©Evan Nichols, 2012

My parents divorced when I was fifteen, something they had been working on for years. After one screaming fight, I asked my brother if they’d divorce. He said that he hoped so and I cried.

After divorce parents work hard to redefine their relationships with their children and, in some cases, those relationships take on additional intensity. In our case, my father did spend new kinds of extended time with us. He took us to the horse races in East St. Louis, Illinois, where we’d pore over the racing form analyzing why a certain horse was more likely to beat another. My father loved studying past performances, pointing out which horses had early speed, which might come from behind, and which had more or less “class” than others.

At his apartment, there was another child of sorts: Ratatouille, our grey poodle. Not a standard poodle – the large kind, and not the teeny kind, just a knee-high dog with a pointy snout and brown, crusty mascara. Ratatouille took his name from my parents’ love of French cuisine, something cemented by a happy year of marriage in Nancy, France in the 1950s. I can picture dinner times when Rata – that’s what we called him – worked us for food. Or maybe we used Rata to get rid of that piece of gristle that couldn’t be chewed. He didn’t like radishes either. After dinner, my father would scoop Rata onto his lap as he pushed his chair back. My dad’s soft eyes registered peacefulness in these moments.

When my parents divorced, Rata moved out with my dad. Maybe because my mom didn’t want him. Or maybe because she knew deep down that it was only fair. My dad needed that dog. He needed that dog as a lightning rod to ground whatever kinds of emotional pain he had. He needed that dog so that he might keep it together as he made his way into a new life away from us three children and his former wife.

One day, I met my dad at lunch. We stood in the oppressive heat of July, sweating from the humidity. He held Rata in his arms. Mostly because he knew that an old dog that couldn’t walk and that couldn’t take care of himself needed to die, he cried.

What I knew that day and I reaffirm now is that animals have an emotional intelligence, patience and kindness that they invite into our lives; we might believe that we take care of them; but in my heart, I believe that humans grounded in the love of animals have a better chance of making it through the turmoil and pain of living. That’s true for me anyway.

©Tom Meyer, 2012

Tom Meyer was a fellow in the 1991 Summer Institute when Laury Fischer, Carol Tateishi and Maryann Smith co-facilitated. Aside from being a die-hard St. Louis Cardinal fan, he loves biking, being with his family, and a professional life informed over and over by the Writing Project. He currently is one of the directors of the Hudson Valley Writing Project in New York.

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2 Responses to “Dogs and Pain by Tom Meyer”

  1. Adela Says:

    My dog, Dash, with a soft glance of his brown eyes and a twitch of his eyebrows before a deep sigh as he settles into the couch beside me, agrees.

  2. tateish Says:

    I only just read this piece for the first time, Tom. You beautifully capture this painful and difficult time for you and your family and Rata’s special place in your hearts. I couldn’t imagine my life without Esme, out little rescue dog.

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