I’m devastated to let you all know that Rothko left the world this past Tuesday. He had cancer on his spleen (the same thing Honey had and which led to her death almost exactly 6 years ago). He had stopped eating and wasn’t doing well and the prognosis from my vet was not good. Even though he’d mostly lost his appetite, he regained it for some really yummy stuff at the end. He went out eating hot dogs and being told how wonderful he was. It was terrible for me, but to him those final moments probably rocked.
I can’t believe that just two weeks ago I went on a hike with him in the Catskills and he had seemed so young and healthy for an older dog of 11 years (or 77 in human years). It’s hard to believe he actually had a blood mass growing inside his belly at the time, that he kept up with his younger sister and with the rest of the humans who took him up hills and through a rocky crevasse. And despite whatever discomfort he might’ve been in, he really seemed to just love it and acted more young than I’d seem him act in several weeks. He started not doing so well, though, a few days after we got back.
I guess the idea of Rothko being sick was something that was hard for me to wrap my head around. It’s weird because I’m usually the type of person who is keenly aware that the people or animals I love are going to one day die or disappear. I was definitely this way with Honey — I think I began preparing for her death the day I brought her home from the shelter. But somehow, I had come to think of Rothko as kind of invincible, and a presence in my life that would always be there. His death usually didn’t enter my mind. Maybe I felt that way because he’d been there after my mom’s death. After Honey’s death. He was there after so much loss and disappearance and I couldn’t imagine him ever one day doing the same.
All the people who met Rothko usually described him as “soulful.” It seemed as though he could feel any heaviness or sadness you were carrying and that he wanted to heal it, to absorb it. He would sit next to you and stare at you with eyes that saw into you and place his paw on your lap as if he were saying, “It will be okay.” I hate that on his last day here he had to listen to his dad cry so much. I hate that he had to feel the weight of that sadness of his own self leaving.
I’ve joked to a few people that I think I might’ve given Rothko cancer with my sadness over the last few years. Only I’m not joking.
I walked with him, alone and without Kaiya, to the vet on Tuesday just before 5pm. We stopped at the park. It was nice out. Warm, but not too hot. I took some photos of him and I talked to him, scratched him in the places he liked to be scratched, smelled his fur. I wanted to shout to everybody out that day (just walking around like it wasn’t the worst day ever) that a part of me was ending. That here was this dog who was one of the most important beings in my life and in some ways it felt like he had been me and I had been him for a short time and now we were on our way to say goodbye and I didn’t know who or what I was going to be anymore without him, and I really didn’t have any interest in finding out.
On the walk (and later at the vet’s office) I thanked Rothko for being such a good friend to me for 11 years. I told him I loved him so much and that he had been the best dog I could imagine. I told him I was very very (so very) sorry to be doing this. I told him to say hi to Honey. I told him to say hi to my mom. (He came into the world around the time my mom left it, and I believe he was here in part because of her.)
Even though he’d not had much of an appetite for regular food, he ate the cooked hot dogs I’d brought, and the cooked chicken the nurse Emily brought, and cheez whiz out of a can. Emily really loved Rothko and changed her schedule so that she could be there when he went to the Big Sleep. She cried almost as much as I did.
Somebody told me that Rothko was lucky to have me as his best friend. I know they said that to make me feel good, but something about that truth — that I was his best friend for his entire life — made me start bawling. It just seems so heavy: that to him, I was everything. All I wanted for him was good and fun and nice, and often I felt I wasn’t doing a good job of that. All he ever gave to me was love and more love and a sense of permanence and solidness at times when I felt like I was falling. I feel like I got the better end of the deal.
Up until a few years ago, I used to be somebody who wrote frequently about (and through) my dogs. What I’ve come to realize is that Rothko was probably the inspiration behind the voice that came out. Early on, I thought it was Honey. But maybe it was always Rothko. Things really didn’t get good until he came on board. I always said he was the “secret sauce” to how well my dogs got along. Maybe he was the secret sauce for a lot more than that. Over the last few years I really fell off writing the poems I used to do with him and with Honey and with Kaiya. I feel awful about that, but not because I feel bad for not writing. It’s more like I feel bad for letting his spirit down and for not documenting it.
