Monday, August 18, 2014

The Trouble with Long Goodbyes

This has been a hard year for us in the category of animal stewardship.  Last November, we lost Maudie the cat, and five months later, her companion spirit, our dog Lucy.  Maudie loved Lucy so much.  I think the Universe planned for her to walk on before Lucy did, because I honestly don’t think Maude could have borne a life without her dog. 

And now we are looking at the steady demise of another of our animal children.  Bart is seventeen years old.  Pretty old, for a cat.  And considering he has suffered from a chronic health issue for most of his life, he’s hung in way longer than I would have expected. 

Bart’s fade has presented me with many challenges and insights.  Coming about as it has almost directly on the heels of the veterinary/financial disaster that was Lucy’s final illness, I have looked at Bart’s travel toward the exit from a very different perspective than I have seen that same journey with past animal family members. 

Unfortunately, my insight has presented itself in the form of more questions—questions that never entered my mind before—than answers. 

Why do we fight so hard against death?  If we humans decide to fight that battle to the finish for ourselves and others of our kind, do we have the right to subject our companions of other species to that same grueling, desperate, often futile and frequently painful battle? That fight which always, always, ends in defeat?

I suspect that our first mistake is in framing the event in terms of battle:  Fight, win, lose, victory, defeat, surrender  Life is good.  Life is wonderful.  Life is a gift.  But it is finite, and always has been.  I understand the instinct to survive…but have we taken that to a point it was never meant to reach?  Are we meant to cling so desperately to life, no matter what its quality?  Are we meant to extend our final hours or days on this earthly plane into weeks or months of pain, suffering, uncertainty and vain hope?  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  We have that choice; we can choose that battle if we so desire.  But is it morally or ethically right to choose it for those gentle animal spirits who have been entrusted into our care?

In the past few years, veterinary medicine has followed the track that human medicine took a couple of decades ago.  There is no such thing, anymore, as taking your animal to the vet and having it treated.  Anything more involved than simple check-ups and vaccines is referred to a “specialist.”  We have Veterinary Oncologists, Veterinary Orthopedists, Veterinary Internists.  Your local vet takes your money for an initial (and often errant) evaluation, then refers you to the appropriate specialist, in whom you will invest even more money, pony up for sophisticated tests like CT scans and ultrasounds.   And then you are presented with a multi-thousand-dollar treatment plan framed in such a way that you would feel like the most uncaring, penny-pinching miser, unworthy of the sacred responsibility of pet ownership, should you “opt out”—whether or not the reasoning behind your refusal is purely financial.

I regret more than anything the choice we made for Lucy.  A five thousand dollar surgery on an old dog…what were we thinking?  But when they tell you that without the surgery she will surely die, and paint the treatment scenario in the most hopeful possible light, how can you say, “No”?  I so wish we had been counseled that one of our options would be to take her home with a vial of something that would put her into her final sleep when her pain became too great.  I so wish that she could have died at home, surrounded by the things and people that she loved, rather than lying on the floor of a kennel at the vet hospital, attached to tubes and machines, hemorrhaging internally from a surgery to which we should never have subjected her. 

I hope she forgives us.

And so now, as Bart makes his way toward the rainbow bridge, I am vexed by questions of how much to interfere in the process.  How much interference is palliative…how much is in his best interest?  And how much is bowing to that 21st-century human imperative to extend life at any and all costs?

Beyond that, there are questions about that “final act of mercy.”  One thing I have learned about cats, having cohabitated with more than twenty feline souls in my years on this planet:  They are tough.  They don’t die easily.  The process often draws itself out for days or weeks.  I understand the desire to put an obviously dying cat “out of its misery.”  But is that what we are really doing when we euthanize a pet?  Or are we putting ourselves out of that misery?  Death is inconvenient.  Left to nature, like birth, it comes when it comes.  We have figured out a way to make birth happen in a way to conveniently fit our schedules.  Is euthanasia our way of fitting the deaths of our animal companions more neatly into our busy lives? 

And do we have the right to take away the final days or weeks of that soul’s earthly journey just because it will be easier for us?

There is a line, I know.  You don’t let an animal writhe in unbearable agony in the name of “letting nature take its course.”  But, neither, I think, do you stick a needle into the vein of an obviously still-viable animal because someone has given you the word that it only has days or weeks to live.  I think you let that soul inhabit that body until the body becomes too sick to support a bearable quality of life.  The trick is deciding, from the animal’s point of view, what measures should be taken to ease and prolong life.  And then recognizing the point at which that life becomes unbearable, and making the decision to help release the soul from a broken and useless body.

I don’t know exactly where that line is.  But I’m hoping to come closer to finding it this time around.  I think I owe it to Bartie, and to the rest of the animal spirits who have or will share their lives with us, until we ourselves leave broken, useless bodies behind and walk on.      


Monday, August 4, 2014


It seems like lately I'm being pulled more and more into debates relating to God, religion, and atheism.  Articles, news videos, blog posts all seem to photo bomb my field of vision, waving their arms and hollering for attention.  

