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When a dog is sick…

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I’m not a believer in God. I sometimes think it would make my life easier if I were. You know, to have something to believe in, to comfort me during hard times, to sustain me in my alone-ness. But as worthy as those things might be, still, they don’t justify clinging to an idea that Reason tells me is absurd.

Maybe I put too much “faith,” as it were, in Reason. Yes, Reason gets us a long way. The human race has gotten to where it is because we have the ability to reason, and to learn from reasoning. (Whether or not “where we are” as a race is a good thing, I’ll leave for others to decide.) Animals can’t reason—at least, not beyond a certain point. But we can, which is why we have music, art, civilization, medicine, engineering and all the other things that enrich our lives, and raise us above the animals.

I’m thinking these thoughts today because Gus, my little dog, is desperately ill. Although the diagnosis isn’t officially in yet, he probably has cancer. A fast-growing tumor developed last week on the side of his snout. He’s in pain; to hear him yelp in the middle of the night simply breaks my heart. The vet is not hopeful. She’ll send him to a specialist, but warns there’s not much of a chance for recovery.

This is raising all sorts of questions. What will I do if—when—I lose the best friend I have in the world? When is it right to “put him down”? I had my cat, Mr. P., for many years, until he was twenty and the vet said the time had come. It was awful. She injected him and he died in my arms. He looked like he was sleeping. Both of us—the vet and me—cried.

One of the biggest questions or issues I’m facing now is that of God. If worse comes to worst, the next few days and weeks are going to be very difficult, for both Gus and me. I’d do almost anything to keep my puppy from pain, but there’s really nothing I can do. The vet will prescribe pain medication, which will help to some extent, but… As for me, if I had a faith I could lean on, I guess it would help. At least, that’s what people of faith say. But how can I remain true to my core beliefs if I take the all-too-convenient route of believing in God (even though I know he doesn’t exist), just in order to “feel better” about the death of my dog? I mean, God can’t just be some kind of analgesic. That’s what wine and marijuana are for. I can’t believe in the existence of some Force that every fiber of my mental being tells me does not and cannot exist.

How do I account, then, for All This? Or, as Leibniz wondered, Why is there something rather than nothing? I don’t know. But neither do I feel the compulsion to account for All This. I’m not driven to understand everything and I accept that fact. There are enough problems here on Earth to deal with. The other reason for my aversion to believing in God is because so many people who do are so obnoxious. I’m talking about those awful evangelicals and some of the arch-Catholics, like Coney Barrett and Franklin Graham. I really, really don’t like them and I don’t trust them and I don’t want them to have any power at all, because their exercise of power is cruel, malignant and discriminatory. If those kinds of people are illustrative of believing in God, then you can count me out.

So that leaves me pretty much alone. If I’m going to go through a mourning period for Gus—and to be honest, I’m already in it—I’m going to do it alone. I have friends and family, but there’s nothing any of them can do to get me through this. I already went through it with Mr. P., so I have some familiarity with what to expect. The stinging, wrenching tears (which have already started). The immeasurable grief, the unbearable separation from a loved one. Who will I talk to? “Hey, Little Baby, time for din-din.” Upturned head, eyes wide open, wagging tail. “Poopsy, you look a little tired,” as he’s on his back in his doggy bed, all four paws sticking straight up, softly snoring, his chest gently bobbing up and down. “That’s my Gus!” as he licks my hand in bed in the middle of the night. I stroke his head, nuzzle his snout, rub his belly (his favorite thing).

Well, if I can’t depend on God then I can depend on the resilience of us humans to recover from tragedy. I’ve never really gotten over the loss of Mr. P., but the knife-sharpness is long gone (he died in 2004), replaced by a dull sense-memory that is as much a feeling of joy at having known him for twenty years as it is of pain and loss. So it will be with Gus. But first, there are many long bridges to cross.

  1. Dale Sluter says:

    Dearest Steve, Both Dale and I know this heartbreak,, our love and many hugs to you, we so love our sweet babies.. and we have to let go of many that came to us for beauty and love.. thank you for sharing Gus with us all of this time and we continue to send him love and healing .. <3

  2. Judi Levens says:

    My heart goes out to you Steve, I’m so sorry for your pain. I have been there and there’s no person or spirit who can help…it’s something we have to face alone. You two have had such an incredible relationship…a true gift…I guess this is the price we must pay for all that love. You’ll be in my thoughts. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  3. Thank you.

  4. Oh thank you. I believe in the healing power of grief.

  5. Julie Howard says:

    I am so sorry to hear that Gus is not doing well at all. I’m sending heartfelt love and my very best vibes to you and Gus. Thank you for sharing such wonderful stories of a dog who was so well-lived and so deeply treasured; we are all richer for this. Blessings, Steve.

