The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum reads two excerpts from her essay collection The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, forthcoming in November from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

From the Introduction

For more than twenty years now I have been making something of a specialty of writing about myself. I still have mixed feelings about the whole genre. In some respects, serving as my own main subject has been a great convenience. It saves me money on travel, research fees, and even potential litigation (I cannot sue myself for libel, though once or twice I’ve imagined confronting myself at a party, asking, “How could you say those things!” and throwing a drink in my face). In other respects, though, it feels lazy. We all have a few good yarns in us, but I tend to think most of the best ones make the narrator a peripheral character rather than the star of the show. The best ones come from the outside world, where careful listening and a resistance to preconceptions can yield stories that do all the things we want and need stories to do—split sides, break hearts, open minds or even change them.

But for all my ambivalence about mining my own life for material, I can’t seem to quit for very long. In the end, the work I always come back to, the work that seems best remembered and draws the strongest reactions, which is to say, is loved and hated in equal measure, is the work in which the “outside world” forms a vital partnership with that I narrator. And this book is nothing if not a testament to that partnership. All of these essays have been written in the last few years, not on assignment for any periodical but for the sole purpose of appearing in this book, in the company of one another.


From "The Dog Exception"

A week before my dog Rex died I submitted his photo and biographical details to a website called the Daily Puppy. As examples of oppressive Internet cuteness go, the D.P. is in the upper stratospheric reaches. People send in photos of their puppies, accompanied by descriptions that are often in the first person, as though the dogs have composed their own dating profiles. The goal is to win a coveted “Puppy of the Day” slot on the home page, a designation that invites a trail of gushing comments on the order of “Ooh, you precious baaaby!” and “You are so furrylicious I could hug you for hours.”

The site also has a category called “Grown-up Puppy of the Day.” One morning, as I looked at Rex and got the distinct feeling he didn’t have that many mornings left, I gathered up a handful of his best photos—Rex on the beach at Big Sur, Rex in the flower garden, Rex in front of the Christmas tree—and uploaded them to the Daily Puppy’s submission page, along with his (somewhat grammatically challenged) personal ad. “My name is Rex and I am a grown-up puppy . . . my humans say that there’s never been a dog loved as much as me.”

Despite an auto-reply saying that the high volume of submissions meant it would be weeks or months before my entry was even considered, Rex turned out to be the Grown-up Puppy of the Day the very next day. I was elated. This was essentially my version of my kid winning an Olympic gold medal. I immediately shared the link on Facebook, using many exclamation points. 

I won’t lie. Rex’s passing was the worst grief I’ve faced in my life so far. Even weeks after the fact, I had bruises on my forehed from where I’d dug my fingers in while sobbing. Even when he’d been gone for nearly a year, during which time I acquired two new dogs for whom my fondness grew every day, his absence felt like a hole I was forever stepping around. I often thought about how, as a high school actress with desultory ambitions of growing up and going pro, I’d worried about my inability to cry on cue. In the era of postmortem Rex (and actually for months prior, when, despite his relative spryness, the mere anticipation of his demise had me choking up on a near daily basis) I pictured myself triumphing as an inconsolable, suicidal Ophelia, summoning images of Rex while flooding the scenery with a monsoon of tears.

But it was not just Rex himself that brought out such blubbering. Upon his death, as though enduring a series of aftershocks nearly as traumatizing as the main event, I had the misfortune of receiving from several well-meaning parties a copy of a poem called “The Rainbow Bridge.” Actually to call it a poem might be pushing it. It’s more like a pitch for an animated children’s television show that’s been broken into lines of verse. Except it doesn’t even always appear in verse form. Sometimes it’s more like a five-paragraph essay. Often you see it printed out in a fancy font on pastel-colored paper, like a morbid wedding invitation. On YouTube there are multiple video versions, many featuring gauzy footage of clouds and pastures and using the music of Enya, surely without permission.

The idea behind “The Rainbow Bridge” is that there’s a vast green meadow “this side of heaven” where pets that were especially loved by their owners go when they die. In this meadow, which is also the entry point of a bridge that is literally made out of a rainbow and that leads to heaven, all sickness disappears and all injuries heal. The animals return to the spirited, bright-eyed creatures they were in the prime of life. In this meadow there is always fresh food and clean water and the sun always shines and the animals spend their days frolicking happily together, though they always miss the special human they had to leave behind on earth. Every once in a while, however, one of them “stops suddenly and looks into the distance.” Body quivering, he leaves the group and runs across the meadow as fast as he can.

"You have been spotted," the poem reads, "and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

And then you cross the Rainbow Bridge together . . ."

I try to avoid this piece of literature at all costs. Whenever I encounter it online or run into it in a veterinary office, where it will frequently be laminated and tacked to a wall amid pet-themed thank-you cards from grateful owners, I avert my eyes the same way I do when approaching something on the road that might be a dead dog. I do this not because the poem is bad, though it certainly is, but because by the third line my eyes will be glazed with tears and I will have to make a very conscious effort to shift my thoughts to something less personally upsetting than pet death. For instance, human rectal cancer.

