The Meaning of Life. Here we go...
The meaning of life?
Fall in love with a dog or a cat.
Be there from the early days
Until the last breath.
Then do it again.
Pay even half-attention,
And you just may be afforded
Some profound understanding
Of this thing we call life
Ten years ago I stood on my front porch cradling a cup of coffee on an unusually mild early morning mid-November in Boulder County. Pondering life. And death. Trying to tease meaning from the confusion. My brother, Bill, was dying of cancer. My 10-year old pup, Spooky, had died suddenly the night before. I was thinking how I didn’t have the heart to tell my brother that the hard-headed Sparkles had died. He was staring at death. Spooky, I suppose, never saw it coming; I suppose she got out easy. I stood there gazing down the street at some mirage. Two wolves were darting in and out of front yards, racing down my sleepy street directly at me. Even at the time, those two seemed like an omen, something a raven might deliver. From around the block came a man on a bicycle, fist in the air, shouting something. Turns out, those 2 wolves were Huskies from a block away who had escaped for a morning run and landed in my front yard. The man pulled up behind the two runaways and commanded them to go home. They quickly obeyed. He turned and followed, without a word to me.
When I next saw my brother, Bill, he had heard through the family grapevine about Sparkles. The first thing he said to me, staring straight ahead into space, was: “I’m sorry about Sparkles.” I was mildly embarrassed that I hadn’t told him, and just mumbled “thanks.” Bill died 6 weeks later. Once again I was trying to tease meaning from the confusion. This time seemed more complicated. Someone I had known since my earliest memories, was gone.
Over the past 10 years I was vaguely aware that those Huskies lived just a block away. In fact, I dubbed that man, the dog owner, my doppelganger. I would sometimes see him in his front yard with his young daughter and those dogs. He was about my size, wealthier, a little younger, and a little finer looking.
10 years after the wolf incident, after Sparkles, after Bill, I had my first puppy in 20 years. I had my beloved Billy the Kid, all bone and muscle and of a very sensitive emotion. “The Kid,” Billy, is the namesake of my big brother who had died less than 2 months after Spooky.
At the start of last summer, I got a call from my brother Joe asking if I could adopt this Husky named Kenobi. Joe’s son, my nephew, had to give up his dog. Billy could use a household companion I thought. So with very little deliberation, I said yes.
Soon, I would meet that man face to face for the first time. 10 years had passed. His name is Justin and he has a very gentle demeanor. He spotted me walking Billy and Kenobi one evening, crossing the street making his way straight toward us. He seemed starstruck by Kenobi. His second Husky had recently died. He needed to get his hands on Kenobi. So he did. And it was lovely to watch.
There is a whole lot of symmetry to this timeline and all these characters. But it doesn’t bring me much closer to finding solace in the loss. Of Spooky. Of Bill. I was there when Sparkles took her final breath. And I was there just a few hours before what would clearly be my brother Bill’s final breath. Sitting there next to Bill, I couldn’t compute any meaningful distance between the here-and-now (which requires breathing) and the Great Beyond (which requires the breath be stopped). I was present when both my parents took their last breath; other than that, I know very little about human death. In a society that keeps death mostly hidden away, I’ve gained very little insight into the matter regarding humans explicitly. However, because of the nature of my petcare business, I’ve been witness to the passing of many cats and dogs. I’ve seen a lot of client pets die; I’ve witnessed the grief. I’ve seen my own pets die. It’s still confusing, though I inch closer to some acceptance. These non-humans have allowed me some greater insight into learning how to die. And for that privilege I’m thankful.
Sometimes I let my imagination get the better of me and I ponder the loss of Billy The Kid. I whisper that I’ve let myself get way too attached to a creature that will just break my heart. And then the clichés rescue me: that’s what this ride is all about, no?
The average life of a dog is about 12 years. The average life of a human is about 78 years. Fall in love with a dog, stay faithful, and you will quite likely live to see him die. Why would you do that!? In all likelihood I will live to see my beloved Billy The Kid die. It’s hard to imagine today. He is so full of life.
One of my favorite films of the past 10 years is the 2016 science-fiction drama Arrival, based on the 1998 novella, Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Among other things, it deals with the complexities of time; specifically, if you knew that your yet-to-be conceived child would die at a very early age, would you still choose to conceive that child. The mother in the story, the one who has seen the future, chooses Yes! I’ve often thought of the adoption of a dog or cat in a similar way. Without knowing the future, you can be fairly certain that they will die, while your life goes on.
The Meaning of Life? Here it is: wade in and live it; celebrate it; marvel at it and all those creatures who join you for part of the ride. Be kind. Use your body and the mind will follow. Death is not the opposite of life, it is a part of it. Be a witness to Death, and be a witness to Life. I’ve seen a few humans die in my lifetime; I’ve seen many more dogs and cats die. I won’t wax poetic here: It is not easy. It is barely acceptable. I don’t resist it quite like I did when I was much younger. By tiny increments, I come to understand it. Striving to see myself as a piece of all things on this planet brings me a tiny understanding. A tiny Peace.
At the end of the day, I can't tell you the meaning of life. Only you can discover that. But I do know this: truth is one, paths are many. I do think I can offer a path, or two. A path to discover some meaning of life.
Billy The Kid and Andrew. 11,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. Colorado, U.S.A.