Wednesday morning I woke up and did the things I normally did but just alone with Kaiya. No Rothko. Taking Kaiya’s food down off the refrigerator. Leaving Rothko’s there. Putting on Kaiya’s harness. Leaving Rothko’s hanging on the coat stand. My stomach burned at every place he was missing, at every place he did not appear.
On our morning walk, we walked by a section a fence where there has been a hole cut out for somebody’s cat to enter or exit the backyard. Usually when we walk by that cat hole, Rothko sticks his entire head into it and looks into that backyard. Wednesday we just walked by the hole. And that moment, like all the other moments, felt heavy with his absence.
I do know, as the well-meaning and loving person wrote to me last week, that Rothko was lucky to have me as his best friend, just as I was lucky to have him as mine. The truth is we are all lucky to have whoever it is we have for the moments we have them. And those moments will never feel like enough no matter how many of them we have or how hard we try to lock them in our memory with various modern media. All we can do is look at them and think: They were with us once. We were with them once.
We were here in this place together, once.
Before writing this, I purposely did not go back and look at this post I wrote about Honey after she died because I didn’t want to end up writing the same thing about Rothko. Also, I didn’t want to feel the “burden” of that post — the burden to try to write something substantially different or new. In fact I didn’t want to “write” or “craft” anything at all. I just wanted to write what I felt and not worry about “writing.” I think I succeeded in that, in not writing.
But I did just read over what I’d written back then (after already having written the stuff above) and realized that I could’ve written the post about Honey about Rothko too.
One thing I had forgotten about when I re-read the post about Honey was Sally Mann’s remarks on the “treachery of photography.” I am feeling that all over again as I look at the photographs I took of Rothko over the years. These artifacts of memory, these things we think we are taking in order to “preserve” some feeling, or some spirit or idea or soul that we are seeing.
But that thing can actually never be seen again. These artifacts that we hope will be about remembering, they feel more like artifacts of forgetting when the loss actually happens and the thing that inspired them is gone.
Here’s what I wrote about that six years ago:
I am not exaggerating when I say that I have taken tens of thousands of photographs of Honey [you can substitute “Rothko” into this statement]. As I go back through them, I am struck with a sadness. I thought it was a sadness of remembering. But I also felt like that didn’t quite explain it somehow. It didn’t explain why I was so reluctant to look at those photos of her. It seemed more complicated than that.
Here’s why: It wasn’t a sadness of remembering. It was a sadness of forgetting.
All these photographs I’ve taken of Honey [Rothko] have been to “preserve” something. A spirit. A feeling. And the sad, terrible — indeed “treacherous” — thing is that as I go about looking at these artifacts, they feel like they’re having the reverse effect. Instead of bringing those feelings back to me, I feel like they’re moving them further away. Instead of recreating those memories for me, I feel like they’re destroying them.
Well, in spite of this “treachery,” I am going to now do what people do after loss and share these “photographic memories” of Rothko and put them into an album on the various platforms. I hope they bring some smiles, but I know for some of you they may also bring some tears. I’m also going to round up some of my favorite poems he wrote and post them separately.
There was a period after Honey’s death that I feel I took the best photos of Rothko. It was also the time I feel like he helped me channel some of the best thoughts and writing, a voice that I’d been missing til then. I look back on that time with gratitude and happiness, but also with a kind of regret, though I’m not sure exactly what for. Maybe for not being able to hold on to those moments, or that voice, or the people, or that time. For him. For myself.
I love you Bobo. You were the best dog to me and I am so grateful you were in my life. Say hi to Honey. Say hi to my mom. You brought me so much happiness and love. You helped me appreciate the daily. You helped me move forward in life (even though I protested all the way). And I know somehow even your death will help me do that — is in some way helping me do that, now. Thank you.
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