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Sight Hound by Pam Houston.

Sight Hound

Title: Sight Hound.
Author: Pam Houston.
Genre: Literature, fiction, animals, multiple narratives, romance.
Country: U.S.
Language: English.
Publication Date: Jan 17th, 2005.
Summary: This is the story of a woman, Rae, and her dog, Dante, a wolfhound who teaches "his human" that love is stronger than fear (the dog has always known this). Dante is the catalyst for change in other characters as well, and they step forward with their narratives: Rae's house-tender; her therapist; a little girl fighting cancer; two veterinarians; and an anxiety-ridden actor, Howard, who turns out to be as stalwart as Dante himself. As the "seer" who hunts by sight rather than smell, Dante has some things to add, as does Rose, another dog who lives at Rae's heels, and Stanley the cat. Among and above these myriad voices, Rae voices her own challenges. With the wit and dead-on candor, Sight Hound unfolds a story that illuminates the intangible covenant between loved ones. Here, dogs and humans are simply equal creatures, looking to connect and holding on for dear life when they do.

My rating: 10/10.
My review: This book is stunning and heart-breaking, and an absolute must to any animal lover, and every animal owner. The concept of coming back as a dog for the last step on the ladder of reincarnation to teach his human love is a beautiful concept, and I believe that if there is such a thing as reincarnation, coming back as a dog surely would be one of the highest steps. The love between Dante and his owner, the dependence she has on his love, and the astounding sacrifices she's willing to make for him will go right to anyone's heart. I enjoyed the multiple narratives style, as well. Getting the point of view of everyone around Dante - his owner, his vet, a little girl who loves him, the house cat, the new puppy - paints a beautifully poignant picture of how many lives animals touch, and how important they truly are in our lives. I found the parts of the books written from the vet's point of view especially beautiful, though devastating.


♥ I want them to know so many things at once, then. First, though I may not appear to be, I am on their side; and if I weren't, I wouldn't be here. I'd be behind some big oak desk in an advertising firm figuring out way to sell people even more Coca-Cola, or driving a landscaping truck full of begonias around the wealthy suburbs, or making my father happy cutting out and replacing human organs over at the medical center on the other side of campus. But where I am is here, at what is arguably the finest college of veterinary medicine in the country, sixteen hours a day, fighting the good fight on behalf of the animals.

The second thing I want them to know is that I'm not God, though I impersonate Him daily, and am delighted when He lets me get away with it. I can't save every dog and cat that comes in here and no amount of money or tears or wishing will make it so I can.

The third thing I want them to know is that I believe every word they tell me. I believe that long-faced Henry is the smartest basset hound in the state of Colorado, that silky Vishnu picks out her own flavor of cat food each evening, that fluffy little Foosball comes to the door of her rabbit hutch whenever she hears her mother's car in the driveway.

I believe that Maggie and Guinness and Decker and Sarvis and Walter and Moxie and Toto and Dumpster and Spot is each one of them the greatest dog that ever lived. And that Stanley and Monkey Boy and Trader and Scat and Road Kill and Tigger and Josephine and even fat Apostrophe is each one of them the most wonderful cat. That's what you learn here, and every ferret and hedgehog and potbellied pig and now all of a sudden even every flying squirrel - perfection on four legs.

♥ Have you ever been in the waiting room of a veterinary hospital? It's not like a Home Depot at all. In the middle of the night sometimes there's an hour or two between emergencies and then that room is just a big space full of stained Formica and cracked vinyl chairs with chewed legs. But most of the night somebody is sitting there, flipping through a magazine without seeing the words, trying not to cry, trying to to look at the clock, trying not to ask the receptionist for news she doesn't have on the Afghan hound whose stomach flipped over or the Siamese who had her first grand mal seizure or the great dane who has finally fallen into congestive heart failure.

During business hours there can be as many as fifty or sixty people in there, waiting for Abner to finish his chemotherapy, waiting to see if Blacken has developed any secondary pulmonary metastases, waiting to hear if the lump on Fiona's back is malignant or benign. Sometimes I walk through there on my way to recovery and there's a soft humming in the air like what you hear sometime in a church, like all sixty of them are holding their collective breath, all sixty of them are murmuring their prayers.

