted fellow -- an American story of lore. It kept him alive then, but he began aging rapidly and he would not run all over the place any longer.
My mother recommended we find another dog, not primarily for companionship with Priam, but for lowering the emotional blow when Priam would ineluctably die. Jan looked into it and found through the Web a dog that looked like Priam. The dog was in bad shape. He was a stray, having been abandoned on an Indian Reservation. He was about 18 months old, but he was very friendly and was a Priam look-alike. We took him home that very day, August 5, 2006. (Had to spend a bundle to have him fixed and to clean the wounds on his nose...) We called him Mestor, one of the 50 or so sons of Priam, the King of Troy.
Mestor, August 5, 2006
Mestor, September 2006
Priam took exception to the family addition and made sure that he was the dominant one. We had a few uncanny experiences, as, for instance, the two of them getting into a fight in a San Francisco street, and I, stupidly, putting my left hand in the wrong place...but it worked out fine. Priam remained the king of the house and Mestor his apprentice.
Life went on -- so the routine. Priam was healthy and Mestor was tentatively learning not to disappear every day for hours at a time. Jan came on Fridays, left on Mondays. We kept struggling with Swans (nothing "new"), and Priam was part of it. We were in it together, after all. Jan was there for me and so was Priam, and Mestor, and Marcel, and Blackie, as I was there for them.
Priam & Marcel, Oct. 2009
Mestor, Priam & Marcel
Priam licking Marcel
The second seizure struck a month ago, inside the house, next to the front door. It was horrible. Poor Priam released himself. I cleaned. It went downhill really fast from that day. He would barely walk anymore, and the seizures came popping. Yet, every time Jan would be home he would be on his 31 (as the French say) -- Jan never once had to witness the pain, except through my phone calls. To the very last moment Jan was to be spared in his mind and heart.
Love and tenderness aside, his life came to an end. The Ukiah veterinarian, Kevin Raymond, could do little but offering compassion and more drugs and MRIs. Choice was ours, we were told. Actually, Priam made the choice. Thank you.
Steve Mader, whose Tee and Buck died, and like us has no children, told me how hard it would be on us, losing all the love we gave and received. He said that it would take months, if not years, to move on and get a child again.
Jan and I are looking to that time, for "No one can fully understand the meaning of love unless he's owned a dog. A dog can show you more honest affection with a flick of his tail than a man can gather through a lifetime of handshakes" (Gene Hill).
Priam & his Indian friend
Priam on the deck, 2004
Neither Mestor nor any possible future companion will ever replace Priam in my heart and mind. He was one of a kind.
Happy Priam chasing lizards in the lavenders, 2003
Mon gentil Priam, mon gentil Priam, mon gentil Priam...
Dors petit homme, dors petit frère. We've laid you to rest in the redwoods, but you are buried in our hearts.
Note: The title of this piece, Dors Petit Homme, Dors Petit Frère, comes from the lyrics of Berceuse, a 1964 song by Jean Ferrat, a much admired comrade. The title can be best translated as "sleep gentle man, sleep gentle brother." The French word petit has many meanings depending on the context. In his song, Ferrat does not mean "little" per se, but the subtle and tender attribute of kindness. Dors mon Priam, dors mon "petit" frère...
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