Learning to Race in the Rain

by Sammi Curran 12 months ago in dog

A profound story for dog lovers

Learning to Race in the Rain
My dog loved me even when I was an angsty middle schooler with god awful bangs

I didn’t know if I was ready to review The Art of Racing in the Rain. I read the book a few years back, and it became one of my favorites. Truly, Garth Stein’s novel of the same name is one of the best books ever written. When I saw they were making a movie adaptation, I was thrilled, and ready to see it.

What I wasn’t ready for was the passing of my own lovely yellow labrador four months before the movie’s release. She was old and had health problems of many sorts. To spare the details, she got too sick, and the best thing to do was to put her to sleep. My parents video called me from New York, so I could say goodbye.

I don’t want to go too much into detail about the months in between Bailey’s passing and seeing this movie. The weeks after were difficult, to put it mildly. I still get random moments when I want to cry. I grew up with her, she was my little sister. Grief is painful, empty, and drawn out. The process of not thinking about it every day has been complex. As I mentioned, many days I’m fine. However, there are days when I have moments that make me want to lay down and weep.

Then I saw the previews for The Art of Racing in the Rain. I remembered the story: A dog named Enzo is our narrator, learning throughout his life various lessons to become a better soul for his next life. He is adopted by Denny, who becomes his best friend and companion. Through the trials of marriage, death, and a custody battle, Enzo witnesses Denny’s struggle, and plays an integral part to these events around him.

Though I knew this movie would make me cry and bring me back to thinking about my Bailey, I knew I had to see it. I can’t express enough how genius the book was, and I wanted to financially support it in its opening week. So I grabbed my friends that wanted to see it and that were sympathetic to my situation, and we saw it. I’m grateful I did; it was cathartic, and changed what was to be a simple review into a personal take on the relationship between a person and their dog, and how the end of the journey together isn’t really the end.

For dog lovers, the opening scene of the old Enzo reminiscing about his life, and not being able to stand is heartbreaking. It is. I’ve lived that life, having to pick up my dog by her back legs when she had trouble getting up on her own. Denny experiences the same, telling his furry pal it’s alright, and that they can sit together and watch racing together.

The way racing symbolizes life in this story is probably the best use of metaphor I’ve ever seen. The movie starts back at the beginning, and brings us back to Enzo learning to love watching Denny at work; being one of the most intuitive racecar drivers out there. Denny is smart, able to focus and read the signs of what’s happening on the track around him, but he isn’t able to quite reach that top tier in the racing world for a while. Without fail, Enzo, who is narrated to perfection by Kevin Costner, always claims Denny is the best. Better than Senna, destined for greatness, and Enzo knows this, because he can just see it. He grows up watching racing on the couch with Denny, and going to the races himself. It’s Enzo’s loyal belief in Denny that exemplifies the bond shared between humans and dogs. Enzo was there for him, and he loved him unconditionally. No matter how many times Denny lost, Enzo knew he was the best, and never doubted him for a moment.

Bailey was a little odd in this respect. Was she always unflinchingly by my side? Hilariously, no. She wouldn’t be overly-excited when I visited home, and I loved to joke that she hated me. However, I know she didn’t and never did. It was in the way she went on walks with me, the way she slept by my bed whenever I visited home, the way she would stay close when I was home alone having a panic attack or a depressive episode. I would go so far as to say there were days when she was the only reason I got out of bed when I was at my lowest. She would whine to get me up, or bark to get my attention when my brain ran away with itself. I always felt that she knew there was something not right with me at times, and she could sense when the mental illness was taking hold.

It’s seeing Enzo’s trust in his human that comforts anyone who has lost a dog. I believe one of the biggest pains I felt after the fact was regret. I hadn’t visited home to see her in person for a while, and I had this horrible feeling that I let her down. What if she’d been thinking of me, wondering where I was? What if she thought I left and was never coming back to see her. I couldn’t bear the thought that my dog had left before I had a chance to scratch her behind the ears, or brush her fur one more time. It eats me alive sometimes.

But then there was Enzo coming back into my life after years away from the book. He loved his Denny with everything he had. Even when Denny went off to races, and couldn’t bring him along, Enzo never forgot. He always loved Denny more than anything in the world, and instead would dedicate his time to watching TV when it was on, or bonding more with Denny’s wife Eve. Being apart from your dog doesn’t mean your dog will love you any less. Once you’ve connected, it takes more than separation to break that. I still wish I’d visited. I missed seeing her by less than a week. That’s a wound I know won’t go away. One thing that comforts me is knowing that Bailey always loved me, and would never be mad at me for pursuing my passions in life and becoming the person I was meant to be.

What truly makes this story a cut above the rest is how it embraces those who’ve lost their dog. It doesn’t tell you it won’t hurt, it doesn’t say it will be easy. It says that it’s alright. As mentioned before, Enzo knows his purpose in life is to learn all he can. He believes (thanks to some TV about Mongolian culture) that if he becomes the best version of himself, he will be reincarnated as a great human being. This means honing his intelligence, and watching after Denny and the family he grows to have. When the movie finally gets back to Enzo lying on the floor as he was at the beginning, it’s clear to both the old dog and Denny that it’s his time. By this point, Denny and his daughter are moving to Italy, so Denny can work with Ferrari, the company he and Enzo consider the best. Things couldn’t be better for them. Enzo has protected them and stood by their side, and now the fruits of his labor are manifesting.

