The American actor Alan Alda wrote a wonderful biography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned. The title of the book is taken from an incident in Alda’s youth, when he lost his pet dog, Rhapsody, to some leftover Chinese food that his family had brought home one night. So inconsolable was the young Alan that, at the burial of the dog, his father suggested they have the dog stuffed so that he might always be a part of Alan’s life. They took the dog off to a taxidermist to achieve this end. Some weeks later, when the task had been achieved, they went to collect the stuffed dog from the taxidermist.
“We pulled off the brown butchers’ paper he was wrapped in and looked at him. The dog had a totally unrecognizable expression on his face. He looked as if he’d seen something loathsome that needed to be shredded. Nobody in our family knew who this was. He sat on his blue velvet board, looking up at us like something with rabies. We were kind of afraid of him.
My parents made excuses for the taxidermist. He didn’t really know the dog, he did the best he could, we’ll get used to the look on his face.
We put what now passed for our dog in the living room near the fireplace. But after a couple of days, it became difficult to walk into the room without feeling that a wild animal was going to spring at you. You were aware, out of the corner of your eye, that there was something alive but perfectly still in the room, and then you would see those glass eyes staring at you and the vicious mouth, hungry for your flesh. When guests visited, if we didn’t warn them that the dog wasn’t real, they’d walk into the room and stand dead still. Sometimes they would back slowly out of the room, trying to escape before it leapt at their throat.
We realized we couldn’t keep him in the living room, so we put him outside on the front porch—not far, in fact, from where he’d died. The trouble now was that deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries. They would leave packages on the grass.
Losing the dog wasn’t as bad as getting him back. Now that he was stuffed, he was just a hollow parody of himself. Like a bad nose job or a pair of eyes set surgically in eternal surprise, he was a reminder that things would never again be the way they were. And the longer you looked at his dead skin stretched inaccurately over a wire frame, the less well you could remember him as he was. As time went on, my memory of the real Rhapsody was replaced by the image of him sitting lifeless on the blue velvet board with a hideous look on his face. And anyway, it wasn’t memories I wanted; I wanted the dog. I wanted him sitting at the end of our first day in the new house, patiently watching my face while I pulled foxtail burrs from the fur on his long ears.
Yet the effort to keep him had seemed to make him disappear even more. I couldn’t understand why. As I did about most things in my life, starting with my mother, I kept asking the same questions: ‘Why is it like this? What’s happening here?’ But I couldn’t figure it out.
I understand it a little better now, and I see now that stuffing your dog is more than what happens when you take a dead body and turn it into a souvenir. It’s also what happens when you hold on to any living moment longer than it wants you to.
Memory can be a kind of mental taxidermy, trying to hold on to the present after it’s become the past. I didn’t know this then. Change was coming, and I was going to have to come out of my cocoon soon. But I wasn’t ready for the next stage in my life, and I hung on to the early times as long as I could.”13
In approaching Easter, something has to die so that something might live. What is it in our own life that must die? What might we need to let go of, so that something new might come into being? This is the Lenten question, the Easter celebration.
Let us not be like those who have sought ‘to stuff the dog’. Or those for whom the seed simply stays in the ground. But let something new spring to life.
13 From Alan Alda, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed: And Other Things I’ve Learned (New York: Random House, 2006) 21-4.
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