I didn’t actually want a dog, so I guess I got what I wanted. The little guy belonged to my grandma. I don’t know many old ladies, but I still feel confident saying that she was a very cool old lady. She was 85 when she died, but she wasn’t that “so old it hurts to look at you” kind of 85 that makes death a blessing. She was more of a “gardening every day, cornerstone of the local astronomy club, post inappropriate jokes on your Facebook” kind of 85. She was also the only family I had left in Ohio, so it was either me or the shelter for her little dog when she died.
I hate to think how things would have been if that dog had gone to a shelter. I wonder what the workers and volunteers would have done when the little guy started to expand like unspooling Christmas lights, impossibly bright, tangled in the shape of dog. It hurts my heart to picture that loving collection of cosmic bodies crouching in a kennel.
I’d tell you the dog’s name, but he really didn’t have one. Grandma just called him “Dog” or “Big Dog,” which I always assumed was a joke because he seemed to be some kind of dachshund Chihuahua mix. He looked a little like an elongated black German shepherd that somebody shrank in the dryer. I asked Grandma where she got him once. She poked a finger skyward and said, “Up there. Made him just for me.” At the time, I thought that was an unusually religious answer for her. I should have known better.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how young you are at heart. When your bones are 85, your bones are 85. Grandma fractured her pelvis and both ankles when she fell off her front porch. She had her big telescope set up on a tripod. She had gotten it just where she wanted it and didn’t want to move it again to clean some dust off the lenses, so she hung off the front railing to get at it. The wonderful idiot.
The broken bones led to the hospital. The hospital led to pneumonia. The pneumonia did the rest. It was all over in less than two weeks.
It sounds terrible, but I was glad it didn’t take longer. When she got sick, she could barely breath. It looked and sounded like it hurt. It also changed the way we talked to one another. She knew she wasn’t going to make it back home, so our conversations started to be about important awkward things, the stuff you want to make sure you say to someone before you’re gone for good. We talked about loving each other. We talked about the good times we had when my mom was still alive. She tried to tell me about what she’d learned from life, about making meaning for just for yourself, but it wasn’t easy for me to hear her and she got tired quickly if she tried to talk too much. Toward the end, she really couldn’t speak at all, but from the look in her eye I had the feeling there was a lot more she wished she could tell me.
I thought about grandma’s last moments a lot after the dog changed. I thought, “this is what that anxiety behind her eyes meant.” I think she would have been proud of me. I didn’t scream or lose my mind. The change happened when I was ready for it. Because I was ready for it.
I missed our old conversations, the ones punctuated by stupid jokes and grandmas pseudo-spiritual science lectures. She loved astronomy, loved it like some old people love Jesus and she spoke about it in that same tone. It was reverence. She would talk about things light-years away. About the careful balance of forces that kept us from spinning off into the great, frozen nothingness that hemmed us in on all sides. As she spoke, her voice would get low and solemn like somebody reading a bit of scripture in a Sunday service. There was real passion in it. Then, once I felt small and weightless, like a strand of her silver hair rising up and away, like a bit of cobweb caught in the breeze, then she would pause for a moment. She would look me square in the eye and say, “And you’re part of that. Part of the same tremendous machinery that does all that. Not one bit less amazing. You and me, sitting here trying to puzzle it all out in our own heads. It’s important work. It means something.”
She’d drop all that in my lap one minute, then walk around the corner into the kitchen and make fake farting sounds the next. I’d hear her giggling and I’d play along saying, “Grandma! What did you eat?” I lived with that amazing woman on and off from age 15 to 26. So, the question of whether or not I would keep her dog after she passed was really no question at all. That dog was like grandma’s family. So he was my family too.
Plus, since I ended up inheriting grandma’s house, it was more like I was moving in with the dog, than he was moving in with me. He liked me well enough. I sorta always viewed him as my replacement. He arrived just after I moved out, about four years before grandma passed. I didn’t know much about dogs, but it wasn’t hard to tell that he was glad I was there. Honestly, I was just as happy not to be alone.
