I grew up with dogs. I almost have to say I grew up with a single dog: The dog Kira joined our household when I was ten years old, and died an amazing twenty years later when I had long moved out and lived my life in far away Berlin.
I had named the dog in a random assembly of syllables, largely because I had read in a book that dogs ears were much more attuned to high pitched noises like “i” and “a”, and like any giddy pre-teen I was very eager to demonstrate my superior knowledge. My father liked the name. He was always the history nut, with a strange (given that he was a social democrat) appreciation for nobility, and apparently one or the other russian arch-countess had indeed been named Kira. That was as good a reason as anything else to adopt that name.
The rest of the family did not care about the name one way or the other. It turned out that the dog would not listen to her (not “its”. Kira was always, and definitely a “she”) name at all, and so they concluded with impeccable logic that the name was not all that important.
To the neighbourhood, the dogs indifference to her name did not matter. We lived on the premises of a large hospital. My father had started his professional career at age fifteen with an apprenticeship in a coal mine. When he was later drafted into the military he trained as a medic, and on that basis was later offered a job in what was at that time a state run psychiatric hospital. By the end of the nineties it was privatized and turned into a for-profit facility, and my father would be very glad when he could finally retire. But in the eighties he had worked up his way to head nurse in a forensic ward, had been appointed a civil servant (because this was state run, and he dealt with people who had been sent by the German justice system) and had been working there for so long that he was a fixture of sorts, and a well respected figure. Some of that respect rubbed off on the dog, which was known in the neighborhood not by her name, but, in their local South German dialect, as “dem Pierstorff sein Hund” – Mr. Pierstorff his dog.
Like my father, each day Mr. Pierstorff his dog had a long working day ahead of her. The hospital was separated into different wards, each ward had its own building, and each building had a kitchen were breakfast and dinner were prepared (a warm lunch was delivered by a central kitchen). So Kira would start every day by making her rounds from kitchen to kitchen, where she would sit down at the back door, sporting a starved look, until a slice of sausage or a bit of cheese would be tossed in the direction of her opened mouth. Twenty-Two kitchens later and the first appetite dampened, she would head off into the expansive vineyards of Baden-Württemberg, chasing mice and rabbits and, with an optimism unusual in the Pierstorff family, the occasional deer. There was little chance that she would ever catch any deer, for Kira was a cross-breed between a wire-haired dachshund and some other dog with somewhat, but not substantial longer legs. It is true, like some amazed rabbits found out near the end of their lives, that those legs gave amazing acceleration and maneuverability. But her limited stature meant that anything Bambi-sized and larger was well out of reach. But then, she had a true dachshund stubbornness that considered the laws of physiology or even physics a challenge to overcome, not an insurmountable obstacle.
This was the eighties in rural Germany, when it was perfectly normal to see dogs run free. Children, too – basically everyone who did not have to work for a living was expected to be able to spend a few hours outside unattended. Older children would look after younger children, and the dogs would look after themselves. I am not sure what happened to the world since that everybody has become so guarded and timid. Unleashed dogs are widely regarded as monsters, and the outdoors as a kind of destructive device, only to be used with adult supervision: No running with scissors, or nature. But I digress.
My father and the dog were a bit of an odd couple. Apart from the thing with the name he professed not to think about Kira too much, and he would complain quite regularly about “that stupid dog” that did not listen to commands and would live a life almost parallel to his own.
But he was able of amazing acts of tenderness. Back then not much thought was given to spaying and neutering, and eventually Kira came down with eight wonderful little critters (no idea how they did fit in there). On of them had a crippled leg as a birth defect, and the vet suggested to spare it the suffering and put it down. My father would have none of that, and he and my mother pulled all the stops from their nursing skill and went to work with braces and bandages. Kira saw all her young grow up to find families and have a happy life.
When she got really old, and so incontinent that it became impossible to keep her in the apartment, my father would continue to call her the stupid dog. But he also built a dog house on the front porch, complete with a heating lamp from on incubator, so that she could watch her family through the window and keep warm in bad weather.
I think my father liked the idea of having a dog because, for him, having a dog was an expression of that respectable middle class life he was striving for, much like the library he amassing in his study, or the meticulously cared for garden were he spent much of his free time. More to the point, I guess he simply liked dogs. He might have liked it even more if the dog had listened to his commands once in a while, because I’m sure he felt that as relentless provider for his family he was entitled to a little respect, and friendship. The dog, I think, was not completely opposed to friendship, but did not see completely eye-to-eye with him on the listen-to-orders thing.
He kept talking about how he did not want another dog after she had died. That’s how you could tell how much he liked the dog, because making plans for the time after was his attempt of keeping death at bay. “You have to look after your mother when I’m gone”, he started to tell my brother and me, after he was diagnosed with diabetes (not by itself a life threatening condition) in his fifties. Actually my mother looks after herself, and the provisions my father made during his lifetime are a great help with that.
Kira collapsed during a last rabbit hunt in the vineyards. At that point she had long beaten the odds by living for twenty years, being run over twice by cars and surviving the cancer that slowly had spread out everywhere through her body. She was found by some passersby, and news that “dem Pierstorff sein Hund” had been found stricken quickly reached my fathers ear, and he rushed to pick her up. The vet said that this time there was nothing he could do, and that it would be a matter of painful hours. This time my father gave in and Kira was put to sleep.
That was almost eighteen years ago. My father died three years ago from arterial embolism, after some more happy, and some not so happy years. We go on with our lives because what else can we do, but we do not forget our loved ones.
I know that there is no afterlife. But when I pretend there is such a thing I like to image (because there is no point in make believe, if you do not make yourself believe in a perfect moment) that he is sitting there in his plastic garden chair in heaven, in his undershirt like he used to, with a book, surrounded by all the living things he has planted himself. And then he lets the book sink, and looks around to make sure nobody is watching him and says, with the hoarse tenderness of a man who is not used to admit his feelings, “Come here, you stupid dog.”
And the dog comes.