There's no mistaking the restrained sniffling that occasionally gives way to sobs, no missing the hopeful little Tupperware containers full of broiled chicken breast that might tempt Sadie even though she's seventeen and hasn't eaten a thing in days, no avoiding the hands that clutch the favorite toys, the beloved blankets, the empty carriers, no escaping the fear in the human eyes - so much more complicated than the fear in the eyes of the animals - as they follow my footsteps along the corridor waiting to see if I am the one who comes with the news.

I once watched a big man, a Marine, a man who if you passed him on the street you might believe didn't care for anything in the world, fall to his knees when my intern told him his cockatiel had inoperable brain cancer. It's ok for the people to cry in here. More okay, I think, than over at the med center because here, there's nobody they have to be strong for. For years they have been jilted, cheated on, rejected, fired, and their pets have come to them and placed a warm nose on their thigh, a knobby three-toed claw on their shoulder. Would a dog ask his master not to cry over him? Would he ever misinterpret the grief?

Every now and them a silence will fall over the waiting room, and you know a family has decided to take a deceased pet home. We offer cremation, at no extra charge if the owners want it, but sometimes they'll want to bury their pet in their backyard. When the room gets that kind of quiet, as the family crosses the tiles to the elevator, pushes the button and waits with the big zipped-up blue body bag wrapped in their arms or thrown over their shoulder, sometimes even carried between them, it makes a person long for the sound of the sobbing again.

♥ I’d spent my whole life convinced that one sure way not to get what I wanted was to hope for it, out loud or even to myself, and it didn’t seem to matter whether it was something simple like rain on the parched pasture so the wild iris would have a chance this year, or something bigger and softer I could fall back on, like a man who would stay, or a friend.

Now that Dante had had all the chemo an Irish wolfhound can have in one lifetime, there was nothing to do but share a bottle of vitamin E and miracle mushroom gel caps and live each day like it might be the last – since it might. Dr. Eva ns says it’s a good thing dogs don’t walk on their X-rays and I took him to mean that a statistic is only a statistic after your dog is already dead.

♥ The first point of confusion I’d like to clear up is that there are three legs left, three good legs that are perfectly capable of lifting the entire lithe grey body over a single-strand barbed-wire fence from a standstill, especially if the human you love is standing next to it, crying about your osteosarcoma, about your lost fourth leg, about your impending decline and premature death, about how she will never live without you.

You jump over the barbed wire to show her that your death is still a long way off, that for a wolfhound three legs in a kind of koan, that your one true goal is to stay alive long enough to help her find another human who will love her properly after you are gone, and that finding that human is at once as improbable – and as effortless – as a three-legged wolfhound sailing over a four-foot barbed-wire fence.

♥ She and I would be spooned up in bed together after one of their untimely departures, she’d be trying to take comfort – as most people do – in the cinnamon smell of my ears. I’d roll over to face her and press the ends of my big black nose flaps right up against hers and try to stare everything I know right into her eyes. Sometimes she’d get it and fall asleep, dreaming of sea turtles and prayer flags, other times she wouldn’t, and she’d sleep dreamless just to know someone was keeping watch.

♥ A wolfhound isn’t afraid to die. A wolfhound isn’t afraid to suffer. A wolfhound practices nonattachment – with only modest success when it comes to the organic beef roast she cooks for dinner, and very little success when it comes to her.

The tail, a very important part of a wolfhound’s musculature in terms of carriage and balance, made all the more so by the amputation of one leg, reveals this failure by thwacking rather violently, as if it had a will of its own, against walls, doors, windows, every time she walks in the room. Trail to washing machine provides the best resonance, a booming beating heart.

