March 17, 2007

Waiting on Another Season

Although I would have preferred for the past few, difficult days to be less dreary, I'm sure Cody — my dog — would not have chosen any other weather than we've had. He loved the winter and the edible water that coats the ground in white. Now that I must write of him in the past tense, I wish the clouds would drift away, although I've been glad for the visible reminder of the tracks that he left in this life.

He was such an integral part of my life for so long that it's hard to believe he's gone. The yard seems empty. There's an undertone of loneliness to the ruckus of my household. I caught myself putting aside corned beef for a dog who would never come to his dish. And I know that a thousand moments have yet to resonate with his absence — not wrapping a scarf around my neck for our walk tonight, not bringing him in before going to bed, not rushing to feed him before work on Monday, not brushing out the pillow's worth of downy fur shed when the weather warms, not watching him sprint up and down the fence as the kids walk by in the spring or seeing him revel in next winter's first snow or seeking out the place in which he'd go to hide from the summer's heat after his favorite bush makes way for an addition to the house in a year or so.

So here I've another of those instances in which all of the rational understanding and lists of pros, cons, and alternatives avail one hardly at all. On a day to day basis, Cody claimed comparatively little of my time and thought. But he had always been here, and I miss him. Our moments were always precious, even when they felt a bit too much like a burden; even on those short, short walks when I could barely keep my eyes open, I had to admit that I was glad for the moment away from things.

As I said a week ago, he was very often precisely the dog that I needed, and it's difficult to imagine another dog's managing the same. So what do you do when the absence of the companion to whom you turned when you needed to work through problems becomes, itself, the problem? I guess you forge on and accept that you will heal.

But I like to think that Cody is still out there waiting for me to come home — to one home or another.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:47 PM | Comments (4)

March 10, 2007

How Should We Live?

For reasons more significant than the health of my dog, it is with an almost desperate longing that I look toward spring and summer... provided those seasons bring with them freedom from the concerns that have characterized this winter. Those concerns are too personal, and not entirely mine to address publicly, but take it as an indication of their nature that the question of how we should live our lives has become more prominent in the crowded piazza of my head.

In this day, it wouldn't be excessive to suppose that everybody has received for consideration the advice to live every day as if it could be their last. I see two fundamental problems with this approach:

  • It's not feasible. On a true last day, one would splurge and shirk those long-term responsibilities that eat up so much of our time. In the course of life, moderation and responsibility are precisely the things that allow us to make the next day better. One must make plans for the future and sacrifice in the present to bring them to fruition.
  • In its self-centeredness, the dictum sublimates our relationships with others, and in the long term, those relationships bring the greatest rewards and the most tearing repercussions.

The conclusion to which recent lessons have led me is that the wiser person lives life as if each relationship could end soon, and without much warning. Thus, our personal goals, being secondary, are less apt to be a source of panic and regret, and when relationships end, we can be comfortable that we put as much into them as we were able.

One must have goals, of course, and a certain confidence is necessary in order to assert one's own desires in the face of others' demands, but we too often forget that there must be a balance between these two organizational principles of our lives. Moreover, even Christians, in our society, seem apt to forget that no day is actually our last, and it seems intuitively probable that our handling of relationships, as they come and go, will have a decisive effect on our disposition at our time of dying.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:44 AM | Comments (1)

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 7:50 AM | Comments (1)