Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Eulogy for Skip

August 12, 2017

by Jason Morgan

Ô serviteur: que tu me sois d’un grand exemple,
ô toi qui m’as aimé ainsi qu’un saint son Dieu!
Le mystère de ton obscure intelligence
vit dans un paradis innocent et joyeux.

Ah! faites, mon Dieu, si vous me donnez la grâce
de vous voir face à Face aux jours d’Éternité,
faites qu’un pauvre chien contemple face à face
celui qui fut son dieu parmi l’humanité.

—Francis Jammes

It may be the case that eulogizing a dog has much in it to cause the thinking man to pause. A dog has no soul and no sin, and will face no judgment. Lost in the Beatific Vision, some say, I will not think much of Skip, my beloved dog who died not too long ago.

That Skip had no soul to save there can be no doubt. For all of his uncouthness and indefensible personal grooming habits, his gluttony and sensuality and sloth, Skip was no sinner—was, indeed, incapable of sin. Christ died for me, but He did not die for Skip. Skip was never—could never be—in need of salvation.

And yet. And yet, I loved Skip, and in his dog way, utterly untouched by guile or hypocrisy or any of civilization’s discontents, Skip loved me. Even in the fullness of God’s Holy and Everlasting Glory, I will feel, I think, some shadow of a loss if Skip is not by my side. For God created all things, and a good God would not abandon unto death that which He had created for us to love with purity of heart. (And what, on earth, is purer than the love between a man and his dog?)

Skip was not merely an automaton of a compulsive creation. He knew, felt, and lived in the world as do I. When a member of our family would leave the house for the day, Skip would slump his shoulders and keen a dirgeful, bellowing howl of deep grief and painful lament. Our microwave never did that, and neither did our potted plants. Skip did not strive for the higher things, to be sure. He had no soul for doing so. He much preferred meatballs to Mozart. But he took the world as it was and was often, I think, happy. When he would sit in the sun of an afternoon outdoors, blinking at the sky and scratching his back by moving slowly back and forth against the low-hanging branches of a piney shrub, Skip’s countenance assumed a look of beatific contentment.

There is that word again: “beatific”. Thomists do not like this term applied to animals. I understand why. Thomism is predicated upon man’s ability to approach to God through rational assent, and Skip, being completely incapable of such a thing, would be undeniably excluded from beatification on these grounds.

But let us think of it the other way. The beatific vision is the direct beholding of the face of God. Skip was never separated from God by sin, only by death, the consequence of our own human sin. So, in a way, Skip saw heaven through the glass much less darkly than do we. He Who made heaven and earth and all within them also saw fit to provide poor broken mankind with companions and encouragements, intimations that all, in the end, really would work out alright. Skip was one such gift from a loving God. Skip’s comic sense and complete devotion to his family were as natural to him as his daily whining after treats, and he gave to the world, inky as it is with the ravages of sin and death, an abiding—yes—joy. Not mere happiness or comfort or distraction from misery. Substantial joy. This is not a thing so easily dismissed. What do we do with a creature who could not think so well, but who nevertheless could make God’s only rational and material creation smile so broadly, cry so sorrowfully, think so late into the night?

Skip had the quiddity of dogness, but suchness is not closed-off-ness, and Skip was no evolutionary loose end. Entirely unbeknownst to himself, Skip pointed beyond himself to the author of the goodness that Skip’s little life brought into our own. Although he spent the majority of his time brooding over the relative fullness of his stomach, what he symbolized in his canine existence was inextricably wrapped up with something much higher, much finer, ultimately true. Skip did not need salvation, but by that same measure he was not as alienated from God as are we. He had no need for existential angst. He happily lived for his supper. He immanentized the eschaton, as it were, and this pleased him immediately and immensely. Skip did not know God, but God, from before the foundations of the world were made, knew Skip. Both Skip and I were loved into existence ex nihilo. Ye cold logic, warm and soften, for Skip was also of the Father, and all that is noble, all that is true, is a compass pointing directly to our lost home.

* * *

For all of his lowliness, then—for, yes, he was a Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix, barely six inches high at the shoulder, in addition to having been made more than “just a little lower than the angels”—Skip was not incapable of rising above his poor frame and participating in the cosmic order in his own way. He was not all belly and loin. The pluck of his tiny heart often stirred my own. We became so used to seeing him around the house in his thoroughly unmanly role of whimpering maharajah that we were taken aback when the fight would come out in him on trips outside the yard.

