He is lying without movement on the exam table. I am holding him and making efforts to be cheerful while encouraging him to remember that he was a “good boy” and we loved him. He knows what is about to happen. The doctor, an irenic instrument between our anguish and submission, listens for his heartbeat and looks at me, ruefully, as if she can hear my own heart cracking. In our regular vet’s waiting room there is a candle with a sign in front of it saying, “When this candle is lit, please be respectful. Someone is saying good-bye to a beloved pet.” The someone is me today and Sister Anita. The pet is Finn, our beloved, handsome, blond mischievous member of the family who is about to mercifully exit life and enter wherever it is that treasured pets go for an afterlife.
Death, for the animal, is similar to what it is for the human. We are both sentient beings. The animal is frightened because this unknown invader is so mysterious. He cannot chase it away like an interloper on the property or the letter-carrier delivering mail. When feeling its growing presence, Finn would empty the closets of our shoes. He would crumple the throw rugs in the house vigorously trying to shake the tightening grasp of Death. You could almost see him asking, “What is this thing I cannot get rid of?”
When he is healthy, the animal would never comprehend why Someone would take him away from running in green hills, fetching a stick in the woods, greeting his beloved at the door. But when the animal is sick, a different reality sets in. I observed Finn was better during the day when he could feel the throbbing of life almost like hearing a pulse; footsteps in the house, swaying trees outside, even the loud cacophony of motorcycles and trucks. This is life. It calmed him in the last days as he lay on our porch his eyes closed, as if while listening to life it assured him he was living. But night was a different story. Life wasn’t so active; the throbbing pulse got quieter. The unknown invader was making its presence more real. Finn would walk the floors coughing incessantly, once more scrunching the throw rugs, angry at an unseen foe. He was fighting Death. Then he would look at me soulfully and ask, “Who is taking me away?” I would tell him, softly, God wants you in heaven as much as we want you here. Then I would hold him like millions of people were doing in their darknesses holding a mother, father, child, even a pet moving into eternity.
Theologians like Elizabeth Johnson have written beautifully on the connection between the animal and the human citing a relationship between the two and with God at the same time. Richard Rohr dedicates his most recent book to his deceased dog, Venus, “Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can appropriately say (Venus) was Christ for me.”
I suggest whether you have had a pet or not, you might read Johnson’s Ask the Beasts, or Rohr’s The Universal Christ, or Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Dog Songs. There are other writers and theologians you might want to suggest to all our readers. Please submit on the comment line.
Finally, think of any favorite animal companion you may have had in life. What did s/he provide in your growth in spirituality? Someone famously said, “Whoever has not loved an animal has developed only one half of their soul.” Does this provide spiritual comfort or a challenge for you?
I kissed him one last time and said to Finn, now still and in another life, “Good night, sweet Prince,” for that is what he was to me.