According to Michael Schaffer’s One Nation Under Dog, a book I devoured a few years ago much the same way, as a teenager, despite never having owned a dog, I devoured Your Neapolitan Mastiff and You, “The Rainbow Bridge” emerged sometime in the early 1980s and has been published online at least 35,000 times. The byline almost always appears as “Anonymous,” though several would-be authors have claimed credit over the years. These include a psychologist who says the poem appeared on a dog club’s website after he wrote it for a grieving friend, and at least two authors of self-published books about the Rainbow Bridge, one of whom threatened to sue Universal Press Syndicate after it appeared in a Dear Abby column.

Over the years, Schaffer explains, the poem has been tweaked to satisfy certain gaps in its logic. There are Christian versions floating around that use scripture to challenge the traditional precept that animals lack souls and therefore cannot go to heaven. There are versions that retrofit the Rainbow Bridge so that it’s accessible not just to especially cherished pets but to all living creatures everywhere. And that makes sense. After all, how rainbowlike can a bridge really be if it accommodates the bed-sharing, carefully fed, bathed, and vaccinated animal companions of the world but not the millions of nameless, tagless, unwashed, and unbrushed creatures that die in shelters or perish on the streets? It would be like saying that the only people who will be reunited with loved ones in the afterlife are those lucky enough to have had a soul mate.

On the other hand, an equal-access Rainbow Bridge presents some real problems. Think of the overcrowding, the noise, the poop, and kennel cough. I imagine arriving at the bridge, fresh from my deathbed, only to wonder if the place I’ve come to is really a giant municipal dog pound—in other words, hell. What if I’ve been sentenced to an eternity surrounded by yapping Chihuahuas and unrehabilitable fighting dogs? What if—and this part is almost too devastating to contemplate—Rex cannot find me among the throngs? What if he stops suddenly and looks into the distance only to lose all traces of me as quickly as he sensed them? What if I am left to cross the bridge alone, without Rex, like a traveler who’s lost his dog on some far-flung highway, a lifetime away from any scent markers of home? This, of course, is worse than death. It’s worse than watching Rex die. It’s worse, I imagine, than dying myself. It is the absolute essence of abandonment. It’s what dying alone would mean to me. 

So there, I've admitted it. The Rainbow Bridge poem makes me cry because as much as I want to never see it again I want even more for it to be true. I want Rex to escort me into the afterlife the way he ushered me through real life—at least thirteen years of it. I want to believe that Rex will be there when I die because, like anyone, I am afraid of death and, like a lot of owners of "especially loved" pets (though most are smart enough not to say it out loud) he would bring me more comfort than any other creature, human or otherwise, I can currently think of.

It’s always said that pets provide unconditional love, but of course that's not true. The dog that is neglected or abused by its owner may try, for his own safety, to satisfy his owner’s whims, but he will not love him, unconditionally or otherwise. Humans could take a lesson from this. Unconditional love, as a term, rolls nicely off the tongue, but people say it without meaning it. The idea of loving someone no matter what they do is overrated, not to mention largely impossible. What is unconditional about dogs (about all animals, really, but somehow dogs have made an art of it) is their authenticity. No matter where they are or who they’re with, dogs are incapable of being anything but themselves. Show me a dog that puts on airs or laughs politely at an unfunny joke and I'll show you a human in a dog costume, possibly one owned and licensed by the Walt Disney Company.

And therein lies the irony of the dog exception. I may love dogs because they are so inherently without sap, because they are immune to manufactured emotion or self-engineered cuteness. And yet I express my affection for them in the most sentimental terms imaginable. I dump schmaltz on them by the truckload, cooing over my own dogs in cloying baby talk, fawning over strangers’ dogs in the park in the manner of a pervert casing the scene at a merry-go-round, writing Daily Puppy profiles in the first person and then slapping them on Facebook in a bid for the same attention craved by parents of toddlers who’ve mastered their mini-commodes. I’ll wait in line for an hour at my neighborhood’s annual Pet Photos with Santa holiday fund-raiser, force my dogs to pose with antlers on their heads, and then make custom cards using the portrait, which I’ll later decide not to send out for fear of seeming pathetic. I’ll then give in and send the card to a select few who I know will appreciate it, and not make fun of me. 

What does it say about the human need for mawkish emotion that, when met with some of the least counterfeit souls on earth, when graced by the presence of creatures for whom affectation is simply incompatible with their DNA, we roll them in sugar as if they were candied apples? What does it mean that people like me, who recoil in the face of culturally enforced cuteness, take the placid tabula rasa that is the essence of dogdom and write all over it in loopy purple cursive? I used to think such carrying-on was for people who needed to get a life. Now I wonder if such carrying-on is proof of life. How can we deny the urge to cover the blank spaces with our gooeyist impulses, to take the unknown and fill it with rainbows and wet furrylicious kisses? And what is more unknown than the contents of an animal’s mind? What do we yearn for more than the knowledge of what our dog is thinking—specifically, what he thinks of us?

Maybe only death is more unknown. Maybe the only knowledge more prized than a glimpse inside the mind of another living thing is a glimpse inside the end of life itself. And maybe that’s because pets are, in a way, living embodiments of death. They guarantee us nothing other than the near certainty that they will leave us well before we leave them. They are ticking time bombs that lick our faces. They are prescheduled heartbreak. They leave us no choice but to dread the Rainbow Bridge while secretly hoping it really exists. Our love for our pets is what separates us from the animals. Our love for animals is what makes us human. Which I guess is another way of saying it's what makes us both totally pathetic and exceedingly blessed.


Excerpted from The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum, published November 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Meghan Daum. All rights reserved.