There’s a question I have for God. Actually, it’s a question I used to have:
“Why don’t pets live longer?”
It’s unfair, this difference of lifespan between them and us. It’s unfair that we are given beloved and faithful companions only to lose them far too soon. But now I understand why.
Our pets aren’t just about life lessons. They teach us about death, too.
I know this because of my first canine soul mate, a girl dog who came with the name Hershey already attached. She was a Pet of the Week on the TV show I hosted and as soon as she walked into the studio, I swear to you it was love at first sight. All we needed was the corny music and a slow motion jog toward one another. This brown tussle of puppy fur wagged with her entire body and I immediately knew we belonged together. As the stray animal adoption gods would have it, no one else wanted Hershey so, much to my delight, she came home with me.
The days and months and years flew by. Children arrived and adventures were had and before I knew it, she was nearly seventeen. Ancient for a dog, but still I wasn’t ready to let her go. Until one horrible night. While the kids slept and Hubs was away on a business trip, Hershey started convulsing at 2:00 a.m. I held her until it stopped, and then lay awake by her side, fearful that it would happen again. It did. There were two more seizures before sunrise and when I spoke to our vet that morning, there was no doubt that the kindest thing I could do would be to let my girl go. It was one of the most painful things I have ever done, a cross between being the worst kind of traitor and the most merciful friend.
For several tear-stained days, my mind kept replaying that last night. My dog in distress. Her shaking body. The pleading, resigned look in her eyes. My fear and my failed attempts to help her. I realized eventually that 95% of my thoughts about Hershey were consumed by .5% of her life, the last part, the horrible part. I knew I had it all wrong. I knew the bulk of her sweet, wonderful life deserved more of my mind. So I pulled out old photos. I looked at those bright, soulful eyes. I laughed at pictures at the beach when she was a puppy. I talked to my husband and kids about happy and funny memories. I whispered, “Thank You,” for the gift of dog such as this and a long life, well lived. I did this until the majority of her life and the majority of my thoughts were in unison.
A year after I lost Hershey, I lost my Dad. He and I were incredibly close. Two peas in a pod, they called us. Like my beloved Hershey, my father suffered horribly as his life came to a close. And in a different way, I suffered watching, desperately feeding him medicines designed to manage unmanageable pain. This tough, stoic, former pro-athlete writhed and moaned night after night until he mercifully passed.
For days after, I couldn’t get the memory of his suffering out of my mind. It made my stomach ache and heart hurt, pain on top of pain. But then I remembered Hershey. And I pulled out the pictures of my father and me. I saw his smile and remembered doing car karaoke before it was even a thing. I looked at snapshots taken during summer vacations at the lake. And I talked to my family about happy memories of times spent with the most positive man I have ever known. And soon, the brutal thoughts of suffering that occupied .5% of his life and 95% of my mind were overtaken by the good. Just like Hershey had taught me.
This gift of perspective was the answer to my question. Like most things about a pet, their shorter life span is for our benefit. It is our practice in dealing with death, preparation for even bigger losses. A good pet never stops giving, never stops teaching. In life and also in death. Divine creatures. Gurus in fur clothing. And we are blessed to know them for whatever time we are given.
Hershey girl, a guru in dog clothing