♥ There are three principles to remember if you are to teach a human being anything, and they are consistency, consistency, consistency. They are such fragile creatures to begin with, with poor eyes, poorer hearing, and no sense of smell left to speak of, it’s no wonder they are made of fear. Some centuries ago they moved inside and with that move went nine-tenths of their intuition. It is almost unmerciful to make them live so long when they spend their lives in so much pain.

♥ She told me once, right after Dante was diagnosed, about a theory she has that if a person is living right, keeping their eyes open, the exact right dog will come to them, the dog that will teach them whatever set of lessons they need to learn right then.

“We’re so lucky, she said, “to live so long, to get to know so many dogs, to learn from them.”

♥ “This has nothing to do with paybacks,” my grandmother said, “nothing that you owe, nothing you are owed in return.”

“I know that,” I said, because I had learned it in the Gulf War. I knew that on earth there was no fairness other than whatever we created. I knew how the logic of an eye for an eye failed the minute a 1.15-billion-dollar airplane dropped cluster bombs on a village whose people didn’t have enough to eat.

♥ What I got addicted to next was the adrenaline that flew around backstage. The way the night before preview is always a disaster, how dress rehearsal hangs together by the skin of its teeth, how the only chance of pulling off an opening is if about a hundred people – some of whom would have no reason to speak to one another outside the walls of that black box – decide to cooperate, decide to dedicate themselves to each other and to their shared project with such ferocity you would think what they were doing was saving lives.

Some days, it is easy to believe that they are.

♥ We were decompressing on the sofa, not talking really, just staring out the open plate-glass doors, when the fattest raccoon in America waddled up onto our deck and rubbed his little hands against the screen.

“Someone has been doing you wrong, my friend,” I said, and went to the kitchen to get the enormous bag of cool ranch Doritos I’d bough at the 7-Eleven on the way into town.

In the unspoken agreement we invited the raccoon into the living room of the vaulted-ceilinged ski cabin that some rich Mormon had no doubt donated on behalf of the future of arts in Utah, and took turns feeding the little monster the entire bag right there on the carpet, one salty chip at a time.

In all those times Rae and I traveled together, we never once had sex. She always said I was too pretty and I always said she was too smart, but what she really meant was short and what I really meant was fat. Still, it was an intimate thing that night, silently feeding that big raccoon, getting even with nature.

♥ I think of it like this. Jackson stood watch during the years Rae learned how not to keep falling down the well, I taught her how to come back up, to stand strong above the well, to ask herself whether or not she is thirsty, and if she is, how to take a long satisfying drink.

It didn’t happen overnight.

♥ Rae says that in a world where we have Thai food on Wednesday and Italian on Thursday, where we have a scoop of Chunky Monkey and a scoop of Brownie Batter on the very same cone, where we like folk music as well as hip-hop, the plains as well as the mountains, baseball as well as hockey, it doesn’t make sense to have to choose whether we want to have sex with women, or sex with men.

♥ Writers, it is said, all carry a chip of ice in their hearts, and the same can be said of cats. If you want to make all the kiddies laugh and the old ladies tear up, then go ahead and trot out your veterinarian with the heart of gold and your three-legged wolfhound. If you want the unsentimental truth of the matter, always ask a cat.

♥ There are Francophiles and there are Anglophiles there are cooks and there are bakers, and there are dog people and there are cat people and when anyone claims to be both, well, I have to be a bit suspicious.

♥ “If you know the power of a generous heart,” Buddha said, “you will not let a single meal pass without giving to other.” That’s one of my favorite sayings, one I like to meditate upon specifically when I am lying under the dinner table, waiting to see if a little lamb or pork or chicken might fall my way.

Another favorite, “For greater than all the joys of Heaven and Earth, greater still than dominion over all worlds is the joy of reaching the stream.” This one seems particularly apt after a longish hike, and the two taken together seem like fairly incontrovertible evidence that the great teacher must have spent at least one lifetime as a dog. Or was just about to.

♥ Two and a half years ago, when I was first diagnosed, my human sat down on the porch and cried. “If they have to cut off his leg,” she said, “I’ll never see the happy dance again.” Little did she know I had a better happy dance in store for her, a three-legged gem of a happy dance so unique I know for a fact that she’s never once missed the four-legged version.

