The importance of being Piloto

This is an essay by guest blogger, Verónica Policarpo, @VMPolicarpo. I’d like to thank her for sharing her creative writing story on the matter of names in our everyday lives, and, in this case, in the context of family pets.

Am fersiwn Cymraeg o’r traethawd yma, cliciwch yma.

Portread o piloto_well

A portrait of Piloto the Third. Tribute from a friend.

As the landline phone rang that day, it seemed to bring with it a tone of expectation and future joy. It was Grandpa. ‘Come’, he said. ‘Come now, to see a surprise I have for you.’ As usual, whenever Grandpa called me, I left everything and ran to his home. I was then 21. Grandma had passed away one year before, and her departure had left us, me and Grandpa, feeling lost and lonely in the world; growing inside us this unspeakable feeling of abandonment, of having become orphans and drifting. As I rushed to his flat, I kept thinking what the ‘surprise’ might be, and my heart ached with expectation.

I reached the flat gasping, after climbing the steps hurriedly. Grandpa led me to the kitchen. ‘Meet Piloto III (the Third).’, he said. ‘Meet the heir of a long lineage of Pilotos in our family.’

My eyes opened wide and I gazed at the small creature, curling inside an old and dirty carton box. His eyes like two shining marbles, he was a brownish stray, trembling inside his hole. Whenever people talk about ‘love at first sight’, it is his gaze that immediately comes to my mind. His immense delicate vulnerability pouring from his eyes, helplessly.

I held him immediately. He was fat and dirty, the fleas jumping all around him. In that moment, his life immediately became entertwined with mine. First decision: to call a few people to come and meet him! My mother, cousin, best friends, another couple of friends who were pretty much dog-lovers just like me. ‘Come! As soon as you can! There’s someone new in this family. You have to meet him at once!’

This was how Piloto the Third came into my life. He was the third of a long lineage of family dogs, all rescued and stray. Their story thus encompasses the very story of my family, at least in part. It is weaved into how the family passed across time and history, building its identity and memory along the way.

Here, I must say that Piloto is the Portuguese version of ‘Bobby’. In the sense that it was once one of the most popular names given to domestic dogs in certain social milieus. If we go back in time, some 50 to 80 years ago, we would probably find many ‘Piloto’ dogs among the working classes, both rural and urban. As the Portuguese Nobel of Literature, José Saramago, put it in one of his books:

A name that he [the dog] could catch without difficulty directly through genetics, as it must have been the cases of Fiel and Piloto.

So common were these dog names amongst the working classes that their resonance should pass via genetics to the succeeding generations. The name then reveals a practice of social distinction among social groups: naming a dog is yet another way of finding and fixating your place in the social structure, in the intricate (im)balance of power relations.

Hence Piloto the Third could only have been ‘Piloto’, no other name would have suited the role he was being ascribed in that family, by his lonely, aged and widowed guardian. Piloto was the single name that would make him the helping compass in the grieving process of this old man, floating through the lonely months to come. Both trying, together, to tie the knots of memories of people and dogs already gone, and turning emptiness and loss into joy and laughter.

But why was he named Piloto the Third? Who were Piloto the First and the Second? And why was it so important for Grandpa to name him after his ‘ancestors in role’?

Piloto the First was Grandpa’s dearest niece’s dog. Back then, as today, family roles were blurred, and this niece was to my grandfather, actually like a daughter. Her legendary beautiful mother had passed away while she was a little child. She was left to be raised with a father who soon re-married to a not so loving stepmother, who would leave her to starve and other forms of maltreatment, just like in children’s horror stories.  Eventually, her father – Grandpa’s brother – migrated to Argentina to make a living, and Maria, as she was called, stayed with her uncle (my Grandfather) and family, with whom she was raised until adult age, and her father returned.

Piloto the First was Maria’s little rescue dog. Actually, his main role was as company to my great grandfather, Maria’s (as well as my Mother’s) grandfather. The old man came to live with his son and family, sometime after his wife passed away. He was overwhelmed by grief. Everyday he would walk to the cemetery, taking his own little timber bench, and sat beside his wife’s grave. There he stayed, under the merciless sun, staring at the tomb and talking… to his wife, to her memory, to her soul. Piloto the First always accompanied him. He lay on the floor, patiently, while the old man grieved. The little granddaughter (my aunt) often went along as well, and kept them company. The hours passed peacefully by; they even got locked in once, inside the graveyard.

Piloto did not wait for the old man, as though he wanted him to do something different, such as going back home, or walking in the park. No. He simply was there, with him. Kept him company. Unconditionally accepting what he was doing, sitting endlessly in the graveyard while talking with someone who was dead.  Unconditionally accepting what he was being, an old man going through a complicated grief process, that had lost not only his wife, but his life compass and a proper reason to stay alive. Piloto the First did not ask himself questions about all this, I believe. He just went, every single day, even ahead of his guardian friend, reaching the cemetery in advance and finding the best-shadowed spot to spend the rest of the day.

After 6 months, my great-grandfather did not resist and passed away as well. Of grief? Of sadness? Because he simply did not want to live anymore? Six months was the time he survived his wife, as if to prepare himself to join her as soon as possible. But Piloto the First could not join him. Therefore, he kept going to the cemetery every day. Confused, he would look for the old man, and lie near what was now also his tomb. He knew his way by heart, of course. And so off he went. Did he wonder about what had happened to the old man? Or did he know? Piloto the First would eventually die of old age. What happened to his body is uncertain, but according to the customs of that time (the early 1950’s in Portugal) he would have probably been buried in the woods nearby. This was Piloto the First.

