Sunday, March 13, 2016
For more years than I care to remember, one of my best friends was a border collie mutt named Oreo. Her name was Oreo because, like the cookies-and-cream snack, she was black and white. My niece, Arianna, who was at the time three or four, bestowed upon her a majestic, full name: Princess Oreo Cookie Monster. Though she was my dog, the decision to name her was not mine.
In fact, the decision to get her at all was not mine, either. Ricky, a fellow church-member, was trying to find homes for his dog's puppies. My then-partner thought that we ought to have a dog. Some couples have a baby to save their marriage. We got Oreo. In the end, the partner left, but the dog stayed. I think that I made out quite well there.
For the next dozen or so years, she was my "hale fellow, well met." Oreo was Captain of the King's Guard and Chief Jester. Eater of cashmere sweaters. Digger of holes. Pursuer of squirrels. A gourmand whose tastes encompassed hot dogs and Krispy Kremes. Hater of baths. Bed hog.
She was stubborn, it is true, but also stubbornly loyal. A fierce defender of my home, but also friendly and gregarious. Like Winnie the Pooh, "of little brain," but also a cunning escape artist to rival Houdini. (She never went far, though: she just wanted to prove which one of us was smarter.) And not sick a day in her life -- until last October.
She had a checkup in October, and everything was fine. Shortly afterwards, she developed edema in her extremities. In November, the vet diagnosed congestive heart failure and a heart murmur. However, with the prescription medicines, Oreo made a miraculous recovery. She was fine until January, when she got worse again. Another trip to the vet, another prescription. This time, the medicine averted the crisis, but it did not make her better. She continued to decline throughout February.
I tried to be vigilant for signs that the medicine was no longer keeping her comfortable. I could not prevent her getting old. I could not prevent her congestive heart failure. I could not prevent her dying. One thing that I could do was prevent her suffering. In the end, I hesitated too long.
When I got home Thursday, I knew that Oreo was dying. She was lying in the dirt. She could not get up. She just raised her head to look at me, and laid it back down.
I picked her up and carried her in the house. It was a difficult job; she weighed almost ninety pounds. I laid her down in the living room. I cleaned her up with a warm, wet towel. I brushed her coat and sang to her: "How much is that doggy in the window? The one with the waggly tail?" I scratched behind her ears. I lay down beside her and put my arm around her and told her that I loved her.
I wish that I could tell you that I stayed with her until the very end. By God, I was too much of a coward. After awhile, I kissed her on her ear and told her again that I loved her. I told her that I was going to go to bed and that I would see her in the morning.
When I awoke Friday morning, I knew that she was gone. The house was empty in a way that it had not been in over a dozen years. I walked into the living room and saw that Oreo was not breathing. I sat down beside her and felt her chest. She was cool but not cold. A bad dream had woken me at 4.30, and it is easy for me to imagine that is when she died. I really don't know. I petted her coat for the last time, kissed her on the ear again, and told her for the last time that I loved her.
I wrapped her in a sheet and carried her out to my car. I put her in the back seat, and we drove to the vet for the last time together. Some nice, young women came out to the car to take Oreo from me. I cannot imagine that they weighed much more than Oreo, but they handled things competently. In about a week, I will go back, and they will give me a box of ashes. It hardly seems like a fair trade.
For years and years, Oreo gave me unconditional love from a seemingly inexhaustible source, and she asked nothing of me in return. Of course, I fed her and walked her and brushed her and scratched behind her ears. And, of course, she joyfully accepted all of these things with a gratitude that was all out of proportion to my efforts.
For a little while, the bargain was reversed. She required more and more from me: More trips to the vet, more prescriptions, more help. The medicine made her kidneys more active, so we got up to pee a half-dozen times every night. I got little or no sleep most nights. It was a rare day that I did not have to clean up an accident.
I learned how woefully inadequate I am at being good. I could have taken Oreo for more walks. I could have shared more treats with her. I could have been more patient. By human standards, I may have been a pretty good owner. However, even when we intend to do good, our imperfect nature guarantees that we will do an imperfect job.
Saturday morning, I awoke feeling more at peace than I had been in a long time. Karen Armstrong has written that we are meaning-seeking creatures. I believe that I have found meaning in the timing of Oreo's death: We are in the middle of Lent, which is the season of loss for the Christian Church.
It seems to me that love means accepting suffering if it will relieve the suffering of one you love. The central, ineffable mystery of the Christian faith is that "for our sake Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures," as the Nicene Creed puts it. Why would God assume human form to suffer and die? What good would that accomplish and how?
We suffer. Because of our imperfect nature, we cause much of that suffering. Also because of our imperfect nature, we are not capable of relieving all of that suffering by ourselves.
If God exists, and if he loves us, then he would have to find a way to relieve our suffering, even if it meant suffering himself. A loving God must also imply a suffering God; it can be no other way.
So, even in her final illness, Oreo gave to me more than I ever gave to her. She gave me a better understanding of the meaning of suffering, of love, and perhaps even of salvation. She released me from being the person I had become so that I could be whoever I will be next. For all of this, and so much more, thank you, Oreo. Good dog.