Dog Years: A memoir, By Mark Doty

A dog-loving poet's memoir tackles the sadness of losing a pet and a partner

Although his partner Wally enjoys the constant companionship of one dog, their black retriever, Arden, Mark Doty decides that it is time for them to have another one. The terrible truth is that the terminally ill Wally is now completely confined to bed, to the big-four-poster brought down into the living-room from upstairs, and "Arden's mostly to be found curled on my side of the big square... Arden is Wally's guardian, animal counsel, who quietly and thoroughly observes and considers every coming and going".

Wally is suffering from an Aids-related brain infection, is capable now of only minimal movement, and has so short term a memory that he exists in virtual timelessness, watching the same video cassette over and over with never diminishing delight. So deeply does the dog Arden love him that he is prepared to stay beside him indefinitely; doesn't seek, or seem even to need, any diversion from this. But shouldn't he be leading a more physical life? Hasn't Wally's illness too thoroughly depressed him? Wouldn't the presence of another dog in the house galvanise him into natural activity?

And so Doty acquires Beau, three years old, whom he discovers in a pen in a dog's home, "a very skinny and very calm golden retriever sphinx-like on all fours". In fact he's labelled as "part Saluki", but this Doty doesn't believe, though his purple-spotted tongue points to some chow in his make-up. Friends tut-tut: "You're taking care of a man who can't get out of bed and you're adopting a golden retriever!" But from the beginning Doty appreciates the wisdom of his arguably eccentric action. When Beau first leaps on to that large four-poster and greets Wally by vigorously licking his face, the sick man "laughs and laughs". There is something transforming in this new dog's energy ("he's never really still until he simply keels over"), and before long even the mildly suspicious and jealous Arden is reinvigorated. The two retrievers, the one black the other golden, synchronising their salutatory leaps of welcome or bounding off together on walks along the Atlantic shore (though it is always Arden who returns first), become for Doty treasured daily symbols of zest for life and wordless friendship, especially after Wally is dead. On the long-feared, long-expected day of his death, Arden slept beside Wally continuously until 15 minutes before he died, at which point the retriever fell off the bed, then slunk away.

Arden and Beau will survive Wally by many years, and Doty will have another loved boy-friend, Paul, a continuous presence in this moving, artistically fashioned and profoundly pondered book. The two men embrace life beyond their ménage, and have wide social sympathies. For five years Doty's work as a visiting lecturer in creative writing propels them into a happy existence "on the road", during which they transport their animals with them (they have cats as well as dogs) and strike up friendships with old and young. Back in New York City they are bewilderedly present for 9/11, re-created here with an intense inclusiveness of feeling.

Mortality – the bare fact of it, with all the ugly, scaring attendant details, and our general awareness of it even when we refuse it full acknowledgement – is Dog Years's major theme. Every animal-lover bemoans the brevity of a dog's life compared with our own, but every animal-lover must also face up to it, must be on the look-out for symptoms betokening the arrival of that always too early, dreaded end. Mark Doty and Paul are of the enlightened company who do both.

As one would expect in a writer of Doty's stature, this book is imaginatively and intricately, rather than conventionally structured, for which reason I shan't disclose which of the two dogs falls ill or dies the first. I'll simply state that I've never read a more bravely accurate account than here of those telltale warnings of decline, those hopeful visits to the vet and consequent remedial treatments, those deceptive but relished reversals of ill health assisted by the dog's own optimistic spirits, and then the unmistakable slump towards death. I know! I have lived through them all, and like everyone with a dog (my beloved border collie Harvey is only six) greatly fear going through the ordeal again. Yet perhaps the most impressive and joyous part of Doty's book is his celebration of his dog's restricted but truly contented later years.

As Doty says: "It isn't that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, but that dogs show you why you might want to."