Our beloved dog dies two weeks ago. It was sudden, shocking. Her name was Olive, and she was a pug, and we adored her, my wife and I. Attempting to convey what makes your dog special, or what made your dog special can be like describing a dream, entirely subjective, possibly boring, drawing faux appreciative nods of interest. Be sparing with sharing your dog-photos, as there is only so much enthusiasm. That said I beg: indulge me this handful of snapshots. Olive was fawn-colored, and unlike most pugs, she was muscular, did not have that usual thick roll of neck fat, hers was slight. Also unlike most, she was a biased eater, and required food rewards for the most basic of acts, like eating food. She was finicky. She had large, round, sad, brown eyes, and slept on a pillow, on her side, between us.
Like most brachycephalic breeds—dogs with flat noses—she snored. If she needed to leave bed for a drink of water, or to pee on a mat (or more likely in her later years on the floor), she would hop down to the ample dog-daybed at the foot of our bed and then scratch at my hanging arm when she was finished. She had that oddly human way of listening as we spoke, a pug’s singular way of canting its head from side to side, trying, I’m convinced, to finally, finally understand you. If she had one day responded in a human voice, like that alien pug from Men in Black, I would not have been completely surprised. She often barked at the TV, when she wasn’t deeply immersed in what we were watching. In fact, we bought a sofa with a large wide back so she could lie there and watch TV along with us. We had upwards of ten nicknames for her, and she ignored all other dogs at the dog park and instead visited adults and children. She was happy, by all appearances, and was nearly fourteen when she died.
We knew she was ill, degenerative myelopathy (DM), a disease of the spinal cord similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in humans. Otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is fatal. There is no cure. But, also, there is no pain. The vet diagnosed her approximately four years before (without explicitly mentioning DM’s fatal nature). Regardless, we thought our Olive immune. She was special. And when her back legs weakened and eventually began to whither recently, a major sign of DM, we simply imagined how fetching she would look in a wheelchair. Still, she was always Olive, happy, funny, content.
When it happened we were in a family cabin in the mountains, a place Olive loved, where she spent her last good day with us on the covered porch watching rain showers and listening for birds. We have a photo of her from a few days before, looking especially thoughtful, even stoic, as if she knew what was coming. She very well might have. The following early morning, a Friday, she did not respond to food or water, and started having breathing problems. She was also exhibiting strange behavior, acting as if she did not recognize us. Kate sat with her for a short while, and told her we were going to the vet.
I got dressed. Kate went to the kitchen.
It seemed Olive’s back legs had then completely stopped working as she was now dragging herself to the steps that led to the kitchen. Kate saw this and lifted Olive in her arms and set her on the floor beside her. We went about readying ourselves to leave. I called the vet. They had no available openings, but suggested I call a nearby emergency hospital. I did that, and put on my shoes.
Then—a warped and terrifying gift.
Just moments later, at precisely the same time, Kate and I watched Olive drag herself to the shadows beneath the dining room table, and when she arrived there, looking confused in the half-darkness, she started walking in a circle, her last walk, and then she shuddered, fell over—no, keeled over, like an animal in an old cartoon. A strange analogy, yes, but this is how we both described it to each other later. Her spent legs went out from under her, and she shook, a life-stealing seizure. Consciousness was leaving her like electricity draining, and so we dove under the table, and joined hands, there, and we petted her, and we put our hands on her belly, and on her head, and I kissed her head, and Kate kissed her head, and Kate and I told each other how we loved each other and how much we loved our dog. And it was over. A horror, but peaceful. A peaceful horror.
Of course, we didn’t want to believe it was over so we wrapped her in a towel and rushed her to the vet, but not to the emergency hospital. I could not find the correct directions. So we rushed her to the vet with no availability, and upon arriving, weeping, we were led into a stark, steel room, and there a doctor entered within seconds, set a stethoscope to our girl’s heart, and pronounced our beloved dog dead.
