I’m not much of a dog person, but I’ve never gone long without having a cat. No matter which type of pet you prefer, you know what living with one means to you. Right now I have two cats with very different personalities. Maddy was a stray. A couple in Portland found her and put an ad for her on Craigslist. They were so determined that she be in a good home that they drove all the way to Belfast to deliver her.

Maddy (really my husband’s cat) is very fussy about being touched and when we first got her she would bite down hard if you weren’t careful. She’s come around some, but she’ll still nip at you to keep you in line.

My cat is Dori (named in honor of poet Dorianne Laux). She’s orange and a hefty 18 pounds. She’s shy of strangers, but affectionate with us. She has a routine of climbing on the couch between me and my husband. She eases up to him first for petting, and when she’s had her fill, she edges over to me.

Whatever your pet’s personality, if you care for them, they give you back much more in return. They seem to know when a person is feeling lonely or in need of solace, coming to your side.

They’re someone to talk to when no one else will listen. They give you a reason to get up in the morning.

In most cases we outlive our pets, and it’s after they die that we realize how much they actually meant to us. The cat I had before Dori was called Billy (after William Carlos Williams). He was the best cat I ever owned. Right from the beginning he was incredibly affectionate, always jumping up beside me. Though he was a stray kitten, he looked like a purebred Siamese with incredible blue eyes. But he didn’t have the high-strung nature of a Siamese or the high-pitched cry. He was just the perfect cat.

When Billy was 2, my husband and I took a five-day trip to Pennsylvania. Rather than put Billy in a kennel, my stepson came in to care for him. I had been letting Billy out during the day and calling him in at night, but when my stepson called him, he didn’t come. He searched for the cat, but couldn’t find him that night. The next morning he found Billy dead beside our boat shed. He looked him over carefully and there were no marks on him anywhere.

My husband and I were in the car when we got the call. It ruined the rest of the trip for me. I felt so guilty for letting the cat out when I wasn’t there. Of course, it could just as easily have happened when I was home, but that wasn’t how I felt. Billy’s death left a big hole in my life.

Suzanne Langlois’ poem, “Elegy for a Dog,” captures the intimacy we have with our pets and the grief we experience at losing them. She wrote this poem a couple of days after her husky, Mica, died of cancer. She says, “Most of my poems go through a lot of revision, but this one came out whole.” She wrote the poem seven years ago, but she says, “It still holds my grief the way the box on the bookshelf holds her ashes.”

The poem is from her chapbook, “Bright Glint Gone,” which won the 2019 Maine Chapbook Series Award. Suzanne’s work has been nominated for Best of the Net, Independent Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize. Suzanne lives in Portland and teaches high school English in Falmouth.

Remember to check out “Locally Grown Books” at the Art Mart at Waterfall Arts every Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Over 50 titles are available, including three of mine!

Elegy for a Dog

The creature I loved has been unmade.

Every part of her, down to her whiskers,

vanished from the planet.

I miss her song—the way

she’d point her muzzle at the ceiling,

turn her black lips into an O,

and pour a moan through it.

Today I learned all the things

I can do while howling.

I can stand up or lie down.

I can rock back and forth on my haunches,

tip my head back and empty my throat.

Still, the open grave in my chest

holds her body and wishes itself a cradle.

The last time I put my hands on her belly

I felt it swell with a grief about to be born,

her body a honeycomb filled with rot

—all that sweetness wasted.

I think of the words I tried to teach her:

sit, lie down, sing,

stay, stay, stay, stay.

Judy Kaber is Belfast’s poet laureate.

filed under: