The Truth, Mainly - 04/02/2001

Ned revisited: a sentimental journey
by Leon Satterfield

It's been a year now since our dog died.

That was Ned, the one-eyed beagle with the mismatched jaws and the headstrong personality who often bullied his way into this column.

He was not one of your touchy-feely sentimental dogs. So he'd probably be disgusted by what follows.

Before I begin, I should tell you that I feel guilty about my own sentimentality here.

When I was an English grad student, sentimentality was something to be scoffed at. To get an advanced degree, we had to sign an anti-sentimentality pledge.

That meant we had to snicker over literature that invited us to weep. Stuff like the Civil War poem called "Break the News to Mother" about a boy who runs away from home to join a Union regiment and of course gets killed in a noble effort to save the fallen flag from the Confederates. His father, "a noted general," shows up just in time for this scene:

"The general, in a moment, knelt down beside the boy,/Then gave a cry that touched all hearts that day,/ 'It's my son, my brave young hero; I thought you safe at home.'/'Forgive me, Father, for I ran away.'"

At which point we were to chortle knowingly. And then we read the boy's dying speech to his father:

"Just break the news to Mother; she knows how dear I love her,/And tell her not to wait for me, for I'm not coming home;/Just say there is no other can take the place of Mother;/Then kiss her dear sweet lips for me,/And break the news to her."

How we hooted at that.

(Incidentally, my darkest moment in 40 years of teaching came early on when I decided to do a job on sentimental writing. Without saying what I was up to, I began class by reading aloud all four stanzas of "Break the News to Mother," fully expecting the students would be as amused as I'd been taught to be. I expected that amusement to be audible, but there was only silence as I finished. When I looked up from the page, the first face I focused on belonged to the best writer in class, a gentle and lovely 18-year-old who had large tears running down her rosy cheeks. Unmanned, I dismissed class 47 minutes early and retreated to my office to meditate on the corrupting influence of education.)

But now I'm retired. I can be as sentimental as I damn well please.

So we observed the first anniversary of Ned's death in ways that would have had him rolling his one good unsentimental eye and spinning in his grave, had we buried him.

But we hadn't. We'd had him cremated and we carried his ashes around in a little box in the back seat of the car for several months. I'd talk to the ashes.

"Look at that dope running the red light, Ned," I 'd say. "Whaddya think?"

Then last summer, we took the ashes to Paradise Regained, the prettiest building site in the Colorado Rockies.

There, my wife and I and two neighbors, Jack and Verna—all four of us misty-eyed—took turns ritually scattering the ashes along a trail that runs beside a stream that Ned considered his private domain.

Now, a year to the day after Ned died, the four of us walk the trail again.

Ned's presence, we all agree, is still palpable.

Here's where he took on a porcupine, not once but three times, each time ending up in the vet's office to get the needles out of his mouth.

Here's where he got between a doe and her fawn—so the doe chased him all the way home.

Here's the Ned-path he wore in the grass by taking a shortcut to Jack and Verna's house to sponge puppy biscuits and peanut butter. It's the same path he ran home on, his nose bleeding from scratches growing out of close encounters with their two taunting cats. He'd blasted his way into their house, knocking Jack, who was in the open doorway bent over to remove his boots, flat on his back. Ned licked his face as he ran by.

Here's where he buried—and dug up—ripe deer parts the mountain lion didn't want. Ned would bring the parts home for us to admire.

And here, beside the path, is nearly petrified dog scat, perhaps more than a year old, reminding us, as the Ned hair still in the warp and woof of our furniture fabric reminds us, that a dog is damned near forever.

By the time we get home from our memorial walk, we're blowing noses and wiping eyes.

And I briefly consider writing a sentimental poem in which Ned, as narrator, asks us to just break the news of his demise to the beagles at the puppy farm south of Lincoln where he was born in 1987.

But then I imagine Ned's reaction to such a poem.

He'd float down from doggy heaven on his little doggy angel wings, grin wickedly, lift his leg and pee on my shoe. That's what he'd do.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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