During my childhood, my mother was president of the Sight Conservation Society of Pennsylvania. In those years our family entertained numbers of people who were blind. While I was taken by observing what unsighted persons were able to do, my fascination focused on the Seeing Eye dogs several brought with them. What marvelous animals! These days while there are no Seeing Eye dogs visiting our house, I have become the Seeing Eye human for Mattie, our little pet who is now almost totally blind.
We rescued Mattie from an animal shelter eight years ago, and have recently observed that she is gradually losing both her eyesight and her hearing. She still gets around the house pretty well, and knows where the chairs and beds are located, but is bewildered when she loses track of her location. Mattie deeply loves and is deeply loved by Wendy– but Mattie is MY dog; the first pet I have had for more than seventy-five years! I live in fear of the day when our veterinarian will say, “It’s time to put her down. She is no longer comfortable.” We had no idea of her age when we rescued her. She is now probably 13 or 14, and is a blind old lady living on borrowed time. Having her put down is a horrifying probability facing Wendy and me. So I keep putting off calling our vet.
Think about the language we use for death. Why is it that only dogs and horses get put down? When you are eating a steak, the animal from which it came was slaughtered, not put down. Would it make a difference in how we thought about capital punishment if we called it murder and not execution? Words make a difference. What we call something affects how we view it. So one day Mattie will be put down, not killed.
To jump from a bridge is called suicide, but to take or administer a prescribed lethal drug is death with dignity or euthanasia. To shoot an enemy in battle is to kill him. To be shot by an enemy is to be a casualty.
Have you noticed that these days nobody dies, but just passes on or passes over, or in some communities, simply passes? Some religious persons say, gone to be with Jesus, or are in heaven, or the more dignified expression, Rests in Peace. I have never been in more hostile hot water in my ministry than the time I referred to someone’s loved-one as dead. I suppose dead has a finality about it that softer words do not have. The closest we come to that word is probably deceased.
Among the euphemisms for a dead parrot in a hilarious Monty Python sketch are:
"He’s not pining. He’s passed on. This parrot is no more, has ceased to be, He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff. Bereft of life. Wrung down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot!!
And then there are black humor designations; has shuffled off this mortal coil, is pushing up daisies, or has kicked the bucket—giving rise to the ubiquitous bucket list of things we want to do before."
So we sit here and wait for the inevitable. But she is just a dog. So whether one is put down, slaughtered, is murdered or just passes away, that unique precious will be gone, and we who are left must face an empty place which lies deep in the human spirit.