I hired an auction company to come in and sell off a lot of grandma’s things, but I kept the important stuff: old pictures, her journals and notes, many of her books, and of course her big telescope. I even toyed with the notion of joining the astronomy club. At first, I just set up her telescope on the front porch and tinkered with it. I had no clue what I was looking at, but it was still pretty cool to have a little peephole into space. From there, I decided that a proper tribute to my grandma’s memory would involve putting some effort into stargazing, so I began cracking her books and journals. I’m glad I did. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have had any idea what to think when Big Dog started to grow into his name.
Most of grandma’s journal entries were about astronomy. She would write about what she could see on a given date and how it compared to her expectations from consulting her astronomy books. On the first night she got a good, clear view of Saturn you’d think she’d won the lottery. The page was tearstained. There were also lots of notes and sketches about the constellations, but not all the entries were pure astronomy. Some of them read more like philosophy.
The word “subjectivity” kept showing up in entries. See, grandma believed that there was no “inherent meaning” in the universe. Nothing meant anything by itself. Some people might think that’s kind of a grim, sad idea, but not grandma. She saw it more as a job opening. People could make meaning and meaning needed made.
She often used the constellations as an example. There was nothing about the relationship of certain stars that made them into a ram or a crab or a dipper. We made them into those things. People. Staring up into the night sky and giving things names, giving them meaning and relationships to one another. She didn’t think of this as just interesting or fun. She thought of it as a power and a responsibility. Human beings were the things in creation that could give names and meaning to the incredible mechanisms of existence.
When I read those sorts of journal entries, it was like I was fifteen again, feeling small and impossibly big all at the same time. Orion didn’t look like a hunter because of the suggestion of ancient astronomers. Orion was a hunter because of the decision of ancient astronomers and that power was just as real and important as the force of gravity. Those sorts of ideas, written in my grandma’s thin, looping script, made me absolutely dizzy.
Sometimes, after staying up late reading grandma’s journals, I could have really used a good fart joke. I had to settle for dog snuggles instead. Dog snuggles, warm and fuzzy, it turns out, are a good cure for most problems, physical or philosophical.
Grandma’s philosophies were haunting me on the day I understood her dog. I had never owned a dog before, but I still knew that he wasn’t always very doggish. Sure, he loved walks. He loved treats. He loved to snuggle on the couch. But he also loved sitting in front of the window at night and staring off into the sky. He would even look up at the ceiling or down at the floor, sometimes for more than an hour, slowly turning his head as if he was tracking the movement of things I couldn’t see. It was a little creepy at the time.
All of the dog’s oddities and grandma’s ideas were swirling around my head on the evening I picked up an old book on constellations and finally came to the section on Canis Major. The Great Hound. The Big Dog. I looked down at the furry little guy next to me and I understood –and when I understood, I swear to you the dog actually cocked his head. It was like an acknowledgement. Like he had been waiting for me to understand.
That’s when everything started to change. Grandma really truly believed that the meaning we make ourselves is the realest meaning there is. That’s how she understood life and, somehow, it’s how she could understand the constellation Canis Major as her own little furry companion.
I believe that my grandma was right about the world. It’s hard not to believe after what I’ve seen. Even so, I’m not her. When I understood what Big Dog really was, he couldn’t be a dog anymore. I couldn’t make him be a dog anymore.
He started to grow. That first night, when I first understood, he must have grown almost a foot. More than that, he started to glow. Not a lot. Not at first. I could barely see it until I turned out the lights for bed and even then it was just a faint outline, a shimmer.
I called off work. I closed all the blinds. I decided I wouldn’t leave the dog’s side.
That was the start of it, but he changed faster as the days passed. A few days later, he was the size of a Great Dane and it wasn’t just a general glow anymore. There were actual points of light and, thanks to grandma’s books, I had names for those points of light: Wezen, Adhara, Murzim. And of course there was Sirius, the dog star, right in the center of his chest like a gleaming celestial heart.
The bigger and brighter he became, the more ridiculous I felt about continuing our usual dog care activities, but when he scratched at the back door, I wasn’t about to tell him he couldn’t go out to pee. I was a little nervous about it. Grandma had a big wooden fence around her back yard, but you could still see into it from the neighbors’ second floor windows. Sure, the neighbors were elderly, but Big Dog was looking more and more like a walking, pony-sized, light show. He was hard to miss.
