In the film “Patch Adams” there is a scene intentionally given to depict a communication from what we may call “the Other.” I like to think of it as the world speaking to the character Patch but it can just as easily be regarded as a divine message from God, or Life, or the spirit of his friend. I don’t want to disclose it specifically because some readers may intend to see the video and I wouldn’t want to give the scene away. It has no grand dramatic relevance to the film but there is power in its simplicity.
As part of my own discourse with life, I engage the fantasy that the world is an ensouled, living being, that it speaks to us in odd moments and delicately nuanced whispers. It merely takes attentiveness to experience its wonder.
I recall an evening some 43 years ago when I was in college and sharing a house with two friends. A dog was hit by a car out in front of the house and had somehow managed to hobble from the road into our backyard. A girl came to our door asking if we owned a large black dog and that while crossing the road had just been injured by a car and was in our backyard, the driver had never stopped. I didn’t recognize the dog. He was a black mutt, built like a solid Labrador. He was scraggly, dirty, wearing a collar worn with age. I was reluctant to help at first. There were other things I wanted to do that night. I had plans for the evening and didn’t like the disruption to my cozy world. The police had arrived and were going to shoot the dog, because there was nowhere they could take it. I find death a difficult matter so despite the intention of the police, I decided with some encouragement from the neighbor girl to seek a vet on a Sunday night.
I tried to keep the dog warm with an old blanket. He didn’t seem to be in any pain but his breathing was labored. He attempted to get up several times but his back legs failed him. After locating a vet by phone and using the blanket as a stretcher, my friends and I placed the dog in the car. My friend drove and I sat with the dog keeping vigil. During the ride he never made a noise but simply lay quietly. Gradually, his breathing slowed and then stopped. I said, “I think he’s gone.” We continued to the vet for the final pronouncement and then took him back home to bury him in our own backyard where he had lain. He had died as quietly as he appeared.
He had suffered in the company of strangers, had died in an unfamiliar place but he was embraced with great care. What kind of life had he had, I wonder. What sort of things had he done? Did he frolic with small children? Had he experienced the love of others? Did he lie in the sun and bounce through rain puddles? I placed him in the ground gently, with loving softness and tears as if we had been friends all of our lives, though we had been together only an hour or so. His passing was in no way without meaning. He helped me realize that we all share this one great life filled with terror and beauty and that each death takes something from us and also brings us closer to the preciousness of life. I thanked him for sharing his death with me because in those final moments he gave me my humanity, showed me my love and compassion. As is apparent, I’ve never forgotten that dog.
There is an addendum to this story. About 25 years ago, late at night, I was driving home. It was dark and I was speeding down the road, singing some song or other. Just before I got to my turn, the memory of that dog came to me and I slowed as I contemplated that experience. As I made the turn at a slower speed than I would have only a few moments prior, a large black dog sprang out of the darkness in front of my vehicle. As I was driving more slowly I did not hit him. He moved across my path and bounded back into darkness. I like to imagine that somehow this is all connected in ways that I cannot fathom. I like to think that this moment was an instance of “the Other” speaking to me, protecting both the dog and me from undue harm. However strange sounding, these are the kinds of moments which strengthen my faith in the goodness of life.
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