After only a few years, Piloto the Second entered the life of the family. He was also a rescue dog and was given to my 5 or 6-year-old aunt, as her little pet. But in the end, he was everyone’s pet. He stayed for hours in my Grandfather’s coffee shop, entertaining the clients, who already knew him and cherished him. He made them laugh with his pranks, and they would usually buy him quite unhealthy treats, such as candy bars and sugar drops, as a way to indulge him for the joy and good spirits he would bring with him. Also, in the story that my human family have told and retold about him over the years, he would listen for the car of Maria (my Grandfather’s niece, remember?) while she was still several kilometers away from town. Most of all people, he loved her. And she loved him. Every time she came over, it was as if they hadn’t seen each other forever. Eventually, he also passed away of old age. The destiny of his body is also uncertain. The family mourned and grieved mainly through his narrated memory, across generations. And this was Piloto the Second.

It took my Grandfather around 40 years to take home ‘another Piloto’. Because a Piloto in the family carried, despite being completely unaware of it, all the affective memory of his ancestors in name, if not in blood. And the act of taking in ‘another Piloto’ demanded from the humans thereafter living with him, the will and the emotional capability of living not only with that particular individual, but also with all the living memories of the ones that had preceded him. The emotional ability to endure the rupture of the rules of linear time, and the haunting of past affective figures that coexisted in more or less harmonious ways with the ones living in the present.

And that is where Piloto the Third enters the story. During my grandfather’s last year of life, Piloto the Third was his full companion. The challenges of having a puppy soon hit Grandpa’s life. A whole new routine invaded their days, pervasively. They would leave the house very early in the morning, so Piloto could pee and poop. And because there were so many stairs to climb back to reach the flat, Grandpa would often leave Piloto outside, in the garden, while he went for coffee, the morning newspaper, or simply for a walk. Also, Piloto was a bit of a fugitive himself: he would often flee and run all over the town, with his gang of stray dogs, returning with what almost looked like a shameless smile, with no regrets whatsoever for the worries Grandpa had been through because of him. And then he would curl up at the foot of his bed, and snore deeply into a world of dreams and nightmares, in which we could still hear the sound of his past adventures chasing or fighting other dogs.

When Grandpa died, two years after Grandma, and one year after Piloto had entered the family, I already had my sentence. Many times, after each Sunday roast, Grandpa had declared that Piloto was our – my Mother’s and mine – inheritance. Even if he hadn’t declared it, this was as it was meant to be. Because since the very first day, Piloto had clung to me in such a particular way that I knew we could never be set apart. We were like two castaways from a drowning ship of memory. Together, we were liberating ourselves from the pain of loss, and the despair of enduring the void and loneliness that follows it.

For another 13 years, Piloto lived with me. Keeping him inside was actually a talent. He often stayed outside overnight and came back home late the next morning, exhausted and exhaling the smells of freedom wrapped up in mood and litter. But that is another story, to be told another day: the story of Piloto’s life, during the years that followed. Today, we stick to the importance of his being (a) Piloto. He taught me everything about love, connection, freedom, respect for the Other, fear of loss, pain and illness, and eventually the inescapability of death. He was my gateway to both joy and living mindfully in the moment; and to my family’s past, most of all Grandpa’s memory living inside me. For another 13 years, until he finally had to be put to sleep at 14, Piloto kept Grandpa alive, and with him all the stories he used to tell over and over again, about his ‘Piloto ancestors’. It was not until his own death that my grieving process for Grandpa had its closure. Mourning Piloto, in the years that followed, was a complex process in which many other people and things were also mourned. And in which the present could finally come to terms with the past, the possibility of a future with the burden of the family’s memory. It meant learning how to live without some of the most important cornerstones of my life. With a slightly frightening and exhilarating sense of freedom. And that was part of the importance of being (a) Piloto.

Nodyn am Piloto

‘A name that he could catch without difficulty directly through genetics, as it must have been in the cases of Fiel and Piloto.’ José Saramago, O Homem Duplicado [The Double]. Handwritten in the back cover of a notebook with messages of condolences.


Author: saralouisewheeler

Yr wyf yn colofnydd i papur bro Wrecsam sef: Y Clawdd.

2 thoughts on “The importance of being Piloto”

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I loved Veronica’s story. It highlights some profound aspects of our relations with animals – how they are intricately entwined in the lives of families, how we create kinship with them and *for* them as well (the relation created between all the Pilotos), and what it means when we name them.
    And I had no idea that onomastics was a whole field of study – I’ve really enjoyed exploring your blog, Sarah!


  2. Wow, thanks Becky! Ah yes, I was very fortunate to have Veronica as a guest blogger – we met at a conference about creativity at the Morgan Centre, University of Manchester, where we had been put togetheron a panel about exploring creative approaches to writing in Sociology. Veronica’s essay here is an extraordinarily good example of this. I hadn’t heard of onomastics either and kind of blundered accross it when I submitted a journal article about the difficulties I have experienced with pronounciation and spelling of my name (Sara…no ‘h’ ahem). But once I’d discovered it, I was delighted and haven’t looked back since. How did you come accross the blog?


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