In her wonderful book about writing, What About the Baby? Alice McDermott tells us a story she read in an Irish magazine about a man who finds himself walking along a road with his childhood dog.
The man realizes he’s dead, because of how long the dog’s been dead. How glad he is to see his old pal! They walk until they come to a set of pearly with alabaster pillars beyond which are streets paved with gold. There, a gatekeeper rises from his desk, telling the man he’s arrived at heaven and asking if there’s anything the man needs. The man asks for water since he’s been walking a long time. The gatekeeper tells the man to come on in and he’ll have water sent right up. The man asks about his dog. “Oh, the dog can’t come in.” Ah. Well, the man chooses to keep walking with his dog. Eventually, he comes to a farm with a wide-open gate. A man is sitting ‘in a rickety chair in the shade of a great tree, reading a book.” The man calls to him and asks if he might have some water. The man replies that, of course, he can, there’s a pump right over there. What about the dog, the man asks? “Not a problem,” he’s told. “There’s a bowl beside the pump.” After drinking, the man and dog walk to the fellow with the book under the shade of a great tree to thank him. The man says what a lovely place this farm is. The man agrees. “It’s heaven, in fact.,”
“But what about the place down the road?”
“Oh, that fancy place? That’s hell, though they’re always calling themselves heaven.”
“Doesn’t that make you angry?,” asks the man with the dog.
The other man pats the dog on his head. “Oh, no. They do us a great favor. They sort out the people who can’t be loyal to their friends.”
Well, I tell you. Bit early for a morning cry, but there you have it. I did mention I love Alice McDermott, didn’t I? And anyone who knows me knows I also love the Irish.
A few years back, I was asked to interview Ms. McDermott on stage at an event the Princeton Library was doing, and to join Ms. McDermott, her partner and some of the library staff for dinner afterward. I was thrilled since I am such a fan of her work. The only problem was that My Best Beloved was away on business and my friend-of-the-canine-variety, Bailey had recently pulled a muscle in his leg. I would be gone for at least four hours and well, I didn’t feel comfortable about that. I also didn’t feel I could leave the lovely people at the library, like Janie Hermann, in the lurch. I decided to call a very nice woman who had stayed with Bailey before and ask if she could please come and pet sit for four or five hours. She agreed and all was going to be well, I was sure.
However, on the afternoon of the event, the pet-sitter called and, for reasons that certainly didn’t seem life-threatening to me, canceled. I was not pleased. Not a tiny bit. There wasn’t enough time to find anyone else to stay with Bailey. (I should note that I have since forgiven the pet-sitter, although I have not used her again. Whatever was going on might well have seemed to her important enough to let us down. Maybe she felt she didn’t have a choice. Who knows. Since holding a grudge is really uncomfortable, I hope she forgives me as well.)
Bailey is not a dog who takes to everyone. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a glorious wee beastie, and if he loves you, he loves you very much. One of his favorite people in the world is Jim, the six-foot-five inch (or thereabouts) painter, the guy who doesn’t need a ladder to paint our ceilings. He of the booming voice, an ex-fire Lieutenant from Trenton. I was worried Bailey would be scared of him the first day he came to us, and would therefore bark and maybe even snap. Why did I worry? Bailey fell instantly in love and followed Jim around shamelessly for days. He does so every time Jim, who calls out to him, “hey beautiful!” returns. However, I couldn’t call Jim up at the last minute, and so it was with other friends. People lead busy lives, and not everyone understands the anxiety of leaving a small dog, even a limping one, alone for just a few hours.
Why not crate Bailey you ask? Well, having had a horrendous experience or two before he found us, Bailey cannot be crated. We tried it, only to come home to a quaking dog, covered in vomit and feces. I think he thought we were either getting rid of him or about to kill him. No. No crates.
I could, I suppose, have left him locked in a bathroom or something, but he would think, I believe, he was being punished for something and I hated that idea.
So I dashed off to the event, because I simply (unlike some people, snort!) couldn’t cancel. The event lasted about an hour, and then I dashed home again to a small white dog who greeted me as though I’d been gone a week. You know, the way dogs do.
I wanted so very much to have dinner with Alice McDermott. So very much. But I wanted the small dog I love so much to be safe, and to know he is loved, far more.
So I understand the tale of the man, his dog, and the alluring, fancy gates of ‘heaven’. I understand Will Rogers when he said, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”
Bailey, as some of you know, has been diagnosed with masses on his liver and lung. You know
what this means.
My dog is dying.
So I’m not going anywhere at all these days, because although he is still eating very well indeed, and although he still loves walks and acts like a puppy in the late afternoon and evening, there are some mornings, like this morning when he isn’t feeling terribly well and wants me right next to him while he sleeps under a weighted heating pad.
My dog is dying.
And I, being of an age no one could call young except perhaps someone in their 80s, will die one day, too, as will we all.
When my time comes, I choose to believe I will be reunited with the animals I have loved, and who have loved me. Because if I’m not, what’s the point of an afterlife at all?