In my dreams, dogs don’t die.
In my dreams, my dogs talk to me.
They speak to me of life and loss, of love and joy, of the gates through which they entered and left my life. This is comforting. And nourishing. And very real to me. My dogs touch me in ways that stick. And that does not die.
Orson emerges from a sea of bright blue lights, ranging
up a verdant hillside under misty skies.
Will you talk with me? I ask.
Of course, he says.
Will you forgive me? I plead.
For what? he asks.
For not being better.
For not fixing you.
For letting you die.
The lights all flicker in the gentlest of breezes.
His bright eyes meet mine.
You didn’t kill me, he says.
It was my time to go. It was my way of leaving,
of saying goodbye, of going home.
Where did you go?
I came here, to rest, and to wait.
And I came back to see you. I put my head on your foot while you worked, and watched over you. You seemed sad, alone.
Then you saw why I brought you to the farm,
why I came into your life, and led you to a different place.
So you could find work you loved.
And find yourself.
And find someone to love.
You did that?
He is silent, staring beyond me.
We come and we go, entering the lives of people
at different points, in different ways. When we are called, we leave. It doesn’t really matter how we go; there are many ways for us to leave. I wish I could have told you that you didn’t have that much power over us, to decide our fates.
I was ready to move on, and so were you. Ready to find another kind of love. To change your work. To find out who you are. I could only do so much. You had to do the rest.
Did you love me?
Yes, always. But not in your way. Not only you. We serve human beings, and we love them all. In our own way, we protect and guide, and fill some of the holes in your lives.
And then he touched his nose to my hand, and he moved off, disappearing into the lights.
I will always be close by, he says.
There is something elemental, even beautiful, about the natural death of an animal. When a pet dies naturally, it frees us from the agonizing second-guessing and guilt that can accompany the decision to euthanize it in order to spare it suffering. Still, the experience of having a pet die naturally has its own pain, as well as its own opportunities for gratitude and love.
Julia, a nurse in Kansas City, wrote me about her dog Spike, a fourteen-year-old mixed breed adopted from a shelter when he was a puppy. Spike suffered from arthritis and had some colon and kidney problems. He was on a special diet. Julia knew he was getting old, but he was still eating, still able to walk outside and follow her around the house. During his last exam, the vet had said that his heart was weakening. She warned Julia that Spike could go at any time.
Julia talked to the vet about how Spike might die, and the vet said that since the dog’s health problems weren’t particularly severe or painful, he might well die naturally. This was difficult to hear, but Julia was relieved that the vet wasn’t recommending toxic drugs or scary procedures. She didn’t want to put Spike through that.
One night, as she sat reading a novel, Spike climbed up onto the sofa and put his head in her lap. Julia remembered enjoying the pleasure of a good book and the fire crackling in front of them when something made her look up. She sensed, rather than saw or heard, a change. “Suddenly, Spike wasn’t breathing. He was gone. I knew it.”
She was surprised by how calm she felt. Instead of being upset, she felt full of love for her dear friend. She sat with him for a while, then picked him up and laid him on his bed. In the morning she took him to the vet’s office for cremation. The ashes are now in a small urn on the fireplace mantel.
“How lucky I was to have him go that peacefully, and with me. I felt tremendous grief, but I didn’t have to make the decision about his life that I had always dreaded making. And he didn’t die with stitches all over or tubes in his nose, or drugged. He had always had a good life. And he died a good way. Recognizing that made me feel a whole lot better.”
I love the idea of the Good Life. I believe this notion can be an enormous help to people who have lost their pets. The fact that Spike had had a good life was a great comfort to Julia. It gave her perspective; something to take pride in. When you clear away all of the emotional confusion, there is this: all we can give our pets is a Good Life. We can’t do more than that. We miss them because that life was good, loving, and joyful. Too often this truth is lost in our grieving.
When I was a teenager I joined a Quaker meeting. I loved many things about the Quakers but was especially drawn to their notion of death. When someone or something dies, rather than mourn, the Quakers celebrate the life. They laugh and sing and tell funny stories about the person who is gone, and they remember the very best things about that person’s life. What a lesson for those of us who have lost a dog or a cat who has meant a lot to us. And that is just what Julia did for Spike. She didn’t just mourn the dog she lost, she celebrated the life they had together. The Good Life.
Over the years I’ve heard many wonderful stories about dogs who die a natural death, who say goodbye in their own way and time. Donna told me about her Welsh corgi, Cora, who went off into the garden for her final sleep one summer afternoon and was found lying in a bed of hostas, at peace. Raiki, an elderly golden retriever who lived in northeastern Vermont, was struggling to walk, eat, and see. One winter’s night she walked off into a blizzard and was never found. Jen and Peter, who loved her, believe that she became a spirit of the wind, and that she blows back to them with each storm.
Dan, an Upstate New York logger, would let Sadie, his ferocious rottweiler/shepherd out of his truck at 5 a.m. every day, and she would return faithfully about twelve hours later when his work was done. He never knew where she went or what she did, but she often came back limping, bleeding, covered in scratch and claw marks. Sadie was aging and was now stiff with joint pain. One morning, after she scrambled out of the truck, she paused and stared into his eyes for the longest time. He had ridden with this wild and beautiful creature for ten years, but he had never seen her look at him in this way. When she finally limped off, he knew that he would never see her again. And he didn’t.
“I was happy for her,” he said. “She died the way she wanted to die.”
She had, he said, a Good Life.
To give a creature a Good Life is a precious thing.
As your pet ages and you sense the end may be near, focus your mind on the best parts of the life you shared. On love. Loyalty. Comfort. Laughter. Remember that you still have time. Record your memories. You might want to take some photos or make a video. Consider gathering friends to say goodbye. And lift your heart in celebration of the amazing gift of loving an animal’s spirit—and being loved in return.
Finally, it might help ease your sadness to ask yourself the following questions:
Did I give my pet the best life I could?
Did I feed him every single day of his life?
Did I care for him when he was sick?
Did I take him with me whenever I could?
Did I appreciate and return his affection?
Did I recognize and honor his true nature?
Did I love him?
Do I miss him?
Did he have a Good Life?
If the answer to these questions is yes, know and remember that you gave a special animal a Good Life.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Going Home by Jon Katz. Copyright © 2011 by Jon Katz. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.