The movies already showed us that “All Dogs Go To Heaven.” But is it our heaven? Do we get to see them again? And what would you say to your dog if you got one more reunion – in the afterlife?
I pondered this question when writing my new novel, “The Next Person You Meet In Heaven,” the sequel, after 15 years, to “The Five People You Meet In Heaven.” In the new book, a girl named Annie dies after years of thinking everything in her life was a mistake. In the afterlife, she meets a quintet of people waiting for her – as in the first book – and each one explains to Annie how her “mistakes” on earth were actually part of a bigger plan for a significant life.
One of the people Annie meets is not really a person at all, but her childhood dog - who saved her from a life of loneliness. The dog’s name was Cleo. And when Annie realizes it is her, she is awash with emotions from their time together on earth.
Now I should mention here that I, like you, am a dog lover. I’ve had two long-term dogs in my life. One, when I was a child, was a small, yappy friend named Schnapsy, a dachshund convinced he was a German Shepherd.
The other arrived when I was in my late 20’s and already writing for a living. He was a beautiful golden retriever who I called Elvis, (nothing but a hound dog.) He thought I was the greatest guy ever, which was only fair since I thought he was the greatest dog on earth.
Like Annie’s dog in “Heaven,” Elvis was with me everywhere. Car rides. Pizza runs. I once rented a cabin in Northern California to lock myself away for work on a movie script. Elvis came with me. Many days during that stretch he was the only living thing I had contact with, and I found myself chatting comfortably with him, asking in this character was a good idea, was the plot working, etc?
He never answered, of course, except to nudge my hand with his nose so I would scratch his head and the narrow space between his eyes.
Still, I sensed we had an understanding. I think we all sense that with our dogs. So in creating Annie, and knowing that she felt uncool and out of place with other kids through elementary school, junior high, and high school, it seemed logical to have some presence from those years to explain them to her in heaven.
Why not her dog?
Annie gets to ask Cleo questions about that time, and she learns from Cleo that dogs have backstories, too. In this case, Cleo was part of a litter born to a mother in a decaying, abandoned house. When two drunk men stumble in, the mother growls to protect her young, and is shot by the drunken intruders, who laugh as they leave.
So Cleo’s abandonment matches Annie’s, and in heaven they get to share it, and Cleo explains how dogs are inclined to go to a crying human over a laughing one, because empathy is part of their wiring.
And when Annie bemoans how lonely she felt during her teenage years, Cleo shows her that loneliness can disappear once you acknowledge all the need in the world, and how you can fill that need by being a loving and devoted friend.
At one point, Annie asks why she is seeing Cleo, and Cleo says she is there to teach her a lesson, as are all the souls we meet in heaven.
“Wait,” Annie says, “so animals have souls?”
Cleo looks surprised.
“Why wouldn’t they?” she says.
And yes, why wouldn’t they? Dogs are not human in biology, but their love, devotion, affection and protection are certainly characteristics of a living, caring personality presence. And if you believe in God, you surely see a divine touch in their creation.
So what do you think? Will we see our furry friends when we die? If they played such an important part in our lives, wouldn’t it make sense? And what would you say to your dogs if, in heaven, they could speak? Or would you just want to hold them tight, one more time, feel their gentle nuzzle, the happy brush of their tongue on your cheeks, as Annie does?
By the way, in the book, all departed souls get to choose a setting for their heavenly rest. Cleo chooses an endless landscape of doors, each of which open to reveal a sad, weary person, who is greeted by an exuberant dog and, as result, goes from downtrodden to grateful.
Thanks to our dogs, we get to experience that every day on earth. I don’t know about you, but that feels divinely inspired to me.