We once visited a local farm during Christmas break to see a living Nativity crèche, and we brought Skip with us. He sat on my Mom’s lap on the front seat of the car and looked out the window, occasionally turning to look back over his shoulder at me with the plaintive expression of, “Where might we be going that could possibly be any better than my bed?” When we arrived, we learned that the Nativity scene wasn’t ready yet for that day, but as we had driven a ways to get there we thought we may as well walk around the farm a bit before going back home.

Skip was on a leash, and, sniffing along the ground with an air of great purpose and importance, he followed his nose to a split-rail fence, immediately behind which was perhaps the largest, blackest, meanest-looking bull I have ever seen. The bull had his rump to the fence, and was facing out into the field beyond, chewing his cud and seeming to cherish bloody murder in his sinewy heart. Skip drew himself up to his full six-inch stature, growled as though both harrumphing for the bull’s attention and getting in voice before a solemn lecture, and then launched into a barrage of vigorous and aggressive barking at the bull’s enormous backside. This went on for about a minute. Skip was insisting with everything in him that the bull turn around to be formally addressed.

Finally, the hulking animal began to pivot slowly to his right, turning to show us his distinctly unpleased-looking face with its stumpy mouth and long blades of grass and stalks of hay hanging out from its sides. He kept chewing slowly, as a dyspeptic police chief might chomp on a cigar. With a kind of pointed sneeze, the bull looked down—I thought I saw a faint, wry smile play across his meaty lips—snorted back at Skip, and then turned aside again, unimpressed by the scolding he was getting. Skip’s barking had only intensified during this time. Staring the bull as directly in the eyes as he could from half a foot off the ground, Skip pulled at the leash, fully ready to charge the beast and bend him to his will.

True, he whinged and moaned when he had to go more than a couple of hours without his beloved meatballs, but he was never the first to leave the field of pitched battle. He joined each fight with valor and complete confidence in the righteousness of his cause. Skip would gladly have thrown his life away to protect his family. His was a devotion to principle so absolute that it took one’s breath away, made one feel miserly and small by comparison.

When we left the farm that day, Skip fairly swaggered with the thrill of having bested a looming behemoth. “I taught him to mind his P’s and Q’s,” Skip’s every movement plainly spoke. “If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll watch his step from now on!” Matadors merely kill bulls. Skippy aimed to civilize them.

* * *

Skip was not without fear. He trembled pitifully in his bed when the summer thunderstorms would roll and crash overhead. But he was brave. He of course had no understanding of bravery, but he knew how to overcome his fear when some greater purpose demanded that it be done. There’s no sense in trying to explain this away with hand-wavings about anthropomorphism or animal psychology or neo-Darwinian survivalist theories. The simplest explanation is that Skip was not somehow excluded from the nobility also latent in the human heart, but, on the contrary, fully immersed in it. The self-sacrifice of the dog, like the majesty of the lion and the splendor of the peacock, is not a byproduct of amino acids. There is something grand buried deep in creation. Skip was burnished, somehow, with the glory of flesh before the Fall. If Skip could be brave, in other words, it’s because that’s the way the universe itself is set up.

We are doomed, one and all, and yet we fight on. Jean-Paul Sartre’s great fault was in not seeing that there was something more to this than just a cruel joke. It is an open-ended universe, and we are all able to move in God’s direction in our own way. Why should Skip, who was clearly formed by God to be our faithful and loyal friend, be disqualified from our common lot simply because he was too simple-minded to understand it? (I confess that I, too, do not understand God’s blessings. I hope that my intellectual poverty will not prevent my seeing God prosopon a Prosopon on the last day.)

Likewise, to exclude Skip from Heaven, as the neo-Thomists do, on a technicality about Skip’s lack of a redeemable soul seems to limit and even to misconstrue the utterly other power, goodness, glory, and merciful compassion of the Almighty God. David Bentley Hart, writing against Thomist philosopher Edward Feser, says that Feser’s argument against “‘puppies in paradise’ is reducible to two points: that the final vision of God must be entirely an experience of the rational intellect, and that animals entirely lack a rational soul.” But who am I to judge? God saw fit to create Skip in this way. Would God make such a rookie mistake as to be caught out on wording hidden in the fine print?

