One of the highlights of my week is joining a dozen or so of my faculty colleagues at Macphail’s, our on campus pub, for a few beers around 3:30 every Friday afternoon. Although work is sometimes the topic of conversation, most often we compare notes about the horrors of what’s happening in Washington D.C., make fun of each other mercilessly, and generally let our hair down for ninety minutes or so (at least those of us who have hair). When someone got up to buy the second round for those present a few Fridays ago, I declined, saying “I can only have one today.” This is entirely against my nature and custom, so my colleagues wanted to know why. “Jeanne and I have to take one of our three dogs to the vet to be put down this evening,” I explained. “Bean will be sitting in Jeanne’s lap in the car, and I have to be sober enough to drive.” You would have thought that I had just revealed that my mother died. Various versions of “Oh Vance, I’m so sorry!” came from all quarters, quickly leading to several people sharing their stories of having to have a beloved pet put down. For most of my friends and family, and certainly for Jeanne and me, our pets are for more than four-legged consumers of food and providers of entertainment. They are family members. They are people. And it sucks that they don’t live as long as we do. Maybe they are nature’s way of helping us practice accepting our own mortality.
My biggest question about heaven when growing up in a conservative Protestant world was “will my pets be there?’ Because, truth be told, heaven did not sound like a particularly interesting place to be—unless those animals whom I had loved and lost already would be there to greet me when I arrived. I don’t know what I think about heaven any more, but my attitude is the same. My pets who have gone on before had better be there. As my years now extend into my sixth decade, my canine and feline greeting committee is growing. Rex, Lassie, Stokely, Natialie, Rachel, Midnight, Express, Moses, Velvet, Spooky, Snow . . . and as of several weeks ago, Bean.
Bean joined our family toward the end of 2008 after a challenging first few years of her life. Our younger son was going through a rough patch and staying with us; for his birthday, we decided to get him a Boston Terrier (one of his favorite breeds). He did some research and found a four-year-old Boston who had been rescued from a puppy mill in Arkansas and was now at a shelter in Massachusetts. Bean joined our dachshund Frieda; Winnie, our second dachshund, joined the pack in June of 2009. The three of them lived together as a small, dysfunctional pack with Jeanne and me ever since until Bean moved on few weeks ago. There was never any doubt about who the alpha of the pack was; in truth, Frieda is the alpha living thing in the house, imposing her will and wishes on Jeanne and me on a daily basis. Bean and Winnie never did sort out who was number two and who was number three in the pack, regularly getting in each other’s face over toys, treats, and—especially—who was more loved by Jeanne. Neither could bear the sound of Jeanne talking to the other or, God forbid, the sight of Jeanne petting the other, and would do whatever possible to bump the rival for Mom’s affection out of the way.
Bean’s attitude about me evolved slowly over the years from low grade terror through grudging tolerance to, finally, the recognition that I probably was not going to kill her after all and actually had some good things to offer, such as a piece of the orange that I habitually eat for dessert after dinner. There are probably many reasons for why Bean never really became comfortable with sharing her house with me. First, two months after she came to us I left for a four-month sabbatical stay in Minnesota, returning home during those months only once for a few days for my birthday. By the time I returned home from sabbatical, Bean and Jeanne had established an unbreakable bond that I could not have been part of even if I had wanted to. Bean’s attitude toward me upon my return was pretty much “Who the hell is this intruder?” and in many ways remained that way going forward.
The more important reason that Bean’s relationship with me was fraught from the start had to do with something I have no control over—I’m male. Bean was not a fan of human beings with y chromosomes, even including my son for whom she was supposedly procured as a companion. We speculate that Bean had negative experiences with men before we adopted her. But whatever the cause, Bean didn’t care for guys. Not that she was aggressive toward them—she didn’t have an aggressive bone in her body. Rather, when a new guy was in the house or—worst scenario—when Mom was away and I was the only human in the house, Bean retired to the corner of the dining room that was her small studio apartment to wait out the impending disaster until Mom returned. Over time, Bean came to accept me in some roles more readily than in others. Standing up man was always frightening. Sitting down man was better, laying on the bed man was almost okay, and sitting down man with a piece of orange in his hand was safe enough to even approach willingly. But regularly throughout the years that Bean was with us I would catch her looking at me with an “I know this guy’s going to kill me—it’s just a matter of time” look on her face.
I’ll remember many things about Bean. How the only way she ever expressed her pent up aggression was by gutting every new toy she ever met and pulling its stuffing out as quickly as possible. Her farting (it was bad). The dance she would perform in anticipation of a treat or meal (which we called “the Bean dance”). Her unsuccessful attempts to bury a dog treat under her bed. Her vain attempts to get her stuck-up dachshund sisters to play with her. HER SNORING—this was unbelievable. She snored more loudly than all four of my grandparents combined, and they all were snorers. Bean slept in a bed at the foot of our bed; her snoring regularly woke me up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. The fact that I was even able to sleep at all with such a racket is testimony to the fact that one can literally get used to anything.
I miss Bean, although not as much as Jeanne does—Bean was her favorite. About a month after Bean left us, I came across a picture on Twitter that I choose to interpret as a message from wherever Bean now is, letting us know that she’s having a good time (she’s in the middle of the picture) and that she’s found a bunch of canine friends who appreciate her a lot more than her bitch dachshund sisters did.
Good for her. As to whether dogs (and most cats) go to heaven, Google “Do dogs go to heaven?” sometime and enjoy the knots that pastors, theologians, and others tie themselves into trying to answer a question about something we know less than nothing about. For each of us, the meaning of “Heaven” is a projection of what we find most important, enjoyable, and worth celebrating onto an entirely blank screen. We know nothing about heaven, including whether there even is one. But I’ll tell you this, my greeting committee in heaven will include all of my former pets (well maybe not one of the cats, who was a total jerk). I have no interest in spending unlimited time in a place with no dogs and cats. Come to think of it, my heaven will only accept humans who understand that our four-legged companions are regular and predictable ways that God gets into the world. Anyone who denies that can spend eternity somewhere else.