Even stranger than the light, as he grew I could start to see the space between the stars in my dog. I thought I could even see the circling swirl of nearly imperceptible dust, the whir of planets and other interstellar bodies moving in concert with the stars that made up my puppy. If I looked too long or too closely, I started to feel both massive and distant, like I was no longer standing on firm ground. If I looked too long, I felt downright nauseated.
A week after I understood, Big Dog was the size of a bear and he had no fur left to stroke. Touching him felt like dipping my hand in freezing water that carried a mild electrical current. He was a field of lights, a cloud of gleaming motes with the defining stars of his constellation burning so brightly it was difficult to sleep near him at night. But somehow, he was still a dog. He still paced back and forth on the living room rug. He wagged a tail of cosmic light and unknowable distance when I looked at him or said his name. He was still my dog.
On that last day, I woke up from an evening nap to a dog-shaped cosmos bigger than a grizzly sitting at the foot of my bed and staring out the window. The blinds were pulled, but that didn’t seem to matter. I sat up and sighed. His big head swung towards me, a canine shaped wedge of space. I could hear his big tail thumping on the hardwood floor and I thought Sirius, the heart of my dog, shone out a little brighter when he turned toward me.
I got up, rubbed the sleep from my eyes, and headed toward the front door. I hadn’t opened that door since I had first read about Canis Major. My dog followed me, casting blue gold light that filled the house and threw strange shadows from the lamps and furniture onto the walls. The dog was the only light in the house and his presence made all the usual, domestic objects seem like a landscape fit for giants on a universal scale. I felt like a titan of nature, a thing that breathed and walked through the universe like a child strolling through a toy train set.
When I reached the door I turned to face my dog. There was a lot I wanted to say. Important things. That was the meaning I wanted to make. I thought for a while, listening to that “thump, thump, thump” of tail hitting floor. In the end, I only got out one word.
“Thanks,” I said.
I decided it was enough. I opened the front door and stepped aside.
Big Dog walked up next to me. He was so big he had to stoop to fit under the ceiling. He stopped and lowered his head so that he was eye level with me. In his face I saw a view of the cosmos with eyes magnitudes upon magnitudes larger than my own. I was bigger than solar systems. I could see the movement of stars and planets in relation to one another. I felt more than saw the intricacies of gravity and matter and energy all moving and shifting in a pattern so complex that it, for a moment, seemed simple. It was beautiful.
A lump rose in my throat and I wasn’t big anymore. I felt small and unanchored again, just like when my grandma spoke about space in her church voice. I was without time or place. I was without significance.
Then, that big, beautiful dog took a step forward and licked my entire face in one slobbery motion. It felt like getting slapped with both the cold of deep space and the heat of undiluted starlight. It also felt wet and more than a little ridiculous. I laughed so hard tears ran down my cheeks. I laughed and smiled up at that brilliant interstellar puppy grin and I was home again.
Canis Major ducked down and somehow wriggled through the front door and out into the night. I raised my arm to my mouth and blew out a raspberry fart noise on the back of my forearm as he stepped down off the porch. It was the best way I could think of to honor my grandma and the dog that brightened her twilight years. Two steps out into the yard, he was bigger than a house. One step more and he blended into the night sky, fading from view, but the shake of his shoulders as he went told me he was laughing. At least, I decided he was laughing.
I did end up joining the astronomy club after all. I like to think grandma would be proud of me. I’m trying to be as curious and, well, weird as she was, but it’s a pretty tall order. These days, I’m particularly fond of studying the constellation Draco. In practical terms, it might be tough to actually have a pet Dragon, but on the other hand I’ve become less and less concerned with what’s practical.
There are nights, though, when I just need some simple companionship. On those nights, I look for Sirius right at the heart of my fury friend. Then, if I can get his attention, a see a tail wag that sweeps across the sky of the southern hemisphere. I still have a lot to learn about the constellations, but I do know one thing. Canis Major is a very good dog.