One of the things that has always struck me as ironic is that we give our animals more dignity in death (usually) than we do our fellow human beings. Whenever one of my animals has neared the end or contracted a deadly disease, I’ve had him/her “put down.” I distinctly remember when my German Shepherd, Jessie, could no longer hold on at the old age of 19, and we made the decision to take her to the vet.
She couldn’t lift her head when I went out to the yard that morning to feed her. For at least three years, her eyesight and hearing had been failing, but she still swung her tail, and she still knew that she was the one responsible for herding our other dog, a massive British Mastiff, whenever he was doing something wrong. Though she couldn’t see me, nor hear me, when I touched her head, her tail wagged weakly, yet she couldn’t eat or drink. I called my husband and told him to come home. Together, we went to the vet and held hands while he inserted the needle with the tranquilizers that would put her out of her misery. Together, we cried like babies over the dog who’d been with us most of our adult lives. Together, we buried her in the back yard where we would bury our Mastiff a scant three months later. Leaving that house and their graves was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.
During this season when all the leaves fall off the trees, the ground goes brown, and everything appears dead, Izzy is only excited. He can see further, there are new smells, and somehow he seems to know that nothing is ever truly dead. It’s just gone temporarily. When we were walking this morning, it dawned on me that every day is new to him. Ooh, what’s that over there? Did I smell that yesterday? I did? Well, let me smell it again. And that mean dog . . . there he is today. Maybe he’ll be nice to me now. Nope, he won’t. Okay, let’s go the other way. Even if he has done the same thing a hundred times, every time he does it again, it’s exciting. He has no memory for the sadness of a dead rose bush or the crispiness of dead leaves on the ground. A dormant rose bush is something new to investigate. Those dead leaves? Let’s scuff through them and throw them up in the air.
This season reminds me of all the people and things that no longer exist in my life: those dogs I mentioned, my parents and grandparents, some friends. I just lost my former mother-in-law last week, and the sadness that I have felt is one that deepens when I think about the fact that she is the last adult in my life. There are no other generations before me. I — and my siblings, my cousins, my friends — am the “older generation” now. It dawns on me that every day brings me closer to the day that I, too, will no longer be part of this earth.
As with so many other life lessons, I learned this morning from Izzy that age simply doesn’t matter. He doesn’t recognize dogs because they are puppies or because they are senior. He recognizes simply that they are friends (or, in some cases, animals he needs to avoid). He has no idea where he ranks on the scale of age, nor does he care. He simply does. He simply lives. He simply explores every day as if it’s the first one.
By the time we arrived back at the house from our morning walk today, my eyes were no longer wet with the grief I felt for my mother-in-law. Instead, I thought about the last photo she took: nestled in a wheelchair, she weighed about 50 pounds, her cheeks sunken and unable to hold her teeth. She wore a knitted hat over her kinky gray hair and her church friends and pastor clustered around her chair, all grinning as if enjoying a party. In her lap, a tiny chihuahua. I can hear her voice as if I were there myself: “How cute! Look at him wigglin’ all ’round.”
This week, I watched a brief video with Oprah interviewing Eckhert Tolle about what happens to us after death. He explained that our body is a shell, animated by atoms that are pure energy. When that energy dissipates, it leaves the shell that is our body inert. The energy simply rejoins the other energy that powers our earth and every living being on it. We are everything. Everything is us.
I think animals know that.