Paying Your Respects
- story and photo by Ellis Anderson
Bay St. Louis understands the language of loss.
When my dog Buster died last month, I received dozens of condolence notes, hundreds of comforting comments on social media and for weeks after, hugs at every public event. One friend commissioned a painting in his honor and gifted me with it on Mother’s Day.
In the years since Hurricane Katrina, I’ve lost two other dogs, Jack and Frieda. Their deaths were met with similar outpourings of sympathy. But they’d both been public figures who had worked as greeters at my Main Street gallery before Katrina. Each had developed a big fan base in the town.
Buster’s demeanor didn’t do him any favors either. Around strangers, he wore a perpetual look of suspicion. I remembered the same worried brow from old Humphrey Bogart movies, when the actor played characters who'd just broken out of jail.
If someone outside of Buster’s tight inner circle of people tried to pet him, the brawny dog would shrink back, fearful, expecting malice. Although he could have taken almost any human down in a heartbeat, I never saw any aggression, only angst in those situations.
So what accounts for the communal compassion for an antisocial dog, one that unintentionally inspired more fear than warm-fuzzies?
I’ve lived other places where tears shed over the loss of a dog were cause for derision. “Get over it,” I’ve been told. “It was only a dog, for Pete’s sake.”
That has never happened to me here and I’ve been wondering why.
Of course, Bay St. Louis and Waveland are known as “dog towns.” Most locals recognize that all dogs are service dogs. They’re here to remind humans we’re not rulers of the universe — we are merely an integral part of it.
But the fact we’re canine-friendly communities still doesn’t explain the sort of wholesale compassion I experienced after Buster’s death. I’m beginning to believe the extraordinary outpouring wasn’t motivated by attachment to a particular dog, or neighborly feelings for the dog’s owner. It was ignited by a shared empathy. Most of us here have lost more - and more times - than a person has a right to expect.
We don’t like to think about hurricanes in the fair-weather months, but they’ve shaped our culture. In most cases, for the better. A friend once told me that on our coast, you try to stay on good terms with all your neighbors: you never know when your life will depend on them.
Because this hurricane culture is one of repeated loss — through many generations — it has also taught us that value has no connection with money. The cost of things is irrelevant, because the truly precious belongings can’t be replaced with all the gold in the world.
So we tend not to judge when a friend suddenly tears up in a casual conversation recalling a belonging snatched by Katrina, or even Camille. It’s not for us to ridicule attachment to a seemingly trivial object.
Or a neurotic pit bull.
Here on the Gulf Coast, the phrase “paying your respects” has taken on deeper meaning. The cause of the grief is almost irrelevant. The respect we offer is more for the love that has made the loss so hard to bear.