Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Our dog, Buster, died yesterday.

In his 17 years of life -- at least 2 if not 3 years past the usual sell-by date for a dog his size (the chart on the wall at the vet's office said he was 96 in human years) -- Buster achieved the highest honor a dog could: He was a good dog. Most dogs, if they're loved by their people, manage this achievement, and Buster was no exception, earning that honor at least on a daily basis, so much so that it became a second name: Buster's-a-good-dog-yes-he-is! Among his good-dog achievements:
  • He protected the house against would-be intruders, scaring them off with a thundering bark that sounded much more vicious than his actual nature. Which is a good thing, because we're fairly certain that if said would-be intruders had actually entered the house, Buster would have employed another good-dog trait, which was ...
  • He was a cordial host to houseguests. Buster knew that to properly greet welcomed guests demanded a tail-wagging hello, a sniff of the hand or foot, and to hang back and casually wait for pettings and good-boy noises, which usually followed.
  • He would fly off the bed or couch or pillow, wherever he happened to be, to enthusiastically greet us when we came in, no matter how long or short we'd been gone.
  • He loved his cats and exercised them daily by playing rambuctiously with them.
  • He guarded the lawn from squirrels. Among his limited but impressive vocabulary was the phrase, "Buster, get the squirrel!"
  • He was a good companion in happy and sad moments.
  • He walked on the curb instead of the street or the grass whenever he went out for a walk.
  • He cleaned the floors from any food items that happened to be dropped there during preparation.
  • He ensured the washing of bedding by rubbing his nose in blankets and sheets enthusiastically. He had an itchy face, you see, and enjoy scratches and rubbings.
  • He was a rare breed, a Dandie Dinmont Terrier, who always attracted the attention and questions of "What kind of dog is that?" whenever he went into the public.
Buster was found at a 7-11 when he was 3 by a past family member, and lived with various members of the family before coming to live with us. He came into our life in 1999, about the time that we decided to become a family ourselves. In the last couple of years, Buster began to slow down. We chalked it up to age and were more gentle with him, demanding less energy as he seemed to demand less time and attention from us. It worked, because our lives had become busier, and we always tried to eke out time to spend with him.

But in the last year or so, Buster changed. He slept more, stopped playing, shied away from pettings and hugs. He wandered aimlessly around the house. He demanded to go out constantly, yet never seemed to remember what he had gone out for. He forgot his name. He began to have accidents right after we took him out, sometimes right in front of us. And he stopped eating. In the past, if he didn't like his food, we'd bring the cat in and put her next to his bowl, and he'd run over and gobble it up just so she didn't get it, even if he hated it. Not so anymore. He even lost interest in human food. We did some research and found out that he likely was suffering from Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, essentially Doggie Alzheimer's. And even though there are drugs now that might help him, he's 96 in human years and ...

We took Buster to the vet yesterday, on one of his good days, where he actually stood still for us to pet him for a little while before we went. She is a fabulous vet who asked Buster, "Are we going to heaven today?" and explained to us that his brain cells just weren't touching anymore. And so. Buster died yesterday at the age of 17, surrounded by his family and a vet who loved him, too. Because you couldn't know Buster without loving him.

I am taking Buster's death rather hard, even though I know it was a good decision. We've been crying off and on all day yesterday and still today. Buster is no longer in the house. He did not wake me up this morning by walking across the hardwood floor, his toenails clicking like a Keith Moon drum rant as he raced into the kitchen for breakfast. He is not sitting next to me while I type this. He will not greet me when I come home. There's a Dandie-shaped hole in the universe today, in the universe that is my heart.

I find myself wishing that I could look in the Bible or some comforting holy text for something that would help. But aside from some passages about God's good creation or God seeing the sparrow fall, there really isn't anything that speaks specifically to this. After all, dogs get a fairly bum rap in the scriptures. Get as allegorical as you want, but when you get down to it, they're documents trapped in their own time and space, which did not look at dogs as members of the family they way we did. Most religions view that, in fact, all dogs do not go to heaven, though they do recognize how important pets are to us, but I would have to say that that's one of many things organized religion is wrong about, yet another example of how human-centric rather than God-centric we make our religion and our religion makes us. If all of creation is good, and if heaven is the place of ultimate goodness, why wouldn't a pet that is of the good creation be in heaven?

