Elizabeth Gilbert on what dogs teach us
& an essay and prompt by Nadia Bolz-Weber on creatures great and small
Suleika is taking a little time off as she continues to recover from her transplant, and she has invited some delightful friends to moonlight for her. This week, we bring to you the beloved and brilliant Elizabeth Gilbert.
Hello, everybody. It’s me, Suleika’s dear friend Liz Gilbert.
Susu has asked me to perform a sad but deeply sacred task today, which is to share the heartbreaking news that Oscar died this week.
So many of you have fallen in love with Suleika’s little white dog over the years, through the stories and posts that she has shared about his antics. Truly, he was a legend. Brilliant, adventurous, prideful, hilariously opinionated, ferociously loyal, and endlessly problematic (he hated children, big dogs, the vet, and most men—and he would 100% bite you if you touched him anywhere near his butt), Oscar was Suleika’s ride-or-die for almost ten years. They were soulmates. (For those of you who don’t believe in soulmates, it’s only because you haven’t met the right dog yet.)
I took over Oscar’s care last year when Susu got sick, and I can attest that he was the most marvelous companion a woman could ever have. (What DID Oscar love? Solitary, bookish females who would sit quietly on a couch with him all day long, gently stroking his head while reading Russian novels. Perfection.)
As with so many difficult things in life, Oscar’s death was both unsurprising and shocking. He was diagnosed last autumn with an inoperable and fast-moving cancer. We had been warned that his death would come suddenly—that he would seem perfectly healthy and happy, and then, from one day to the next, he would collapse.
Knowing that his end was both imminent and uncontrollable, I made the decision to put all fear out of my mind. I decided to just make sure that every one of Oscar’s remaining days was the best day ever. (Fortunately, this was easy: couch, walks, peanut butter, playtime, snuggles, repeat.) I made the decision to trust Oscar completely. I knew that he would lead the way when the time came. He would show us exactly what to do, and somehow he would make sure it wasn’t catastrophic or traumatizing.
My favorite monk at the ashram where I lived in India taught me that dogs have such a short lifespan because it’s part of their loving service to us. They are here, among other reasons, to teach us how to die—because they are so good at it, and we are so bad at it. Dogs have no scary stories around death. (They know better. They know things we don’t know.) