“Call me, Maebe,” or, The Gospel for a Dying Dog
Exhaustion is the best word for it, I think. For several days, I’d been up day and night, sleeping no more than a couple hours at a time, watching over the stray seven-week-old puppy my wife found wandering the Indian Health clinic’s parking lot. The pup was what we call a “rez dog,” one of the innumerable feral mutts that rove the town of Warm Springs, the center of the reservation of the same name. Rez dogs are cute, smart, and friendly enough to tempt dog-lovers to bring them home, but also dirty enough to make you think twice and large enough to make you say, “Ah, they’re doing just fine on their own.” This was the first puppy we’d seen, though, and we were (rightly) worried she wouldn’t make on her own.
This made it all the more heart-breaking that it seemed she was dying under my care— we brought her home to prevent that. Maebe, named after a character from Arrested Development—and as a joke about our indecision over keeping her—had been to the vet twice in the space of a week. She wasn’t eating, and she drank only reluctantly. She could walk on her own, but only haltingly, and she often stumbled. Her diarrhea was constant, and, in her final hours, even uncontrollable. Every couple hours, including at night, we’d feed her chicken broth or highly-diluted dog food through a syringe. At her second visit, the vet gave us IVs to administer at home.
Maebe hated our work as nurses. She actually hated everything that wasn’t sleeping nestled between the back of the couch and a loose cushion. She wouldn’t eat on her own, and she fought our regular syringe feedings. Chicken stock and watery dog food stained her fur, my clothes, and a rotating stock of towels. Maebe fought my wife as she slid the IV needle into the loose scruff between her puppy shoulders, and she whined as the solution filled the space between muscle and skin, forming a camel-like hump of fluid on her back. When I took her outside, Maebe occasionally tried to make a break for it, scrambling away from me while casting a spiteful glance over her shoulder.
Maebe’s dogged mission to keep us from saving her life brings to mind C.S. Lewis’s analogies for God’s relationship to Man in The Problem of Pain. In sum, he writes that we might conceive of this relationship similar to a man’s relationship to a dog. To be made loveable, to be purged of despicable behaviors and habits, to be made fit to live in peace and comfort in the master’s home, the dog undergoes a regimen she will find abhorrent.
“To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny, would have no such doubts….We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses–that he would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less.”1
Here Lewis gives a defense of why God’s love demands of all of us radical transformations in our life that range from uncomfortable to seemingly hostile. It is his desire to see man cured and washed of sin, that disease and filth we bring into his house from the fallen world, that necessitates these painful turns in life. In a less grand sense, it was our love for Maebe that drove us to push the needles into her back, to hold her through the discomfort of the IV drip, to hold her head up as we squeezed precious calories and electrolytes into her mouth. We wanted her to not only live but thrive; to be strong, healthy, happy, and loved in our household.
Though we had the will to keep her alive, we lacked God’s power. A few hours before Maebe died, I drove to the vet’s office to pick up two injections: one was an antibiotic, a Hail Mary against a bacterial infection, and an anti-nausea medication. In addition to her diarrhea, Maebe had begun vomiting the food she’d managed to get down. The anti-nausea injection, the vet hoped, would allow her to keep down the food and get her strength back. I drove home and found the puppy lying in her own diarrhea. I scooped her up and brought her outside, to let her lay in the grass for a moment. She had no control over her bowels, and she dribbled on the floor, the steps, my hands, and my clothes as I carried her. I laid her down, then stepped inside to change the needles on the injections; the vet technician gave me some smaller needles to put on the syringe owing to Maebe’s tiny frame. I pulled off the old needles then stopped and put the syringes down. My hands were shaking heavily, and I didn’t want to lose a single drop of Maebe’s medication. I don’t know if it was the exhaustion, or if I was frustrated, or what, but I cried then. I gave it a minute, exhaled slowly, and put the new needles on. I brought in Maebe and laid her on a bed of towels. She cried a little as I the injections, but she didn’t fight much. I put a couple towels on top of her for warmth and moved her off the cold tile to the carpet. An hour later, she gasped twice, and died.
By the time she died, the veterinary bill totaled somewhere around $500. Part of that was an expensive box of anti-nausea pills we were to begin administering the day after the injection. The clinic was kind enough to let us return the unopened box. It’s a strange number to think about. I’m sure there are people who would be aghast that we spent so much on an animal, just as I’m sure there are others who will feel we did not spend nearly enough. Still, $500 is a hundred times more than I gave that same week to man and a woman and a baby standing outside the grocery store holding a sign that read, “Need money for motel tonight.” I wonder what God will say about that on Judgment Day. Probably something like, “You know you had more cash in your wallet, Chris.”
Of course, one can’t think about Judgment Day, the new heavens and new earth, and dying dogs without wondering about the eschatological fate of our furry friends. Lewis thought individual animals only achieved selfhood and identity through their relationship with man, much as man only achieves his real selfhood and identity through his relationship with God. These animals, then—these pets, these friends—might be found at our sides again in the next life.2 George MacDonald, Lewis’s “master,” wrote more boldly of the fate our beloved creatures. In the final chapter of his The Hope of the Gospel, “The Hope of the Universe,” MacDonald offers a passionate defense of animal immortality grounded in God’s imperishable love. He writes,
“I know of no reason why I should not look for the animals to raise again, in the same sense in which I hope myself to rise again—which is, to reappear, clothed with another and better form of life than before. If the Father will raise his children, why should he not also raise those whom he has taught his little ones to love? Love is the one bond of the universe, the heart of God, the life of his children: if animals can be loved, they are loveable; if they can love, they are yet more plainly loveable: love is eternal; how then should its object perish?…Must the love live on for ever without its object?”3
My space is short, and the usefulness of this topic is always in question, so I won’t press the question of if all dogs really do go to heaven. For their part, both Lewis and MacDonald admitted we are limited in our ability to give firm answers here. If our short time with Maebe is all we shall ever have, then I am grateful we had so much. Still, I like to think that if these creatures and our relationships with them were good enough for God to give them in this life, then they shall be good enough for God to give in the next. God gave us stewardship of creatures not to hate them or to abuse them, but to love them and offer them back to God.
Perhaps it is all just silly speculation. However, and this may be crazy, but if we both wind up in Heaven: call me, Maebe.
2. Ibid, 144-145.
3. George MacDonald. The Hope of the Gospel. “The Hope of the Universe.”