I killed a dog on the way to my birthday party last weekend. She was a sprightly cocker spaniel named Ruby who was determined to dive in front of my rear passenger tire. I later learned she was in fact hurrying to greet a neighbor who had just stepped outside. It was this very neighbor who informed me it was not uncommon for Ruby to run into the street, and that while regrettable, the accident was waiting to happen.
Running over her felt like hitting a speed bump. There is no way little Ruby could have run into my tire with that kind of force, and yet that was exactly my split-second hope. “I think she ran into the side of my car,” I yelled to her owners as she loped back to them, half dragging her head. I was later told she died quickly, so there is that.
I didn’t go to my party, and in fairness, my family economically combines April birthdays into one event, so there wasn’t exactly a cake waiting with my name on it. I didn’t go because killing a member of a nice family, witnessing their grief, and feeling responsible in spite of the unavoidableness of the affair made socializing sound like hard labor. Dogs die all the time, and it’s a shame, but it’s not every day that I kill one.
It was impossible to feel happy that night, and the past few days have been a little gloomy. Had it been a child on a bicycle, there would have been fanfare: a police report as a given, city council requests to add “children at play” signs up and down the street, flowers and pictures by the curb where it happened, not to mention an investigation into my culpability. Whereas Ruby’s death won’t even make the local paper. The affection she showed her owners in life and their grief at her sudden loss are strictly private affairs. Some of the rationale behind this is sensible enough, but some of it is silly.
First the irony: in the US, nearly 70% of adults believe in heaven. According to a few informal polls online, most of these people believe heaven is reserved for humans. Had I hit a small child on a bicycle, most Americans would tell you he’s there right now, waiting for his family (or at least the lucky ones) in a state of perfect bliss. And yet my killing Ruby, whose death American’s mostly agree was very real, is somehow less tragic.
My friend (and co-writer on this blog) cheered me up a little. On our drive home from work, he went on a sarcastic rampage, which I’ll do my best to reproduce here: “Good thing that even though it looks like we die just like everything else on earth – that we eat and defecate and sleep and die just the same as every other being on this entire planet for the past three billion years – good thing it’s really not the same for us. Good thing that even though 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are extinct, and that most members of living species have died real, animal deaths, and in spite of our appearing to be animals ourselves, we are so special as to uniquely avoid death. Isn’t that great?” You can imagine ten or so minutes more along the same lines.
And it did cheer me up a little, which goes to show that when faith, reason, and human contact fail to console, there is always irony.
I regret that there is no heaven. I’d love to have fun when this is over, if not forever then at least a few thousand years. I regret Ruby’s final moments were filled with distress on my account and that she will not spend another spring afternoon playing in her yard. I’m even sorry to have kept her from saying hello to her neighbor. I’m sorry about her dog toys, headed for the trash. And I’m sorry that’s where we’re all headed sooner or later. But it won’t keep me from the joys of the present or from anticipating a better future for those who come after me. I’ve written in the past that religion is ultimately a way out of death, which is to us hard enough to imagine let alone face. I fear we have created a new set of problems in our (largely successful) efforts to console ourselves.
I couldn’t conceive a heaven for Ruby even if I tried. On this point, there is no great comfort waiting in the wings. Yet I’m optimistic our species has the courage and wherewithal to go on without it. There is always time to heal wounds and dull memories. There are always small pleasures. There is always some hope for the future. And when these fail, there is always irony.