What meaning is there in death?
Maybe there’s a metaphysical explanation for the universal “light at the end of the tunnel” vision, for the “life flashing before one’s eyes” experience, for the oft-reported bliss of feeling wrapped in some sort of ethereal, all-encompassing well-being at the very end. Maybe there is a spirit that gets recycled, maybe there is a heaven. What would that mean?
Me, I’m inclined to believe what a neurologist has to offer over more ecclesiastical musings: retinal ischemia playing predictable, replicable optic tricks, noradrenaline stimulation enhancing and consolidating memory, a final flood of organic opioids washing the dying brain in analgesic euphoria as its synapses sputter into permanent darkness. There is less romance in choosing to believe this version of dying: maybe there is no heaven, maybe there is nothing but electrical impulses that run out. What would that mean?
A dog isn’t faced with this sort of cognitive dilemma. A dog simply dies, never having had to consider the answer.
Instead, a dog is faced with tangibles. A dog is faced with a difficult last walk down the stairs, given her advanced osteoarthritis and heavy breathing. A dog is faced with a slow sunny meander following her nose – the one sense that has not failed her with age – with the rich green afternoon hot on her panting tongue. A dog is faced with woozily sinking to her haunches in the grass, her head cradled by her people as her eyes close under a shady crown of trees. For not knowing, a dog’s death remains simple and physical.
But maybe, because there’s no scientific reason why the canine nervous system shouldn’t follow the same complex mammalian shutdown sequences, a dog, too, will be faced with a reeling recap of her fifteen and a half trips around the sun: a montage of joyful disobedience, of dashing and dodging at speeds she has not attained for years now – into the woods, across fields, down dirt roads, through snowdrifts and along beaches, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with her dog-sister, long passed. Maybe she will relive, as she lies in the park with her muzzle twitching, the one time out of thousands of attempts that her jaws finally closed on an errant squirrel; maybe her brain will fire up a memory of the days before deafness when she could still hear my voice calling her name, always from farther and farther behind, her stubborn hound’s blood taking her running legs hostage with indomitable élan. Maybe she will catch a blur of the day a year ago, after her once-impressive range had already dwindled so low that even her longest walks no longer brought her as far as its banks less than a half-mile distant, when the river flooded so high across the field that the water came to her, as if to offer one last wade.
Maybe the meaning of this is all tidied away, filed under standard biological protocol. But maybe, to a dog, this sort of thing is a miracle. Maybe, to a dog, every one of these things was divine.
A dog, if she is lucky in the end, is faced with a day marked by the love only breaking hearts can give: extra knuckle-to-ear rubs, surprise deliveries of bacon, and visits from people she’s known – people the sight of whom used to make her sing and dance and curl her ears with unbridled happiness in her younger years, when she could still rise to her feet in one try.
A dog will make no final pronouncements of understanding to the world as phenobarbital relieves her ailing body from its work. A dog will just humbly stop breathing. And so a dog will quietly leave her people to look up at the sky, blinking in awe at the swaying leaves of summer high above their heads, suddenly overwhelmed by how many birds are singing, suddenly aware of the way something more than simple physical warmth seems to travel between touching hands, suddenly calmly conscious of how clear and bright the current moment is – and of the beautiful potential in all the inseparable current moments that string together to make up the entire future.
A dog will leave behind this new distillation of what it is to be alive without ever explaining a thing. And so, maybe, a dog can teach the meaning of death better than any of us.