Last week, I visited a blog I had  never seriously read before, written by a young woman who claims to be "Overcoming a fundamentalist indoctrination."  Meaning, I guess, that she was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household, and has rejected that path to search for her own version of religiosity.  The post I read was actually a review of a book called Good God, Lousy World and Me.  The blogger asks in her post, "is the only reason why I’m still a Christian because I don’t want to face the bleak reality of a world without God in it?"  This line of thinking never fails to irritate me.  I can never understand why Christians, or former Christians, all seem to believe that there are only two choices concerning God:  either God is exactly who or what you have always believed God is, or there is no God.  No consideration is ever given to a third, and in my opinion, most likely option:  that there is a force, call it God, Allah, the Great Spirit, The Creator, the Almighty, or whatever, and it is so huge and multifaceted and complex that we are pitifully ignorant of its nature, and things we have made up about it over the history of humanity are bound to be...wrong.  Or maybe the thing we call "God" is comprised of bits and parts and glimpses of a truth with which our infinitesimal knowledge of the universe is not equipped to deal.  So I felt compelled to pen a response to this person I've never met and who is now no doubt wondering how her blog attracted the attention of some New Age spiritual mystic:  

“is the only reason why I’m still a Christian because I don’t want to face the bleak reality of a world without God in it?” I don’t understand why the choice has to be between Christianity or a world without God. Or between any religion and a world without God. We have put, or tried to put, the Almighty into this mold, this persona that jives with human understanding. Is it any wonder that the Creator of the Universe proves to be something consistently beyond our comprehension? It’s not necessary or even possible to reconcile the concept of a “good” god with the existence of human suffering. Perhaps human suffering is–has always been–humanity’s problem to recognize and alleviate. Perhaps, out of our impotence to do so, we have shirked that responsibility on to an all-powerful “god” with the power to heal all our ills…who does not do so. But if the Creator does not fit the definition we have ascribed to it, the blame does not lay upon the Creator. Just because “God” turns out not to be who or what we have believed it is, does not mean “God” does not exist.

Then, this morning, this article on Salon caught my attention:  the Truth About Science Versus Religion.  It's a rather haughty diatribe against folks who claim to believe in God and evolution.  (I was brought up Catholic, and I never learned that the two concepts were mutually exclusive.)  The author demonstrates real contempt for any person who would dare to embrace both science and spirituality.  And of course this sent me off on another tangent RE the "God vs No God" debate:

"I'm sorry, hon...but your article is bogus.  It is textbook evidence of traditional human hubris when it comes to the subject of God.  Humans tend to either create a"god" that they can understand--that ends up looking much like a human being, only with superpowers (we even go so far as to state unequivocally that humans were created in the image and likeness of God, when in fact what we've done is create a god in the image and likeness of human beings...); or we confidently proclaim that there is no God, because we don't understand how It works.  And then we take these two opinions and wield them like clubs against one another.  

Let me ask you this:  why should the resident (some may argue "dominant") life form on a planet that amounts to less than a speck of dust in the entire universe have anything approaching a context for understanding the entity responsible for creating that universe?  Who the hell do we think we are that we can make written-in-stone pronouncements about the existence or character of such a being?  In this article, the author has done nothing more that "lower" herself to the same level as the group of folks she seeks to discredit.

In my humble opinion, the Creator does not object to human beings seeking connection with it,  whether that connection takes the form of traditional religion or something else--as long as the religion manifests itself positively for the benefit of others and the planet.  And you are free to disbelieve if you so desire--I'm sure the Creator is not diminished in any way if specks of dust on a speck of dust do not believe It exists.  But, whatever you choose to believe, do so with the understanding that everyone is free to believe whatever, as long as it harms no one.  And--here's the key--even if a group of believers' goal is to "convert" as many as possible, that doesn't make it okay for unbelievers to band together to criticize or convert believers.  Turn-about is NOT fair play, in this instance.  It just makes you a hypocrite.
Why do we have to think we know?  Why do we have to act like betrayed children when we find out we don't?  When we discover the truth about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, we go on with the rest of our lives a little sadder...a little diminished, knowing that those benevolent figures do not exist.

But God is not Santa Claus.  We call God omnipotent, eternal, all-knowing, omnipresent...but obviously we don't have any real comprehension of those concepts.  "Omni" indicates "ALL"...not just all the stuff the human mind can understand.  A.L.L. The universe itself is so huge, it's beyond our comprehension.  So how can we believe that we understand "omnipotence" as it applies to powers that we have no idea exist?  We have, I think, ascribed the correct concepts to the Creator of the Universe, as our poor minds understand them.  But then when the Creator functions outside our understanding, we reject It.  We call it "God," but we won't let it BE GOD.  And if it isn't the God we want it to be, then it doesn't exist at all

I don't expect humanity to ever really accept the hugeness of a God it cannot comprehend.  But I think I can expect that, at some point, we allow each other the freedom to believe, or not believe, as we choose.  That we take the Creator out of the equation of whether you are like me or unlike me, tribe member or outsider, friend or enemy.  Truthfully, I don't believe a Force responsible for the creation of the Universe has any stake in man's petty arguments.  Except that, if we can't learn to get along, we're going to destroy ourselves and this infinitesimal part of the Universe that we call "home." 

And it won't be God's fault...