For God’s Sake, Let Us Sit Down Upon the Ground and Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Doppelgängers and Dogs
10 September 2023

My doppelgänger died 15 years ago in a fire on a ship in Norway.  This information comes from Julio, another of the AB’s (abbr. for ‘able-bodied seaman’) on board.  He is from Nazare, of the big waves, Portugal.  Moved to Canada in 1980.  He is in his late fifties but still speaks with a strong accent.  He is short and stocky, swarthy and work strong. Work strong is like gym strong, but useful. He comes as a double act with his younger brother Victor, also in his fifties and of a similar build and disposition.  Together they shame guys aboard a quarter their age with their energy, industry and amenability.  

‘My man [he calls everybody ‘my man’] every time I see you I think of my friend,’ Julio told me when I came up for watch a few days ago. ‘He looked exactly like you.’  I don’t know whether to be glad or sorry for this.  Glad I remind him of his friend.  Sorry it puts him to mind of a traumatic experience.  His friend was working down in one of the ship’s tanks.  Couldn’t get out in time.

‘It was really bad,’ said Julio. ‘They had to remove him in…how you say…pieces.’

Before I left.  Before I walked out the door.  Before I flew to another continent and got on the ship. I bent down and laid a big smacker on the dog’s cold, wet nose.  

‘Please don’t die before I get back,’ I told her as  I have on countless other occasions, but this time it was with considerably more sincerity, as a large lump on her neck had just been biopsied.  She had been mooning about for the better part of a day and  grew anxious and depressed as she watched my luggage accumulate by the front door. She was obviously grateful for my attention. For my tactility and affection but it was, in the not so long run, a request she chose to ignore.  A couple of days ago, just a few weeks after my candid exhortation, she was felled by a particularly aggressive cancer.  

While I would like to stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone and prevent the… 

Let me try that again.  

While I would like to lower the flags to half mast, declare a day of mourning for myself and my ship mates and raise a glass and shed a tear, to and for a dog dead thousands of miles away, it is unlikely the company higher ups or the captain would approve. Afterall, and joking aside, us dog people are inscrutable to those uninitiated.  

I suppose I have had a relationship with dogs since before I was born. At least from the moment I was given my name, being as I was named for a golden lab named Nicholas that belonged to the family in Calgary whom my mother moved to Canada as an au pair for.  And then there was Odin, another lab, who wouldn’t leave my side as an infant and dutifully stood watch by my crib.  The first dogs, in a long line of dogs.  

Unfortunately, the dogs come and go don’t they? We love them and they die and eventually we do too as Jim Harrison so saliently reminds us in the first line of the Road Home (one of his last great novels before he became fixated on the bottoms of teenage girls and eventually died himself), 

‘It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs.’  

My family, for instance, have never been good at expressing or giving demonstrative displays of affection to each other, but we do, one and all, lavish it upon our animals.  

And of course, life goes on.  

‘Pull your finger out,’ my father might say under different circumstances. The world doesn’t stop and work must get done. Even if it feels like my heart has been given a wedgie.  

I don’t have it as bad as my poor parents either. They’re both in their early eighties and almost every phone call and email these days brings news of another departed friend.  

Life going on for me meant a trip up the Saginaw River to deposit a load of stone.  It was a properly miserable morning.  Raining steadily.  Not quite a downpour but definitely not drizzle.  Enough to wet through those of us not dressed appropriately.  The temperature seemed non-committal.  Neither hot or cold. We were gathered somberly amidship, looking like grave-side mourners, as we waited for word from the captain to launch the punt.  At least the scenery was good.  Verdant banks packed densely with willow, oak, maple and cedar.  Wading in the shallows was a great blue heron and a white bird, smaller, but of comparable physiognomy.  

‘What is that?’ I asked Cam, an enormous and burly blonde deck hand who looks like a Californian surf dude and whose parents run a raptor conservancy in Southern Ontario.  

‘I have no idea,’ he said.

‘I thought you were supposed to be the expert,’ said quick to laugh Conor, another deck hand, with a piss-taking air and a shit-eating grin.

‘Yeah…on raptors!’  Said Cam. (The bird was later revealed by google to be a great egret.)

Just then, mother nature reminded us all of her impeccable timing.   In from stage left flapped a bald eagle as slow as it is possible for a bird in flight to fly.  It alit authoritatively on a treetop, directly beside us and not 80 feet away.  The great blue heron, finding three a crowd, exited the way the eagle had come.  The great egret remained. Stock still in those shallows.  Impassive.

‘You see,’ said Cam, taking Mother Nature’s able assist as he pointed and smiled broadly, ‘THAT’S a bald eagle.’

It has been my observation over the years that, anthropomorphically speaking, eagles faces are entirely lacking in humour and it is also true that that bald eagle perched on its high willow branch and cast its despotic stink eye upon us.

And so, the ship slid slowly on upriver.