The most overwhelming feeling I had after Bailey felt was guilt. I was guilty to not be there, guilty that my parents had to go through the worst of it, guilty for every time I ever yelled at her, guilty that she got to the point where she had to be put down, and that she didn’t pass in her sleep. I’ve had moments, especially in the days right after, where I felt physically ill from the guilt. I’ve struggled with dealing with this. I haven’t been able to write properly, I have been dog walking less in my spare time, etc. One of Bailey’s toys was a leopard plushie, whom I creatively named Leonard, that was originally mine. She took him from me one day, and suddenly the toy was hers. She would pick him up and sleep with him under her chin when I was home. I took Leonard back to Boston with me when I left the house, and I sleep with him every night. Sometimes I talk to him about Bailey, and I can tell him about how guilty I’ve felt. The ending to this movie has given me an eye-opening perspective that lifted my heart in just the way I needed.

To do the best for his old buddy, Denny manages to get an old Ferrari convertible ,and take Enzo on a drive. In this final scene, I felt as if Enzo were speaking to me directly. He says it’s the end, and that he’s done all he can in his life. He knows he’ll find Denny in the next life. He will bring all the experience from this life to the next journey. Enzo is at peace, and takes the time to enjoy the speed of the car. Milo Ventimiglia gets a huge shout-out from me for this. He was exactly the Denny I imagined when I read the book, and I'm so happy it was him in this role. He talks to Enzo, just the two of them for the first time since the beginning, and says “You’ve been a good friend,” and hugs him. Enzo, in his head, replies, “The best of friends.” Denny tells his friend it’s ok to go. Enzo doesn’t display an overwhelming sadness or great sense of an ending during this. He accepts it, and is ready to move on. He says that for now, he’ll enjoy this final, wonderful ride. When Denny asks him if he wants to go faster, he’ll bark as if to say, “Faster, Denny.”

This is Enzo’s final line, and the movie treats it beautifully. The score in this scene is fantastic; it’s emotional without being over the top or completely sad. It shows the great life Enzo lived, and captures the bittersweet end to the story. I love that the scene fades to white. We don’t see him pass, but instead see him in this moment. This is truly where the story ends. His soul isn’t dying; he’s going faster, full speed ahead into whatever his next adventure is. Enzo has a maturity beyond most people, real or fictional, I’ve known in my life. I had this fear of Bailey being gone from this world once she passed, but I don’t believe that’s true anymore. Though she didn’t get that romantic ending, she was old, and I honestly believe she knew this chapter of her soul was closing. She’s moved on for now, never forgetting the love and life she had with me and my family. She’s off somewhere else now, where, I don’t know. That’s a little bit of the beauty in it. I feel her spirit is around, strange as that sounds. I see cardinals more often. One meaning of seeing a cardinal is that a lost loved one is coming by to say hello. I met a friend at my new job named Bailey. It’s the little coincidences that make me know she’s not gone from this world.

The Art of Racing in the Rain has an ending that echoes this sentiment. After the fade to white, Denny finds incredible success in Italy in the following years. One day, a man and his son come to see him. The man tells him that his son, “says you’re the greatest. Better than Senna. He wants to be just like you.” When Denny signs his booklet, he asks for the boys name. It’s Enzo. It gives Denny pause, and he ends up offering the boy anything he needs when he’s ready to get into the racing business. It’s a beautiful ending. It’s like Enzo truly has come back to him, and this time he’s able to put into words what he’s always wanted to say to his owner: You are the greatest, and I wish I could be the man that you are. The story ends there, but I believe little Enzo will grow to be a great man like Denny. In the same way, I know Bailey is doing fine, wherever her soul has traveled now. That’s the power of this story.

I’m not magically cured of the grief. My heart will always have a spot for my baby. However, I don’t have to feel like she’s gone forever. It hurts, but it’s just how life is. My family and I gave her all the love in the world, and that’s everything we could’ve possibly done. Everything is as it should be, and Bailey’s spirit is alive and well in some incarnation in this world.

I haven’t mentioned the meaning behind this title yet. It comes from Denny. Denny is known by those around him as the best at racing in the rain. Most drivers shy away and slow down on the curves when the track is wet. Not Denny. He says he controls his own destiny, and keeps his eyes in the present. There is an art to racing in the rain. You have to navigate adverse conditions and dangerous curves. Even when things seem unbearable, you need to keep your eyes where you want to go. That way, you control your own destiny and keep moving forward. Enzo does this with how he accepts his death, and lives in the moment right until the end. Denny learns this from coping with the death of his wife, and almost losing his child. The two have mastered the art of racing in the rain. They learned it from each other, and they taught it to me.

When I imagine Bailey, I don’t quite feel that regret and guilt as much. Instead, I imagine her barking at me when the anxiety and depression start creeping back in. She’s telling me to stay in the present and not look back with negativity. She’s telling me, “Faster, Sammi. Faster!”

Sammi Curran
Sammi Curran
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Sammi Curran

Hi all!! My name is Sammi and I'm a pop culture and mindfulness writer.

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