♥ Nobody’s ever going to accuse Rae of killing anybody with kindness, but I’ll say this about her, a person always knows where he stands. My reality check, like I told you. She said, “Jonathan, you ought to drag your ass back to the computer because what you make there is the only thing about you that doesn’t suck,” and I know what she was really saying is that I’m a little bit of a genius, and that she loves me, and that I basically rock.

♥ “I can’t believe how much better I feel,” I kept saying to the pedicurist.

“Of course you do honey,” she said, “you are having your feet rubbed,” and sometimes life is as simple as that.

♥ “... but when you think about it more you realize you haven’t really lived long enough to do anything bad enough that God’s going to punish you with cancer, and then you start to think, maybe it isn’t a punishment; maybe God chose you because He had a plan and you were the best one He could find to carry it out. Maybe the plan is that you were put on earth and given cancer so that you could tell everyone you meet how important it is to pay attention to the world every single day, and that maybe since the longer you stay alive the more and more people you seem to meet, maybe He’s going to keep you around. Maybe He wants you to say, yes, I had cancer, and yes, I’m a little small for my age, but I’m alive now, and I’ve won three ski races and earned a green belt in karate and it has been almost two years since I had to spend a whole night in the hospital and I love my family and I love my life, especially now that we got Scruffy.

♥ Aren’t the humans perfectly marvelous creatures? Doesn’t it make you double over with laughter the way they remain committed to the idea that they’re the only species that feels deeply, because – what – they have words to talk about their feelings? Has it not ever occurred to them that perhaps the reason they need so many words, the reason their words consistently fail them, is that they are so much poorer at interpreting their emotions than we are, that interpretation, per se, is a step that in the dog world we just skip?

♥ She wasted so much time trying to act perfectly, trying to guard against the loss, always fearful of making the mistake that would lead to it. My job was to love her in her imperfections, and I did. Even when she left me alone in the car for hours, even when she accidentally closed my neck in the automatic back seat window, even when she came home smelling like another dog. She calls me a miracle, but this is the miracle: eventually she believed I loved her, beyond a shadow of a shadow of a doubt.

I wanted her to see that sometimes, no matter what we do, the good thing happens anyway. Sometimes there is a man who lets the occasional hamburger fall from the barbeque. Sometimes there is a friend who wants to be simply that. Sometimes cancer goes into remission, sometimes it stays there. And the fact that it didn’t this time doesn’t mean it never will. I wanted her to see that the only life worth living is a life full love; that loss is always part of the equation; that love and loss conjoined are the best opportunity we ever get to live fully, to be our strongest, our most compassionate, our most graceful selves. After all, aren’t we all just trying to learn the same things here, about sharing the food bowl with our sisters and brothers, trying to keep crumbs out of the dog bed, remembering to bring the squeaky toys inside in case of rain?

♥ “Rae,” Theo said, “can you at least entertain the idea that if you do decide to go to Hawai’i and Dante does die, it won’t be because of your decision?

How can I leave her, I thought, when this is what she still believes? This is the way the cancer will rob us. There is love now, and the beginning of faith, but the last thing to come is always forgiveness, the last thing to forgive is always the self.

♥ Preserve life, that’s the first thing they told us in vet school, and I took them to mean it. I’ve probably put a thousand animals to sleep in the last fifteen years and a lot of times somebody, usually the man of the family – when it’s all over – makes some remark about how much better the world would be if we could do the same thing for people. Yeah, sure, I want to say, and that’s when I know that it was the woman, or sometimes the kid – who maybe has been spared the death scene – who was the real dog person in the family. When there is life, there is hope, there’s no getting around it. And hope is the hardest love we carry, the hardest love to give up of all.

♥ When Dante used to run to me across a field – even when he’d already gone as far as three legs could take him, even those last weeks when the pain in his hips had gotten so bad that he couldn’t quite stand up straight, even in the days when he was starting to find it hard to breathe, and he would just tear across the grass at about a hundred miles an hour, his eyes locked only on mine – I’d always think, This might be the last time I ever see this, this might be the last time I ever feel this, and then came the day when it actually was.

