This morning dawned clear and cold with a scattering of snow on the ground. It will be the last morning for our beloved dog, Buttercup. At 2:30 today, the vet will come to our home and put her to sleep. I hope that she wakes up enough before then to go outside with me a last time to sniff the air.
I am not taking this very well. I have gone off to weep several times in the days since we made the decision. There is much meaning wrapped up in a dog's life; many memories. It is hard to think of it ending. It forebodes other endings.
Our animals generally live much shorter lives than we do, at least the ones we choose as pets. Why should a 65 lb dog live only 15 years and a 120 lb adult live 80? Perhaps that we might more frequently and more safely contemplate life and death, and the cycles in our lives.
My life so far has encompassed the lives of two beloved dogs. I have had others, but only two whose lives were completely involved in my own from beginning to end. Pixie was the dog of my childhood, who shared my life from age 6 until age 16, when I entered upon my adulthood and my walk with Christ. When she died, in my arms, I somehow understood that my childhood was over, and she had seen me through it. She had been my companion on many explorations of my growing world; I shared my childhood sorrows with her, and she seemed to absorb them and bear them up quietly, as dogs do. I knew, when she died, that in the next ten years my adult life would be defined. She would not be there, she had done her part. And I knew that I was entering a world in which there would be losses.
Buttercup has been the dog of my maturity, growing up with my children who now, as she dies, are entering their own adulthoods in their various ways. The six of us were her pack; she was happiest when we were all home, and would lie where we were gathered. Each night she slept beneath one of our beds, or on the corner of a sleeping bag when friends were over. We have hiked, canoed, splashed in streams, dug snow forts together. She has slept amidst my wife and children when I worked those many nights. Our windowsills are scarred from her claws; our carpets are worn with her path up the steps under the banister. She was the gentlest of dogs. She loved to have her face rubbed.
Now she is nearly gone. Those once-acute ears can no longer hear the birds, nor any but the loudest speech. Her world is quiet, and her eyes are dim. For some time she has been unable to mount the stairs, so she sleeps alone. Over the years her pack has drifted away, to college and to other new homes. Her world has become very small. Sometimes at night she will yip the lonely yip, and one of us will sleep on the couch till she falls asleep. Sometimes she is incontinent, and embarassed. She is afraid of edges.
Yet she is still there, still in time with us, even now. She does not look bad; she does not look sick. She is still warm and soft and breathing. She still likes her face rubbed, though her eyes are somewhat glazed from the pain medications. But she cannot pee and has not eaten for days. She goes outside and is puzzled why no urine will emerge.
It is an odd thing, this contemplation of her coming death. I have seen death many times, of course, but nearly always of humans. It is always mysterious. One minute there is a person there, then there is just a body. With humans, it can be approached with language. There are last words; there are understood goodbyes. In this death, she does not understand. And I cannot make her know what she has meant to me and to her pack.
In four hours, she will go out of time. She will be there, warm and moving and loving us, and then she will be still, and will never move again. Somehow this thought is devastating to me. Time the destroyer, again.
C.S. Lewis wondered about the souls of animals. "Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?" (Ecc 3:21) He wondered whether beloved animals might become "real" by the chosen love of their masters, even as we become real by the love of our Master. I cannot read The Velveteen Rabbit without weeping. I do not like to think of a world in which anything really good, really beautiful is utterly lost. It does not seem like something my God would allow. I would pray, "Heavenly Father, you have made this beautiful, gentle animal to be our companion for these many years, a lesser being with enough consciousness to be faithful and gentle and loving, to form a bond with us greater beings that brings us both comfort and pleasure, to choose (usually) what she knew would please us, and to give both of us joy in our respective natures. As surely as other humans, this being has entered into the eternal lives and memory of us and our children. Can not this lesser being be granted an existence with us in eternity? Can she not share with us the new earth we shall inherit, content as a lesser being to attend at the heels of her beloved masters, even as we shall be content to walk with you as lesser beings basking in your love? Will our new earth be filled only with humans or greater beings, and no lesser? Is our condescension to and love for lesser dependent beings not a reflection of your love for us in some way? I think it may be so. If so, please grant that these beloved animals, among them this particular creation of yours, Buttercup, might have the pleasure and honor of renewal when you renew all things. "
We just walked outside for a bit. She sniffs the air, but does not seem interested. She tries to pee. I wonder what she knows. Does a merciful God allow the animals some acceptance of death? Some animal behavior suggests it. Does she discern a coming end in our sorrow, in our attendance upon her in these last hours? Is she sad with our sorrow, or with her own?
I contemplate my own end in this death. I doubt that my own life will encompass the life of another dog. I will be a grandfather in a few months. There will be dogs yet in the lives of my children, and in their children's, but probably not in my own. Perhaps there will be a dog of my old age; I do not know. It would be a dog of leavings and of sorrow. It will not be that long before I, too, will wonder why I cannot pee, and will lose the song of birds and the high notes of the children's laughter.
I know the ending of Ecclesiastes, have known it long. This is the way of things under the sun. There will be joy and sorrow both. Buttercup's life was a blessing and a joy, and her death is a sorrow. One entails the other till we return to our maker and enter into the new Earth prepared for us. There, I think, we will rediscover much that was lost here in this beginning of our long lives.