  6. I am so sorry to hear that news. I remember when you got gas. There’s nothing worse my heart goes out to you. The good thing you have are all your memories and his love for you and your love for your dog and that never goes away

  7. Steve, a friend of mine who had breast cancer told me that the only time she prayed to God was when she thought she might lose her life. It made her question why, as an atheist, she did this. She ended up talking to other cancer patients about this. Why do we turn to this thing called God when we don’t even believe in God. I think we do believe in this overarching thing that connects us all though. I think it is all the goodness of that we pray to in those times and reach for in those times. We call it God or at least some do. I know how you feel, and I am so sorry. When I lost my dog the pain was excruciating. I know. The one thing I would change about that experience, though, was the choice to go to monumental efforts to save her which made her life worse. I will never ever do that again. My heart goes out to you. Sending you all my love. Annette

  8. Steve, i mourn with you. When the time comes, stay with the pup until the very, very end. Cradle and comfort so the last thing pupmhears is your voice and feels your hand. I’ve done that, and the memory is forever in my mind, and it’s the right thing to do. I do believe in God, partly because of the “why is there something rather than nothing.”

  9. Thank you Susan. Yes, I have so many memories. There’s still some hope so I’ll hang onto that for a while.

  10. Dear Annette, thank you. The vet today told me not to go to extreme lengths. She said if the diagnosis is the kind of bone cancer she thinks it is, she recommends immediate putting down. It’s very sad but I take comfort in the long history of us humans losing loved ones and somehow surviving.

  11. Many comments have brought me to tears, none more so than yours. Thank you.

  12. Amelia Weir says:

    Steve,

    I’m really sorry to hear about Gus…I just lost my lovely Lola from a spleen tumor just a month ago. I adored her and probably spent more money in health bills than on my own kids. It is never easy and from diagnosis onwards, the process was surreal, especially when you have so much love for a being that is so innocent and sweet that has helped us during every hard time in our life. My only advice would be to accept the diagnosis, do what you can, enjoy every moment and let him know you feel. I did the same with Lola and it was therapeutic but also heartbreaking. Also, knowing it’s COVID protocol at the vet, please find a vet that can come to your house, if needed, when the time comes. We were lucky enough to find a loving vet who made the day we said goodby to Lola, bearable and almost, peaceful. But I hope the best for Gus.

    My best,

    Amelia Stephan Weir

  13. Thanks Amelia. Actually Gus’s vet is only a few blocks away so it’s no problem getting there. Gus still enjoys walking and we stop in and visit friends along the way. I’m sorry about Lola. It is very heartbreaking–that’s the right word for what it feels like. I hope the best for you.

  14. Dear Steve,
    Your thoughts are so close to home for me. I am an extreme animal lover and atheist. I’ve always believed that the love and faith I have in my animals fills the same need that those of religious faith find in a God. The balance of nature and the miracles it presents is something that no one can explain…no one. Be that as it may, human beings are gifted by these gentle souls who come into our lives, give us purpose, make us happy, and keep us on course. You have given Gus a wonderful life full of love and devotion. You respect him by grieving and giving him the best of care now. We’ve all enjoyed him through FB and gotten to know that he is profoundly important to you. Every little love I’ve ever had in my life is still with me in some way. One day, I hope you make room for another creature who’ll need the kind of love you can give them and they in return, give you faith in the beauty of this mysterious time we have. You are a wonderful person for loving this little guy so much.

  15. Damn, these tears won’t stop. Thank you Lee Hodo!

  16. Oded Shakked says:

    So well expressed Steve, my sincere sympathies. Gus is lucky to have had you all these years. 🙏

  17. Thanks Oded. I’m lucky to have had him!
    Best regards.

  18. Stu Friedman says:

    It is very tough to determine the right time. Our little lady, Blaze, had cancer on her left front leg. We all( my wife, me and the pup) worked together to keep her comfortable as long as we could.

    One Sunday morning, she came to us obviously in pain, crying and looking to us for help. She could hardly walk. She knew it was time, as did we and I held her at the vet when she passed.

    Your pup will let you know. Yes it is hard, and it is the best way. Be strong. Treasure the times you had and be kind at the end. I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I am sad for you and the pup. Yet …please do what is best for all.

  19. Your heart and Gus’ heart are one. That doesn’t change. That and the realization that all living beings share the same energy, gives me a sense of not being alone. Still, the sadness at such a loss is real enough. I have lost more than one four legged friend over the years. It’s not easy. I know you are letting him know you are totally there for him, and he knows that. Bless you both.

  20. Thank you. Maybe Gus will meet Blaze in Heaven.

  21. Thank you Jeff.

  22. Carolyn Bailey says:

    Oh Steve..I’m so sorry..I remember meeting Gus..what a handsome and endearing fellow..As a lifelong pet owner I have felt all those emotions you speak of so eloquently and my heart goes out to you..Yes, he is lucky to have you and you him..all my love, Carolyn

  23. Hi Carolyn, great to hear from you! Gus is the same as you remember: the sweetest, kindest dog I’ve ever known. He doesn’t hunt, or fetch, or play tug-of-war, but he has an infinite amount of love and all he wants to do is give it and get it. Well, he also wants to eat! Thanks for your kind wishes.

  24. We just got back from the vet’s. Buddy’s suffering just came to an end. He’s no resting in peace, and I feel for you, knowing how much you love your life partner Gus.

    P.S. Why I hadn’t yet responded. Jose and I were living in your shoes. It’s heartwrenching.

  25. “now,” not “no”

  26. love love love you

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