I AM THAT AM, saith the Lord. God is life itself, and death will have no dominion over what God hath wrought. And if Skip is, or was, then why would God not gather him back to Himself when He makes all things—heaven and earth—new and whole again? The question, baldly stated, is, if God made Skip but has barred him from paradise, then where will Skip go, and what was the point? What of my memories of Skip—will those, too, be erased if I make it through to eternal friendship with my Creator? Does grace perfect nature, or destroy it? These questions, for me, have an obvious answer. Heaven, I am convinced, will be—already is—positively writhing with puppies. At least, some corner of it that I hope to frequent.

But this world, for now, is given over to the shadow and the worm, and Skip’s mighty heart eventually began to go the way of all flesh. Skip tottered flaccid into the evening of the canine life. When stirred, he regained the whippiness of the puppy, however briefly, and was a live wire once again. But the shadows ineluctably lengthened and time grew short.

We would sit on the steps to the shed in the back yard and watch Skip go through his comic routine almost every day. But I cannot remember any afternoon, no matter how halcyon, when there was not some deeper chill, knowing that the days would not go on forever. Skip began to dodder and gaze off, absentmindedly. He took great pains to rise in the morning—although his love for animal crackers and bones brought him out of bed faithfully for matins every single day—and his legs would tremble under him as he locked first one, and then another, propping himself up at odd angles like a circus tent rising from corner to corner.

He sometimes fell and could not get up. We would find him lying on the carport, back legs up, but front legs wiped out, and his face against the concrete. (All dogs are natural heroes; Skip did not display even a trace of self-pity.) At night, he would sit in his living room bed, alone or with his son, Bertie, his graying, wizened face nodding off, his eyes tired, his cheeks sunken, his spirit old. His liver began to act up, and then his kidneys. His cataracts became so bad that he could not see, and he would bump into the walls or the furniture. He became stone deaf. We would walk up behind him, calling him, but he would just keep facing the window, perhaps enjoying the little light that still came through his clouded corneas. When we bent down to stroke his head, it startled him. He got fussy about his flanks—no one could touch his flanks—and then got fussy about his dinner. He bit my Mom when she tried to have a look at his carious teeth. He was coming to the end.

* * *

When I visited my parents this past summer, I knew I would never see Skip again. He stretched out in his bed, flattened down in the concave of the cotton wadding and cedar shavings, and struggled to breathe. I picked him up and brought him outside to the fence, where we looked out one last time for rabbits and possums and deer. Skip just hung his head and rested his paws in my cupped hands.

Skippy’s cage, which was the donjon of his indoor fortress, was lined with the same Superman-patterned sheets that I had used on my own bed when I was a little boy. It gave me great happiness to know that Skip was using them, too. It was in these sheets that Skip was wrapped when my parents took him, wheezing and gasping, to the vet for what everyone knew would be the last time. Skip had had a heart attack. He was dying, and he knew it best of all. He was labored, but serene. Dogs have no regrets.

It was in the Superman sheets, and a small yellow towel that had belonged to my grandfather, that Skip was tenderly wrapped as he sat on the stainless-steel table at the vet’s office. We prayed that those sheets would comfort him. He did not need them, though—he was as gallant as the Green Knight at the edge of his little life. It was we who were very afraid. Skip closed his eyes and did not open them again.

It is in those sheets and that little towel that Skip is wrapped now, with his paw on the St. Francis cards and medals that we put with him, along with some of his favorite flowers on his shoulders. He lies in the ground, in a plastic outer sheet with the words, “We love you, Skip,” written on it in black marker.

One cannot hold this thing in the mind. Who once lived is dead, who once breathed is buried in the cold ground, wrapped in plastic, mouldering below the surface of the earth. It is too awful to consider, the gaping maw at the end of every road. It is impossible that even Skip, innocent of these considerations and unresisting of the forces beyond his grasp, should have fallen irretrievably into that terrible abyss.

Jason Morgan is an assistant professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan. Morgan completed his PhD in East Asian history at the University of Wisconsin. He was a Fulbright fellow at Waseda University in Tokyo, and has also been a research fellow at the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Morgan’s first book was in Japanese: Amerika wa naze Nihon wo mikudasu no ka. He is currently researching Dr. Kikuta Noboru, a pro-life physician who revolutionized Japanese adoption law.

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