Letter from Tekoa: Dog Days

April 2014 Home Column List 1

Letter from Tekoa: Dog Days

Sherri Mandell

At 9:30 A.M., we were trying to figure out how to lift her 45-pound body, which lay outside the claw-marked wooden front door.

It was summer in Tekoa in the northern hills of Judea and the heat would rise to 100 degrees later in the day. My husband said the dog was already dead at 7 in the morning when he left for morning prayers. When I got up, I went outside and lifted the stained gray sheet he had thrown over her and could see that she had turned to rock. I knew that her soul had left.

JJ wasn’t my dog; she was Koby’s, my 13-year-old son who was stoned to death by Palestinian terrorists in the wadi 11 years ago. He had picked her out of a litter of puppies at a neighbor’s house when she was just a few weeks old.

When Koby and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were murdered in 2001, JJ had been with us for two years. The two eighth-graders cut school to enjoy the wilderness. My son and Yosef were victims number 62 and 63 in the second intifada. More than 1,200 Israelis were murdered from 2001 to 2005.

“If only she’d gone with the boys that day,” I had thought, “maybe she could have protected them.” The night Koby and Yosef went missing, my husband and I stayed up waiting for them. We listened to the dogs barking in the wadi all night. Later, we learned the howling was not good for the Jews. In biblical Egypt, the dogs were silent when the Jews fled, protecting their panicked exodus.

The boys were missing for almost a day before their bodies were found in a cave in a canyon, a 10-minute walk from our home. Keep walking on the steep path that winds past the stark limestone cliffs and you will reach the Dead Sea.

When I took JJ to be vaccinated a year after Koby’s murder, I asked the veterinarian about training JJ as a guard dog. Terrorists were breaking into people’s homes at night, murdering whole families. The summer after Koby’s murder, my 12-year-old son took to sleeping outside in our yard in a sleeping bag because he felt safer there than in his bed.

The vet told me that JJ wasn’t a guard dog, that she would run away from an intruder and would have been no help to Koby and Yosef.

Jewish mystics say that animals have a nefesh, a soul. It is lower than a human’s neshama but, in some ways, it may be higher. It has the clearest connection to instinct. Like a baby, the nefesh knows what it needs. We humans with our higher souls, get confused. Sometimes, like my son’s murderers, we choose to become evil.

Several years ago, JJ’s stomach swelled as if she were pregnant and she took to drinking enormous quantities of water. We took her to the vet, who told us that she might have cancer, that she would need chemo pills for the rest of her life at the cost of $250 a month. There would also be restrictions on her freedom. We would have to watch every bite she ate while she was on these pills or she could die from the medication.

But JJ was a free dog. In those days, unlike the rest of us who were terrified of terrorists on buses, in malls, on the street and in the canyons, dogs roamed about. We adopted a Christian Scientist attitude: Let JJ live without more tests or medicine. Let her enjoy life.

JJ lived another three years, at 13 a long-enough life—as long as my son lived. But hers were dog years.

I called the municipal council after she died. “How do we bury our dog? Will you come and get her?”

“Oh no,” I was told. “You have to bury her yourself—or burn her.”

Burn her? My husband and I agreed that there was no way we would burn her. And bury her? Where? How? We live in a harsh landscape where the earth is an outcropping of rock. So we decided to do what others in our part of the country have done.

My husband and I tucked a blanket under JJ hammock-style and heaved her into the car trunk. We drove along the dirt security road to the wadi, up an incline so steep I was afraid the car would stall. Stopping the car near a small stand of pine trees, we took the blanket from the trunk, lifting the weight and watching as JJ descended into the canyon where the heat would soon cause her body to evanesce.

Still, when I walk into the house I search for her. Sometimes I think I hear the snare drum of her claws on the stairs.

The first stage of grieving is longing, but I don’t long for JJ. I long for my son: his presence, humor and intelligence, the certainty and belief I had that life was predictable, a longing for my family’s innocence.

People said incredibly stupid things to us after Koby was murdered: I know how you feel. I was so sad when my dog died.

One morning, when I came downstairs, the garbage was scattered across the kitchen floor—a cat had snuck in through the open back door, and I wished it had been JJ.

Months later, I remember JJ whenever I toss out the week’s leftovers. Ours was an ecological relationship: She ate whatever would have been thrown out.

The universe, too, has its own ecology—from dust to dust. My favorite line in the davening is at the end of the Amida: “Let my soul be like dust.” The dust loses itself and nobody cares. It sifts through our fingers, is as common as the air, as forgettable as air.

But what is forgettable if we allow our souls to appreciate the miracle and beauty of the ordinary? In her poem “Overland to the Islands,” Denise Levertov beautifully describes dogs: “Every step an arrival.”

Sometimes you can see the dust dancing in the sunlight and you are stunned by the ordinary beauty of the world. You hold on to that moment, to its glory and loss. I think of JJ snoring on our couch, her nefesh grateful for whatever was given to her.

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