x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mourning a loved pet affects the appetite

The death of my dog meant the loss of the chief witness of the high and low points of my life.

Emile died. Toast, dip, repeat. Emile was my dog and he died and it seems appropriate to me that his death should be as obscure and unfathomable a mystery as his origins were. Ten years ago, he was rescued from a skip in the drug capital of New Mexico. Ten thousand miles and a million memories later, he ended up back in a skip: this time, in Abu Dhabi. This time, in death.

I have sought some way to appease this heartbreak, to refashion this indigestible stain into the rawest of silk with which I can suffocate the day's perceptions. But silk is fragile, and part of coming to terms with Emile's death has meant shunning the feeble comfort of an emotionally convenient narrative.

It may seem weird or just plain pathetic to admit that Emile taught me more about love, loyalty and longing across distance than any other relationship ever has, but it's true. His impact on my life was elemental and uncomplicated, defined by the kind of purity that was as refreshing as it was unlikely, and it humbled me when I was at my most implosively self-obsessed: 21 years old and barely capable of caring for myself, much less another living being. I loved him wholly, restricted neither by expectation nor condition, with my heart and not my ego.

"What I love about the dogs," wrote my friend Josh today, "is the way they share our illusions with us, even though they know we're deluded." For as long as I loved him, I thought that saying goodbye to Emile would be the hardest thing imaginable. What I had not considered was that I might never have that chance.

I never worried about him being in pain or afraid because after I adopted him, I was certain he would not be. I worried about losing him to old age, and planned an elaborate but emotional exit for him that involved lots of steak and ee cummings. The plan for that was: I'd feed him steak, we'd put him to sleep, and then we'd bury him in hallowed ground. But as the psalmist reminds us, God does render "the plans of the peoples of no effect".

There was only one occasion on which Emile ended up being allowed a steak. When our plane landed in Dubai after his first international journey, I dispatched my amazingly patient parents to procure filet mignon for my scraggly beloved. I knew the next time I'd see him overeat would be the bitter end. And in the unwritten story, I was there of course, to feel his soul depart.

Now, before you think I've lost my mind or been spared a life of human loss and suffering, let me say this: I have lost people I loved intensely. The difference, though, is that no human ever left it up to me to protect them. It was my duty to guard Emile, and though I don't know how I could have done a better job of it that terrible night, I know that I failed.

After Emile died, food seemed vulgar. Everything in my fridge reminded me of him: things he liked and didn't like. His favourite things: avocados, butter, peanut butter, cold roast chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. I was sick to my stomach, timing every passing minute to the biological breakdown of his little body. How could I eat when he lay dead? I wanted to compact myself into something small and vegetal, into plant matter; anything close to the earth and its utility, in an effort to feel closer to him - a mushroom or an elf. One day, I reached for a bite of salmon and pictured Emile springing toward his death like a salmon going home to spawn.

So instead, I nibbled reluctantly on bread that had been toasted and then cooled. The warm, amber scent of fresh toast was unbearable; it reminded me of the rich, wheaten smell of his coat after a bath. I dipped crunchy shards of bread sparingly in bright green olive oil to remind me of life instead of death. I dreamt of cleansing my memory with sips of rainwater from wild flower petals, and then I'd think of Emile and our lily pond, which he adored, and I would break down all over again. His death led me into a mental prison where my imagination and problem-solving skills were a liability. Toast, dip, repeat.

When dealing with the formal and the informal aftermath of any death, whether socially (wakes, funerals and other mourning rituals) or privately (immobilising grief, insomnia, madness), etiquette seems an arbitrary consideration. Every religion and culture has its own customs. After a Hindu funeral, it is customary to bring gifts of fruit. In Christianity and in many secular households, mourners often host a gathering for funeral attendees. In Islam, it's customary to arrange for lunch to be delivered during the three days of mourning. In Egypt, the nawwahat are hired female mourners who cry and wail to manifest the unspeakable expressions of the anguished.

Jews sit shiva, when visitors bring food to mourners for seven days to eliminate the need for them to think about how or what to eat. The first meal upon returning from the cemetery is called the seudat havrach, which traditionally includes eggs and other round objects to symbolise the circle of life. But the thought of eating an egg - or any animal product, for that matter - overwhelms my omnivorous proclivities. I used to love to grab Emile's meaty haunches and say, "I could feast on you for a week, Emile!"

I spent a decade spellbound, held captive by the complete loss of objectivity that characterises true love. My version of a baby video obsession — and by that I mean raw footage that would be skull-numbingly boring to anyone but me - is a hard drive crammed with countless films of my canine garbage disposal catching random morsels in his mouth. Emile had perfect coordination.

He was also the primary witness during my adulthood, making his eyes the only observers of what I ate during some of the lowest and highest points of my life. What's more, he got the scraps, literally and figuratively. We were bound by that silent pact, too.

Emile disappeared six days ago. He escaped after dark through the gate as it was closing. Before that terrible night, leaving the confines of our property had never interested him. Despite being microchipped, collared and tagged, he was picked up by the municipality and disposed of in a stray animal mass grave before we were able to put all the missing pieces together. I'm trying to keep in mind that animals don't create ceremony around birth and death. That's what we do. But it is so very hard. Emile was all soul. And sometimes, so is food. Food is soul, even when your soul itself rejects it. Toast, dip, repeat.

artslife@thenational.ae