They left us in the room, alone, with her, for a short time.
And then we took deep breaths and made plans with the doctor for cremation, and then they took her away.
We spent the rest of that day trying to act normal.
We went out for brunch. We bought wine. That evening we made crying animal noises in the dark of the surrounding woods.
We left the cabin a day early, exhausted, beaten, depressed, and drove home.
Back in the city, a whole set of triggers awaited. Her water bowl. Her foodmat. Her stuffed animals and toys. The fact that I did not have to walk her anymore.
Days now felt empty, as did my heart.
We have a cat and we tried to love on Leo more than usual, but, frankly, he ignores us, mostly. In fact, his days have been spent largely staring at the door, we imagine, waiting for Olive to walk in.
Perhaps most triggering, as unsettling as it is comforting, is my wife’s old habit of calling out our dog’s name: “Olive! Olive? Where are you Olive?”
I suspect she has always done this subconsciously as a way to poke fun at how small our apartment is. After, all, Olive is never more than a few feet away. And still she calls out, albeit less and less so with each passing day. But now it strikes me as a profound question, a religious question, a philosophical question, at the heart of our mourning: Olive, where are you?
James Dickey’s bracing and beautiful poem “A Heaven for Animals” predictably makes no room for pugs:
Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains
It is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.
Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open.
To match them, the landscape flowers,
Outdoing what is required:
The richest wood,
The deepest field.
For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,
More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey
May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk
Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.
Our Olive never hunted, or was hunted, never chased a ball, or fetched a stick, hardly ever showed interest in any other dog (unless it was another pug, and even that stopped, eventually), and after having once disturbed a flock of pigeons on the sidewalk and after having jumped and landed on the back of one of those pigeons she looked like she wanted to apologize.
What of a heaven for pugs?
What of clouds studded with soft sofas and TV sets and puffed daybeds?
What of us?
A pug’s apparent purpose, as far as I can tell, is to sit with its people, totally present, on a comfortable couch, watching Real Housewives on Bravo.For the Jehovah’s Witness, there is no heaven for dogs, or animals, or most humans, except for the privileged few, the exact number of humans found in the book of Revelation.
“Having no souls, they have come, / Anyway, beyond their knowing. / Their instincts wholly bloom”—how I love this notion that “soul” is really awareness, full and present consciousness, which suggests that humans, on the other hand, will be aware in an afterlife (is this more valuable? I wonder…), whereas pugs will be entirely in the instinctive after-moment, unaware, in the forever now, the very envious position they inhabit in this life, too, which makes life and afterlife for the pug a recycling of the large same sofa, something of a dream.
For the Buddhist, there are several heavens, and animals can be reborn as humans and humans reborn as animals, and all is cyclical, and heaven is earth and earth is heaven and I like that idea a lot.
For Muslims, animals, much like humans, must face God on Judgment Day for heavenly entry.
For Judaism, whether or not an animal gains access to heaven depends on the Rabbi, as the very idea of heaven is exegetically also up for grabs.
Pope Francis famously announced all good dogs go there in the end.
On the other hand, early Christian thinkers, like Paul, Tertullian, Origen, Aquinas, St. Augustine, all wrestled with the question of a heaven for animals, or if indeed animals have souls. And for lots of reasons, one of which was what would they do there? The question resonated because a prevailing belief regarding animals was they existed for human benefit entirely. What use would they serve up there? Might they be killed for their coats, meat for dinner? Would either be necessary in the City of God? Come the fourth century however there came visions of God’s kingdom that more closely resembled Edens than metropolises. And gardens meant animals. There exists a eulogy from that time for a dog named Aura and the “playful Aura’s ascent to Heaven,” to join with the Dog Star.
For the Jehovah’s Witness, there is no heaven for dogs, or animals, or most humans, except for the privileged few, the exact number of humans found in the book of Revelation. From Revelation 14:1—“Then I looked, and behold, on Mount Zion stood the lamb, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his father’s name written on their foreheads.” And from Revelation 14:3—“And they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.”
