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March 10, 2007

Chasing Deer Beyond the Horizon

Although the practice has long lapsed, I try to keep a list of small miracles — what some might prefer to call "significant coincidences." Some note checks that arrived in the mail at crucial moments. A few involve personally appropriate readings at Mass (as when the only passage in the Bible featuring my daughter's name happened to be read on the Sunday immediately following her birth). One that's been on my mind for the past few weeks comes from August 2000 and concerns the arrival of my dog.

I recall that I had been playing with some in-laws' dogs, and I stated aloud that I needed one of my own. Within days, a couple whom I never met discovered that their impulsively acquired puppy was more responsibility than they'd thought (more specifically, eroding their responsibility to each other, of one not to dote on and the other not to become jealous of an animal).

It was a husky — a breed that I'd always favored when I dreamed of having a dog — and although I was disappointed to learn early on that huskies tend to be of medium size, ours — Cody — just kept growing until he'd become one of the larger dogs I've known. His personality has always suited me, and it's easy to be proud of a sweetly tempered dog who has (no joke) caused drivers to stop in the street to call out compliments. In short, without my having to go in search of him, the dog that I'd always wanted came to me, and as I look back on the life that he's led, I, myself, am surprised at how frequently he has been the dog that I needed.

He's not, for lack of a better term, a lovable dog. He only rarely initiates exchanges of affection. He's very stubborn, sometimes demanding. When they've been outside, he's hounded the children, and his play has never been the easy repetition of fetch, or anything that might exercise him without exhausting me. There have been nights when he's ruined my plans for quick, but relaxing, walks by forcing me to play the fool chasing him around the yard, and other nights when he's aided the children in prevented my wife and I from sleeping. And it has largely been because of him that I have failed to accomplish my plans, during this Lenten season, to post frequently on matters conducive to spiritual growth.

Near death two Saturdays ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes, and more time than might be manly to admit has been spent coming to terms with our lack of resources — of time, of money, of attentiveness — to extend his precarious life beyond his first bottle of insulin, which we purchased that Monday morning. We'll be setting him free, as it were, on March 17, and if it weren't for the frozen earth and questions to which my children don't yet require concrete answers, I'd be burying his remains in the front yard, between two holly bushes that need all the help they can get fighting off the weeds that creep from the overgrown property across the fence.

There'd be something of an analogue, in that burial, to the unwitting help that Cody has offered me as I've struggled against the doubts that creep across the fence from faithlessness. Truth be told, my devotion to prayer and spiritual contemplation would have been minimal, in the years since my conversion, were it not for our walks. More often than not, when I've thought to be in awe of nature, he's been tugging me along by the leash. And I don't know how many Dust in the Light posts make reference to our walks (and how many might as well have).

Just as Cody prepared me to be responsible for a life in my care, he taught me the value of giving time to my own thoughts, my own breaths. When a lost job left me fearing my family's collapse, he walked with me for healing hours. With my change of careers, he allayed my anxiety with the promise that each night would find me by his side.

I'm not one of those who believes that dogs ought to be treated as if they are on our side of the line between humans and nature; rather, I see pets as more explicit agents of God, allowing us to personalize nature, to have affection for — relationships with — the world that He created, and teaching us, through empathy and contrast, to live within it. I do not believe, for example, that humans ought to be euthanized to avoid suffering; we are creatures of thought as well as feeling, and we must find lessons in all of life's experiences. But I've been bringing Cody back to health so that we can spend three weeks at a high point, after a winter of blameless neglect. For him and me, both, our final time together will be ripe with companionship, a chance for him once again to fulfill his purpose of teaching me to live, this time by dealing with that central fact of life and nature: death.

During religion class, when I taught Catholic school seventh grade for a semester, one of the students asked me whether it's true that dogs go to Heaven. My first concern was to avoid trampling parental comforts, but I also must admit that I had no answer. It wasn't a matter that I'd gotten around to considering since I began believing in such things as Heaven. Now, having devoted a bit of walking thought to the question over the past couple of weeks, I've come to believe that dogs do not have souls as people do and therefore do not "go to Heaven" in the way that we do. But if there's something metaphysically real in my sense that animals are expressions of nature with which we are privileged to form relationships, and if Heaven is the eternal experience of a relationship with God, then surely our beloved pets would be manifest in that experience. They are a face, a personality, given to nature, and that nature is divine.

Perhaps the most intriguing reminder that I've had of my dog's latent wildness — his natural aspect — has been his reaction when he's seen or smelled deer. Something in him strains at the leash of domestication, urging him to give chase. Almost as a representation of my being overwhelmed by the demands of civilization, and the shortened or skipped walks to which my schedule led, we hadn't crossed paths with any deer for the better part of a year. I'd begun to think that a few too many houses had claimed the limited wilderness in our neighborhood. But for our first walks — slow, sickly crawls — after Cody's diagnosis, they reappeared, and my wolf-like dog merely watched them, as if cognizant of some natural symbolism that I could only vaguely sense.

He improved greatly for the past two weeks, but last night his behavior stood as a reminder that he has a very serious disease. We've got another week to say goodbye; I hope it's a good one. I hope nature has something better waiting for him. Somehow it seems as if the deer are always just around the corner.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 10, 2007 7:50 AM

Do dogs go to heaven? I don't know either -- but suspect it's really such a stupid question that only a human could ask it. Somewhow I think all animals "see" God everywhere, all the time, in the same way we humans "see" light (or a fish "feels" water). When Adam & Eve ate the fruit, they suddenly "saw" that they were naked -- something they have never noticed before. And I suspect, they quietly lost sight of something had been perfectly obvious all along...


My wife and I had a cat (one of two) that had been with us since we were dating, who finally developed an ugly form of cancer and had to be put away. We all adjusted okay...

But one sunday morning, almost a year later, my 6 year old daughter started asking if we could get another cat. We explained how all of our cats over the years had just "come to us" when the time was right, and we never actively sought one out -- and weren't about to. And she begged as hard as she could, and so the best we could say was "look, if we find a cat that needs a home, we'll consider it. But we aren't going to go out and get another cat."

It was probably about an hour later, as we were walking into the church building together, my wife looked at me and said "did you hear that?"

"Meow", said the little kitten in the bush, right outside the sanctuary...

3 years later, he's a pretty good cat -- and has a lot of the personality traits of Charlie, the one we lost. His name is Church.

Damn straight I beleive in miracles! This little one was nothing compared to some others I could tell you about. But for a 6 year old girl, this was awesome.

God's love for us is simply astounding, isn't it?

Posted by: Marty at March 11, 2007 10:06 PM
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