There's a little scratch on the back of my right hand near the wrist. It's been healing quickly, but there's still about half an inch of red, visibly healing, skin on either side of the scratch mark.
Because it wasn't very deep, I'm doubtful that the scratch will leave any permanent scar or mark, although in some ways I kind of wish that it would. For the past few days, this scratch has served me as a useful spiritual tool, a reminder to focus on the inevitable mutability of all things: the change, decay, and loss of lives and objects, and the accompanying sweetness of living in the present moment's fullness, whatever that brings.
Last Sunday, I took our dogs to the dog park, where dog lovers bring their companions to run and play off leash. I saw a guy who I've talked to before a couple of times -- his dog, Ginger, sometimes plays with Gracie, so we've chatted. Sunday he brought Ginger, who's a 9-month-old pit-boxer mix, and he also had a little puppy who he was carrying in his jacket. She was a beautiful little Rottweiler puppy, all black, without the usual brown markings. He'd adopted her from the SPCA shelter, where her entire litter had been given up. She was too little to play with the other dogs at the park, so he carried her in his jacket, and let other people hold her and handle her. She was exuberant and excited, strong for her size, and very friendly with people. I carried her around for a while, and at some point in our playing, she must have scratched my hand slightly.
One of the great things about going to the dog park is that you can play with your companions, but also get to know other dogs and their people. Because they are social animals, happy to form relationships, dogs keep us in tune with some of the basic good things in the world -- love, play, and friendship. When anyone brings a puppy, there's always a cluster of people wanting to welcome the new one into the social world of the park, to pet and handle the soft puppy fur, and receive happy puppy kisses. I've often thought it must be really wonderful to be one of these puppies adopted into a good family early on -- everywhere you go, people are excited and happy to see you and play with you.
I like Ginger's dad*, Kevin, and I really liked playing with the new puppy. So the next couple of times I went to the park, I was hoping to see them again. I didn't see him until Thursday, when he showed up with just Ginger.
The puppy (whose name I never even learned) had come down with distemper, even though the shelter said she had been given all her shots. She threw up her food Sunday night, and had trouble breathing. Kevin took her to the vet, who said either it was a bronchial infection or it was distemper -- if the latter, there's little that can be done for a very young dog. And sadly that was the case. Kevin stayed up with her for two nights as she struggled to survive. He gave her the antibiotics the vet had hopefully prescribed, and CPR when she couldn't breathe. When she collapsed on Tuesday they went to the emergency vet, where she passed away.
Kevin is devastated, and so many of us who know him at the park are sad too. Ginger is sad. All the promise and joy that a puppy brings, lost so suddenly and in such a dreadful way.
It does happen sometimes that even dogs who have their shots come down with distemper. She might have been exposed when she was very little, before getting any shots. Being housed at the shelter exposes dogs to lots of potential viruses. Simply being out in the world exposes puppies too. Because we live in a world of vaccine protocols we think that disease can be completely prevented -- which just isn't true, for dogs or people either. The lesson, as I see it, isn't about being angry with the shelter (as some people suggested Kevin ought to be) but about enjoying the moments that we do have with our loved ones. He and Ginger loved the puppy and gave her the best couple of weeks possible. I know I've been feeling sad about his loss, and extra-appreciative of Gracie and Wendell and my gf who share my life and fill it with love.
*I deliberately avoid using the word "owner" to describe a family relationship between humans and dogs. I prefer either "companion" or the parent/child terms used by many dog lovers.