Our dog died today. She had terminal cancer and internal bleeding, and after considering all of our options (there were actually very few), we made the painful decision to have her put down. She was a Golden Retriever, a blessed breed of dog, one of the best companions for a family, and especially for children. Sweet and charming by nature, empathetic and gentle as all Goldens are, she was perhaps not the brightest of her breed I have known, but one of the most gracious. She was both joyful and loyal, and an excellent watch dog, alerting us emphatically whenever a stranger approached the front or back doors. Ardent pursuer of rabbits and blue jays, she was the bane of the gardeners and her inevitable bark struck terror into the heart of the pool man.
A rescue dog, she was seven years old when we adopted her, dusky golden in hue, and the answer to my then thirteen-year-old son’s desire for a dog. I recall reading on his WeChat site the mute wail: “I want a dog. I feel so cliché!” That convinced me that it was time for me to put behind me the loss of my previous dog, also a Golden, who also died of cancer.
We got Leila, after months of diligent searching, from Southern California Golden Retriever Rescue, a wonderful organization that does God’s work. We had seen and chosen not to adopt several other dogs, but Leila was exactly what we were looking for. She blended seamlessly into our family, bringing the kind of joy which only an animal can, offering her affection selflessly, enriching our home, warming our hearts. She was as integral a part of Christmas as the presents and the tree, and as vital to our everyday chores of shopping, driving to school, and working in the back yard, enlivening them with her panting enthusiasm and unaffected grace.
The decision to put her down was extremely difficult, and we took it only after it became clear that she could not live much longer. She was suffering terribly, and the doctors assured us that though surgery was an option, she probably would not survive it. We said our goodbyes and I remained with her to the end. Her eyes were open and on me, not puzzled as I expected, but curious and calm. She lived for the company of people, and so I could not leave her so long as she lived.
This event has reaffirmed in me my long-held conviction that life must be preserved as long as it is possible to do so. Every kind of life is precious, adding to the sum total of vibrancy in the world. To end a life unnecessarily is always a bad choice, striking at and shaking our humanity. If we are to be human, we must dedicate ourselves to the proposition that life is better than death; and nothing, not convenience or self-interest or ideology, ought to be allowed to change that. And this is true for all forms of life, whether animal or human, elderly or unborn. Life is the ground of our existence, and when we undermine that ground we weaken our own security and sense of self. In killing other living creatures, for whatever reason, we kill a part of ourselves; a golden part, perhaps, that can never be retrieved.
I don’t know what this need is that we as humans feel to share our lives with animals. Anthropologists would tell us, I suppose, that it comes from primitive man’s desire for companionship and protection, and I am sure there is truth to that. But I think the truth goes deeper: it goes to the very heart of who we are as living beings.
Animals remind us that we are part of a chain of life that stretches from heaven to the primal seas; from the uni-cell to the cerebellum; from ashes to angels; that we are essentially connected to Nature, no matter how feverishly we may try to deny it with our cell phones and cyberspace. And animals are innocent, as we were born in innocence. That innocence fades as we grow until we can scarcely sense it anymore, except as a distant memory or a mythic nostalgia. But animals, in the perfection of their innocence, reconnect us with the residue of our own, reminding us of who we once were, and who we may yet be again after the corrosive effects of life are finally sloughed away. They recall to us our birthright and our destiny. It is in this sense that animals can teach us, and do teach us, truths about ourselves denied even to the precepts of religion. For animals are religion, a living, breathing, loving faith in the primal goodness of who we once were and are destined to be again.
I have said it here before and say it again today with even more conviction: Our hope lies in the animals, in their innocence, in their love, and in the joy which they bring uniquely into our lives. When this afternoon my Golden breathed her last, some part of me, some hope and reassurance, expired too. Yet, it would not be true to the purity of her spirit and the selflessness of her love to say that my life is less because of that. For she made it richer, and fuller, and more blessed than ever it could have been without her. May she rest among the angels in peace.