“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
I decided to read Emily Rapp's book when I read her article in Bark magazine (a version of the article is here on the blog Little Seal that is the basis for much of the book). Ms. Rapp visited the Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary with her baby son Ronan. The animals all have significant physical disabilities and illnesses and the sanctuary is meant to be a peaceful place where they can live out their final days. Ronan, though a baby, was also near the end of his life. He had Tay Sachs disease, a brutal disorder that causes babies to stop developing at about the age of 6 months and then regress losing all their skills, suffering seizures, blindness, paralysis, difficulty eating and swallowing, and finally inevitably death.
The book is not written in a linear fashion, its more of a collection of Rapp's thoughts and experiences as she parents Ronan and confronts her grief and thinks about the meaning of mortality. Its also refreshingly unsentimental. She is not overtly religious, but is spiritual and respects the religious beliefs of others and participates in a number of religious ceremonies and activiites with Ronan. She regularly takes Ronan to a Mexican Catholic shrine, for example. As someone who does not subscribe to a particular belief system myself I liked this aspect of the book. I am neither an atheist nor religious and Rapp seems to match my mindset in that way. I am fairly content with the mystery of it all.
Throughout the book Rapp points out that parenting Ronan is not all misery and heartbreak. She talks about experiencing moments of great joy. Ronan lives in the moment, and he forces his parents to do the same thing. Rapp acknowledges that due to his disability her son experiences the world in much the same way as a dog, one reason that she brings him to the animal sanctuary. She knows his experience is sensory rather then introspective so she tries to appreciate that with him.
The book is certainly heartbreaking and I've read comments on Good Reads
by reviewers saying it was simply to depressing to read, but in a way I thought it was rather hopeful too. There is so much emphasis in our culture about living longer and stretching out our life as much as possible, but Rapp asks what happens to just appreciating our lives rather then obsessing over extending them.
While I am by no means relating the loss of a baby to the loss of a dog, although Rapp herself says there is no hierarchy of pain and loss, I can related a bit to what Rapp is saying. When you fall in love with a dog you are in love with a creature whose life span is undeniably abbreviated when compared to your own. As the owner of 3 senior dogs, I often find myself fixating on how much time I have left with them. I regularly wake up on Monday morning and feel so depressed at the thought another weekend is over. On each birthday and Holiday I can't shake the nagging fear that it is their last. I know plenty of pet owners feel the same way and to all of them I would enthusiastically recommend the book.
Below is a picture from the blog of baby Ronan with a dog at the sanctuary: