Author's Note: the following essay was written for submission to the thisibelieve.org archive. This is the full version of the essay. Submissions to the archive must be much more concise at about 500 words.
I believe in reality, but it seems silly to state such an evident belief. After all, everyone, at least in some sense, believes in reality. Most people realize that jumping off a skyscraper will result in one becoming painfully, if briefly, acquainted with hard concrete courtesy of the forces of gravity and electromagnetism. In case you missed that day in science class, gravity is the force that carries one to the bottom, and electromagnetism makes one go splat. Most of us understand that we are constrained by the laws of physics. Most of us agree that there is something called reality.
My mother, ever endeavoring to challenge my reality-based perspective, believed that once my first child was born I would be struck by the “miracle” of childbirth. But after witnessing the birth of my two children, I see it as anything but miraculous. I know that those children were formed when my sperm penetrated my wife's egg inside her fallopian tube, creating an embryo. I know that embryo gestated in my wife’s uterus for nine months. And when it was time to give birth to those girls, I saw blood and goo. I heard screams of pain and I watched my wife struggle to expel those babies from her body. And when they emerged, they were covered head-to-toe with a white greasy residue and a black tar-like excrement oozed from their anuses. Far from miraculous, childbirth was about as real as it gets. No romance, no television-style gloss: childbirth is bloody, messy, gooey, dirty, and real.
After my first daughter was born, the nurse took her to a table and cleaned all that residue off of her, swaddled her in blankets, and handed her to me. I held her in my arms, saw her with my own eyes for the very first time, and I fell in love with her. My heart filled the universe with its love. And I realized, right then and there, that the stakes were different now. I wanted something that I knew I could never have: I wanted my daughter, beautiful and perfect as she was in my eyes, to live forever.
I endured over a year of existential crisis from that experience. I was overcome with the knowledge that, despite my wishes, one day she would die. I struggled with accepting that reality. I began to understand why people have the concept of heaven in the first place. Millions and millions and millions of mothers and fathers have faced the very same realization. They held the most precious thing in their arms and they wanted that precious thing to never die.
Today she is four-years-old, and she loves zombies (no doubt due to the influence of her old man). We sit together on the sofa and watch zombie movies, and while we are watching them she will, during the particularly scary parts, scoot as close to me as possible, hug my arm with all her strength; we huddle together and comfort each other. When the movie is over, we might play zombies before we go to bed, (she does a particularly convincing and cute zombie walk,) but, to my surprise, she doesn’t worry that a zombie might jump out of her closet. She knows zombies are not real. She knows that, without my having told her, zombies are just made up to scare us, and being scared is part of the fun.
Almost all of us can make that distinction between fantasy and reality, so I am continually perplexed about the one area in which people seem to let fantasy dominate their thinking despite what their common sense tells them about what is real and what isn’t. When people talk about life and death, the conversation often turns to fantasy. On the subject of death, many people, perhaps the majority of people, pour their thoughts into wishful thinking, as if wishing alone can undo or reconfigure reality, make fantasy real. They believe that death is not death.
That sentiment is ubiquitous in our culture in the euphemisms people give to death, especially in the phrase “passed away”, a phrase that, whenever I hear it, sounds like scraping fingernails across a chalkboard or hearing my own voice in an audio recording. Implied in those words is that death is not death, that people somehow do not really die when they die, but instead they move on to another realm of life. If people pass away, they do not really die. There is no such thing as death.
Except there is. Last year, I buried my beloved dog, Remus. He was the dog I always wanted. He was a 20 lb. Boston Terrier that defied his small size. He could do every trick in the book: sit, down, fetch, play dead, speak, and he could catch a Frisbee. People often marveled at the speed of this tiny dog as he chased down a Frisbee, jumped and snatched it out of the air. He was full of life, intelligent, and he loved to be with me. He was always by my side.
When Remus turned 9 years old, his spine became grotesquely curved, and he became gimpy on his hind legs. Of course, being that he was a well-loved dog, as soon as I noticed his symptoms I took him to the vet, where he was X-rayed, poked, and prodded. The doctor found that he had a spinal defect which had been with him from birth. As a spry young pup, he managed just fine, so I never had reason to notice it, but now that he was hitting his golden years, it had caught up with him. Aside from experimental and prohibitively expensive surgery, nothing could be done. The doctor gave him less than a year to live.
A month or so later, Remus degenerated to the point that he could no longer support himself with his hind legs at all. His appetite dwindled to almost nothing, and he lost so much weight that he was literally only a skeleton of his former self. His moans and groans left no doubt that he was in pain. I did all that I could do. I gave him the medicine he was prescribed, and I put bacon grease on his food to make it more appetizing, but nothing seemed to help. One night he pulled himself around in circles, as if he didn’t know where he was, and he wouldn’t be still, as if he was looking for something. When I held him in an attempt to calm him, he yelped in a way that I’ve never heard before, nor will ever forget. I realized he was looking for a way to stop the pain.
