Hans died today. To be precise, at 0035 hours on Sunday, January 6, 2013, my dog died.
Hans and his sister, Gret, came to me on the night of January 3, 2003. During a snow storm they had been dumped over the 4 feet high chain link fence surrounding my backyard. The next morning, as the sun blazed on a half foot of fresh reflective snow, my old Lab found two black strangers defending a territory that was hers.
They were, as it turned out, about 13 weeks old, mixed breed Irish Wolfhound and Newfoundland. Gret won me with her intelligence, as she still does, and Hans, once I had rubbed behind his ears, won me with his sweetness and affection.
For 10 years they flourished as a pair, as members of the household, as companions to each other and me. As an adult Hans stood nearly 35 inches tall and weighed 150 pounds. For all his size he remained sweet tempered, happy, always joyful, ever exuberant.
Late Saturday night, having suffered with arthritis, appetite and weight loss, alopecia, bronchitis, and now pneumonia, he insisted on going outside, in the snow, and refused to come inside. Are dogs aware of their impending deaths? The Church, of course, and modern veterinary science would deny such knowledge. The Church must deny to non-humans the possession of a soul while conventional science denies higher order neural pathways implicit in perception to non-humans. But then, Church Fathers denied souls to children under the age of five for much of its history, and conventional science would prefer a Newtonian Universe and Victorian order.
He had never been alone in life, and he did not die alone.
We are human and reject the comprehensive wisdom of the dog: that the moment counts and only the moment, the hunt now, the bone today, the Man coming home up the walk, the warm bed here. Hans possessed that wisdom in full measure. The sight of him running to greet me, his large floppy ears bouncing to express his joy will live with me so long as I live.
We are human and must resist the moment precisely because we must seek endurance beyond today, must grope for personal meaning in a universe whose indifference is vast and cold and undisturbed by our groping. We invented the after life to provide a certainty to existence. This life may be dull and intense by turn, filled with horror and stress and crisis, we rendered into arithmetic digits by our own technologies and our own numbers, but out there, somewhere, lies a permanent surcease, a hope, a better life.
By his living Hans eloquently refuted that illusion.
When I was young and pre-adolescent, a group of friends was discussing after-life possibilities. Each in the group articulated his own vision of an after-life. One girl spoke quietly and simply and said, “To me, Heaven is where I go and all the dogs I ever loved run to meet me.” As a consolation I can live with that because I miss my dog.