I’m stalling. I’m supposed to be writing. I’ve just opened a Word document I’ve titled “1893” and I’m procrastinating because I know what’s coming. I’m going to need to write about June 13, the day Jack died.
The problem isn’t that I’m actively sad about it (despite the fact I’ve never fully recovered from childhood exposure to Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows). He died 124 years ago and, as dog deaths go, his was rather peaceful. Jack died in his beloved Albany Union Station. He wasn’t suffering from any terrible illness. He was just old.
So what’s my hesitation? For one, I’m concerned with balance. Writing about animals poses (many) challenges that don’t come up when writing about people. Their lifespans are so much shorter. A human biography frequently covers 50+ years. I currently have documented evidence to discuss 7 years of Jack’s life (he was alive longer than this, but I’m having trouble locating reliable early life details). With such a short time span, how do you make sure that their deaths don’t overshadow the rest of their stories? I’m concerned more about this in the case of Owney than Jack, frankly, because his death was so grisly and still elicits strong feelings in people today (Owney was shot after an alleged biting incident).
Tone is another problem. The way we talk about animals, particularly pet animals, is often coated in sentimentality that we would not apply to human subjects. I’m guilty of applying this sentimentality to the animals in my own life (just ask my spoiled cat), but I don’t want that to bleed into my chapters about my old dead dogs. That said, I do want to fully capture the grief that their human friends felt at their deaths.
But these are both minor concerns compared to what is really bothering me. If I’m honest with myself, the crux of this problem is that if I’m unsuccessful in figuring out what happened to Jack’s body after he was taxidermied, his story just stops. Owney, on the otherhand, has a rich afterlife (I don’t mean that in the spiritual way). I can trace what has happened to his body and popular memory of him. It is, to me, as compelling a story as his life.
I can’t do that after 1894 for Jack. He’s gone. It’s over. I know that this mystery doesn’t kill the overall project. There is still what I hope will be a compelling book. But, without knowing what happened to him after his death, there is a gnawing gap in my narrative. And I suppose that’s why I’m dragging my feet about writing about June 13. I don’t want that to be the end of his story.