Then came the clarity of knowing what I could do, the only thing I could do, to help him. He had to be put down. It was time. I had done everything I could to prolong his life, but he came to a point at which I could no longer prolong it without his agony. I had the odd experience, for the first time in my life, of knowing that the only loving thing to do was to have Remus killed.
After an awful night spent listening to his gut-wrenching yelps, I took off work the next day, and my wife and I drove him to the vet’s office as soon as it opened. On the cold steel examination table, I laid Remus on his side, and I kissed him, told him that I loved him, and that I always would. I told him what I’d told him a thousand times before: You’re a good boy. You are the dog I always wanted. I love you.
My wife Crissie did the same, and she held his head in her arms as the vet injected the lethal cocktail into his IV . In seconds, with the stethoscope on his chest, the doctor told us his heart had stopped. He was dead. His pain was gone.
I had bought a small duffel bag and in it I placed his favorite toy, his Frisbee, and the doctor placed him in the bag, zipped him up, and carried him to our car. I drove his body to my parent’s house in the country, where at the edge of the yard I dug a three-foot grave and buried him. Crissie took a chunk of stone and wrote Remus’ name on it with a permanent marker. We cried and hugged each other.
Crissie wanted my then three-year-old daughter to be shielded from that experience. I wanted to her be there with us, to see the life leave Remus, to see that dead is dead so she would have no illusions about it. She argued that we should shield her from that information at three years old, and I acquiesced. But, had she known the relentless amount of questioning that would obsess our daughter over the next few weeks, I think she would have chosen to do it my way.
“Where is Remus?” she asked, and without even thinking about it, when she asked me that question, I replied “He’s in doggie heaven.” But as soon as I said it, I regretted it. It did nothing to answer her questions. She wondered if she could visit heaven and see Remus again. When is he coming back from heaven? Where is heaven? What does heaven look like? Why can’t I go there?
Doggie heaven. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t it be great if Remus were in doggie heaven catching golden Frisbees and barking at the heavenly doors when someone rang the heavenly doorbell? He was a good dog. The best. He was obedient. He never ran away. If ever a dog deserved to go to doggie heaven, it was Remus. It is a happy thought. But it is pure fantasy, and I would wager that almost everyone will agree with me on that point. There is no such thing as doggie heaven. When dogs die, they die.
I wanted to teach my daughter the truth, so I took it back. I said, honey, heaven is something people say to make people feel better about death. When Remus died we all got very sad, so pretending he moved on to doggie heaven made us feel better, but there is really no such thing as doggie heaven. Remus has gone back to the earth. He died, so I buried him in the ground. He’s decomposing under three-feet of dirt. His atoms are moving on, to compose other things. We will never see him again, but we will remember what a good boy he was.
Then I showed her a dead beetle on the porch. I said, see how this beetle doesn’t move anymore. That’s because it is dead. It will never live again. Remus is just like that beetle. He is dead.She understood. Remus was gone, and he was never coming back.
I can hear someone say, but what is wrong with the fantasy? If it gives people comfort, what is wrong with it? If it helps, it helps.
No doubt about it, reality can be hard. When one removes his wishful thinking, he has to confront cold hard truth. He has to accept that death is death. He has to accept that one day his existence will end. But on the other hand, one has to take the bad with the good. Life can also be amazing, filled with wonder and awe and love. Filled with beautiful babies, smiles, kindness, and pizza.
When we pour our thinking into fantasy, even with the best of intentions, aren’t we cheating ourselves out of a genuine opportunity to come to a better understanding? Aren’t we deluding ourselves by hiding from reality? Isn’t it preferable to be bold and aspire to strength and to accept the struggles with life, and death, as they really are?
I believe that pretending death isn’t really death cheapens life. As far as I can tell, we only get one shot at this thing called life. And accepting that, I am giving life more meaning, more importance, than it has when fantasy dominates. I become determined to be a force for good, to leave a legacy of goodness. I become inspired to realize my potential. I am more likely to love with all my heart, to savor each slice of pizza, to put my all into this life, not some fantastic and dubious afterlife. I am less likely to waste time. I am less likely to tolerate nonsense and more likely to pursue my passions. If I just go on to people heaven, then all I really have to do is meet whatever religion’s requirements to get there, and then I’m done. Aspirations, drive, determination, charity, love, professionalism, are moot. The fantasy inspires the ultimate selfishness. All that matters is that I get to heaven; all other considerations are irrelevant.
Accepting reality means I no longer have to waste my time wishing that my daughters will live forever. Instead, I can pay attention to them now and delight in watching them grow into women. I can give them my all and teach them to live as though their lives depended on it. Because it does. We have to make this life count because it is the only life we will ever have.