When people find out I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness they usually have two questions. 1) You didn’t celebrate your birthdays? And 2) Who are the 144,000? Yes, there is something mysterious, even seductive about the idea that only a set number of humans can go to heaven. It is certainly an anomaly in Christianity. Unlike so many other numbers in the Bible that are read symbolically—and be sure most of Christianity reads the 144,000 symbolically—for Jehovah’s Witness the number is literal. The follow up question is then: Why them, and what about everybody else? This was often asked while we went from door to door, and we were encouraged to counter: Where do you really want to live, in heaven? Or on earth? It’s an interesting gambit. And people answered overwhelmingly: here, on earth.
The logic of the argument for the Witness goes like this: God’s Kingdom will be run by his son, Jesus Christ, and Christ will have 144,000 angelic and formerly human co-rulers. All of His pick. But whom will they rule over? Who else, but those faithful human servants of God left on earth, and those faithful resurrected after the holy war of Armageddon. This will usher in a brand new Christian millennium, a time geared toward human perfection and a return to paradise.
The Witnesses make no special dispensation for animals in heaven, but weirdly make great hay of Revelation’s claim that the lion will lay down with the lamb in this new earthly garden. Witness literature is suffused with colorful illustrations of people and beasts living in harmony, with lions, tigers, bears.
As a child I guess this appealed to me, but, now, as a grown man, one who loves and respects animals as best I can (I am mostly vegetarian; I occasionally eat fish), I find the whole notion of living “in harmony” with wild animals abhorrent. “Fulfilling themselves without pain,” Dickey writes, granting his animals their dignity, allowing the embodiment of their full and natural potential, the hunter, and the hunted. The Witness belief, however, strips the animal of its essential character, a lion without its roar of warning, in a Disney-fied wilderness for children.
When my grandmother passed there was no talk of heaven, rather there was talk of resurrection, in some ways to me a more comforting belief. Though the question does persist there, too: what will they do? How does one spend eternity? Learn every instrument? Write endless novels? Watch every season of everything on Bravo? For some, like me, the thought of living forever on earth sounds terrible, boring, and unbounded by what arguably makes it so special here to begin with: death. And of course while Witness exegesis allows for animal existence in paradise, what of animal resurrection? What of my Olive? And as for immortal souls, for the Witness, anyway, animals do not have them, and neither do humans. According to Witness interpretation the Bible teaches humans and animals are living souls—they do not have one. I would beg to differ, and so would you after one long look into my dog’s doleful eyes.
Yesterday, I asked my wife if she believed in heaven, if losing Olive had changed her opinion.
She took a deep breath, and fought back tears.
She said, the morning after the vet, when we got back to the cabin, without our good dog, when we tried to nap, she awoke alone in the late morning, to see the morning sunlight shining in from outside, and she felt the cool morning breeze. It was a beautiful day, and she became angry. She cried out with anger because how dare the breeze and the sun go on after death had visited our family and taken our dog. She stepped out onto the porch and cursed the morning—but only for a moment because soon she felt Olive in the breeze, in the trees, and in the light, and Olive was a part of it all. She did not know how, only that it was true.
After she told me this, I said Emerson subscribed to the idea of an “oversoul,” that every living thing was part of one shared soul.
She said she liked that. I said I did, too.
I think Dickey probably did, too, and I imagine if I asked him about certain sofa-bound dogs and where they fit in his beastly heavenly cycles, I think he would say that’s the dog’s business. And so maybe when Kate and I pass we will see her again because maybe some heavens intermingle depending on their purposes. Or maybe this here is heaven, after all, like the Buddhists say. And maybe Olive is here, too, already, unseen, unaware of her heavenly life, right alongside us, unlike us two humans all too visible and suddenly aware of our brief heavens, of how all life leaves, eventually, and how sometimes the perfect dog is the perfect reminder of love.