Of course, I also run into the problem that I'm as agnostic about heaven as I am about God; lacking personal experience, I do not, cannot and probably will never know for certain that there is either a God or heaven. However, I highly suspect and hope that they exist, so I return to the more accurate definition of pisteou, and I trust that they're there. In the great roulette table of life, I placed my bet on Probably. Which is magenta, by the way. I hope that there is a heaven, a Matheson-like Summerland where all that makes me happy is laid out like a buffet before me, and Buster is there because I'm part of his happyness buffet, too. And in fact, we're already there, because that's how eternity works, and all that keeps us from knowing eternity is time.

But that's just a hope, and doesn't help me much in daily life here on earth. The only evidence that there is of God outside of personal experience is love. Let's dispense with all the bullshit on whether it's agape or philo or eros (leave it to the damn ancient Greeks to make Love a trinitarian concept, too) and just go with Love. Love's a tricky thing, a nasty continuum you travel along that will take you to blessed heights and crippling suffering, sometimes all at once. Love demands sacrifice and sometimes makes it easy, but more often than not it demands the sacrifice that will lead you to suffer the most for the good of that which you love. I had thought that Buster was just getting old, that he just needed more care, more time, more attention, and I was willing to sacrifice whatever I needed to in order to make him happy and comfortable. But in the end, the sacrifice I had to make to make him happy and comfortable was what hurt me the most.

I'm not a big fan of the crucifixion narratives, as 12 years of Catholic Lenten practices should scare that out of anyone (I was a terribly sensitive child, and Passion Plays will do a number on you when you're sensitive). People (melgibson, cough!) seem to like them, and focus on that bizarrely medieval theology of substitution atonement, that Jesus suffering on the cross was what cleaned our sinful slates and made us right enough to go to heaven. Whatever. Honestly, I don't think that the crucifixion was only about Jesus and what he suffered, and making it so removes the most important part, the love. Not the love God so had for the world that he sent his son to suffer and die stuff, but the love that a peasant quasi-teacher had for the least of those around him. The love that led him to defy the society around him that had become an I-me-mine world, to stand up and say, "It's all of us or none of us," even knowing that such steps surely would lead to his death. The love of a God who sees every sparrow in God's good creation fall who surely was there at that death. And, the part that gets left out, the love in the people who witnessed the death, who suffered because not only did Jesus love them, but they loved Jesus, too. I always feel like they get left out, that they're the co-starring players in this paschal drama. It is not just the love that God had for the world, but also the love that the world had for God and each other and this guy named Yeshua. A mobius strip, going from one end to another, never singular, always in relationship, a continuum that brings you to blessed highs and crippling suffering.

This is very deep for an obituary for my dog, but the old saying is true, If my dog isn't in heaven, then it ain't heaven. Buster was a good dog. We loved our dog, and we know that to the best of his ability, he loved us, too. Love is Love.
And wherever you've gone and wherever we might go
It don't seem fair, you seemed to like it here...
Your light's reflected now, reflected from afar
We were but stones. Your light made us stars


Erudite Redneck said...

Dogs are just little four-legged people -- make that kids, before they become "people," since people suck -- in fur coats.

I am truly sorry.

And this is the best kind of obit.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Two days after Christmas, 2004, we took our nine-year-old Great Dane, Gretchen, to the vet. She had cancer surgery the previous summer, but it came back with a vengeance. In a few short weeks, she became very weak, to the point of not being able to stand. She kept looking at us, as if to say, "What's happening to me?" Rather than have her suffer, we took her to the vet.

Too big to get on a table, my wife and I sat and held her. The vet gave her the shots, and she collapsed very slowly, her head lying in my lap while I cried because I heard and felt her very last breath. Before we left, they made a plaster cast of her right front paw and etched her name in the mold. It sits on our kitchen window sill now.

We have a great dog, our St. Bernard Dreyfus, but reading your post took me back, again, to that awful, sad day. But, that's OK - she was a great dog (we always said the emphasis was on "Great" in "Great Dane").

HapaThealogy said...

Thanks, guys, for your kind words. I feel like I've entered this odd fraternity of people who've lost their beloved dogs. Everyone shares their story. It soothes and heals and brings us together.

I got through a day without weeping, but I'm quickly finding that a dog-free life is kind of miserable. The cat noticed finally, and now she's sad, so we're paying attention to her now.

Thanks and blessings,guys.