What I didn’t understand then, what I couldn’t have understood until I watched him breathe his last breath, is that nothing could take him away from me, not cancer, not an amputation, and not even sodium Phenobarbital; that only in his dying could I truly understand the way I would have him forever, the way I’d had him forever all along, the way I will see him, whenever I need him, running across the big green pasture into my arms.

♥ Today my mom took Rose for a little walk and left me sitting with Howard in the grass of a park I like. We’ve been spending a lot of time on the grass there, since I can only go for short walks these days, and when they came back over the hill from their walk... it was only a short one... I gathered all my strength and went racing over to her, ignoring the pain in my legs, running as fast as I could so she would see how happy I was to see her, because for me, and I hope for her, that moment of me running to her will last forever. I want her to see it forever, every time she is sad, every time she is scared, every time she feels alone, I want her to close her eyes and imagine me flying toward her across a big field of new spring grass.

♥ If I had a daughter, I would tell her what a funny thing love is, how it never looks the way you think it’s going to, how no matter how old you get, it is love that keeps surprising you. How in the songs sometimes it involves beaches and champagne and chocolate-covered roses, but in real life it is just a prematurely balding man standing in a drought-dried field telling you that he loves you, and that you should do whatever on earth you want.

But I don’t have a daughter. I have dogs instead, and they know more about love than anything.

♥ She cries and cries every day now. Howard is doing his best, but he’s not a natural caretaker. Rose is trying in her way too, and it warms my heart to see her do it so badly, a hedonist in Joan of Arc’s clothes. My human is trying to keep me here, with hundreds of photos, with thousands of words. I know the worrying doesn’t do my tumors any good, but what she is feeling now is my responsibility. I convinced her to give me her heart, lock stock and barrel, in a way that she had never given it before, and she gave it. That is a good thing. It is, perhaps, the only thing, but now her heart will have to break. I pray my future niece will have inherited some of my qualities, will demonstrate them even in puppyhood, I whisper her name in my human’s ear at night, whether to ease her mind or mine I cannot say.

♥ Dante is still with me, sort of up and to my left. I’ll never hear that big tail thwacking again, never feel his big grey chest roll toward me in sleep, but what I have instead is everything he taught me, like how without loss, life isn’t worth a hill of bean. And without love, life is nothing more than a series of losses.

When I’ve lost people in the past, my mom or Jackson, Jonathan or Esther Robinson, or even people who didn’t die but just left, it was different. Because once they were gone it felt like there was nothing left of me, or maybe there was, but I didn’t know it. I thought that if the people I loved disappeared I would disappear too, and now I see that’s why Dante was always looking and looking at me, so I’d know that I really do exist, and could keep on existing after he was gone.

♥ “It’s sad,” Theo said, “isn’t it? To let go of the idea that you won’t survive?”

“Yes,” she said. “Why is that?”

“Because it’s so useful,” he said.

“It keeps you safe,” she said.

“From what?” he said...

“From joy,” she said...

♥ I bet you have a million of those moments, with your mom or dad or sister of Scruffy, that are pure and perfect like that one, and what I want you to know – what I want my mom to know too – is that once you’ve had those times together, they become like a present you can open again and again. Humans call this memory, because they can’t open their eyes wide enough to see around time, but real love isn’t any less solid than picture frames and colored pencils, and a great deal more durable. Death can’t take it from you once you’ve held it in your hand.

♥ When we carried Dante’s body out of the 4-Runner for the last time, and left him at the hospital to be cremated, Dr. Evans gave me a hug and called me “love,” which sounded so strange in his mouth I nearly startled. It took me a moment to realize that the word wasn’t so much a term of endearment as a statement of what we were in the midst of. There is love here, he might have said, all the way around.
Tags: 1st-person narrative, 2000s, 21st century - fiction, american - fiction, animals (fiction), fiction, literature, multiple narrators, my favourite books
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