Pictured above is the world’s worst dog. He came into my life as a rescue from the local shelter fifteen years ago. Fifteen years I tolerated his dismissal of my training efforts, the shredded household items, the radioactive urine that killed my grass and innumerable other annoyances. I finally won the battle of wills two days ago when, at age sixteen (!) he was forcibly sent to sleep for the final time. Various physical ailments had reduced his quality of life to a near vegetative state. Gone for some time was the happy cartoon grin and the boundless energy. This entry is not about a dog so much as life itself, or rather the end of that life.
The Idiot, as I nicknamed my nemesis, was the fourth dog I’ve had to take responsibility for euthanizing. The prior three were easy decisions to make as there were sudden catastrophic physical ailments that caused suffering and inevitable impending death. In contrast, this guy did not burn out; he faded away, and that proved much more difficult to deal with. As I watched him sink into the abyss of old age over the last year it troubled me. When was the right time? At what point does a life become pointless? Beyond that, who am I to make that decision? The last question does not have a simple answer. Being that I cannot communicate with my charge there is no way of knowing decisively his opinion or feelings on the matter. I would simply have to observe and apply my own innate concept of right/wrong to how I would likely feel in his situation–a situation I honestly could not relate to as I am in good health and not yet elderly. As a pet owner I accept these burdens, but I’m not sure any of us are truly qualified to make these calls with complete certainty.
Well-liked by others who did not have to clean up after his Trajectory of Terror, The Idiot’s passing of course generated conversation from family and friends. Discussions of other pets and their euthanasia resulted and I found it interesting how different the responses were from people whom I thought I otherwise knew quite well. Some were as I am, the stoic but affectionate owner who holds their pet in a final embrace as they pass from this existence. A surprising number of others, most of whom I regard as equally loving people, confessed that they simply could not be in the same room when the deed is done. This seems chillingly selfish and horrible to someone like myself, but I know these folks did not intend their actions to be anything less than providing the best they were capable of.
I don’t think it’s difficult to see what the ‘problem’ is with people who remove themselves from the final moments. The passing of a beloved pet places us face to face with the dark spectre of death. It is a mirror of our own mortality and we don’t much like the reflection. Pushing religious beliefs aside for the moment, we observe with great clarity that life is finite; there is an end to the book and no one to write a sequel. The experience of dying is the last answer to the questions of life. When we learn the answer it is too late to do anything with the knowledge. We all fear death. I do not believe anyone ‘welcomes’ death; I think when this reference is made it is instead a reference to wanting to end unbearable suffering in life. Death is final, and finality is the greatest insult to life. Death is feared–should be feared–but we cannot go through life constantly terrified of dying. That is not living. So we push the knowledge of death/finality into the dark recesses and ignore it until such times as the death of others brings it back for review.
At this point I will confess my atheism, a personal belief arrived at from careful study and substantial introspection. It is my observation that religion is, in large part, a creation of man to combat his inability to accept the inevitability of death. The human mind simply cannot fathom that there is nothing at the end of the journey, so it has invented the comforting placebo of eternal life. Consider that this is the conclusion of most all organized religions. Though the rewards may vary, eternal life awaits provided you follow the rules, schisms and traditions laid out in the published doctrines. Not a person among us doesn’t want to embrace the idea that there is no End to our existence. Even I am not immune to this. My first novel is actually a story based on the idea of an afterlife, though it presents the idea that it exists outside religious teachings (and that they all got it wrong). It is not my intent to shill a book here but to illustrate that so great is our desire to believe in a continuing existence even an atheist can fantasize about it, to the point of creating a book based upon that wish.
I had thought the process of euthanizing my pets had gotten, if not easier, less traumatic over time. The reality is that I don’t think it has. The ‘recovery’ is much faster; I no longer mourn for days as I once did. I worry in a way that this makes me colder emotionally, but I don’t think it does. I’ve simply progressed to a level of acceptance that is less emotional. There has been no change to my reaction during the actual needle insertion; the sorrow is as deep as ever but I accept it willingly. It is a sad but important part of love and life. I do not revel in it, but I refuse to recoil from it either. To not experience the lows is to not appreciate the highs. Both are essential to complete participation in this thing we call life.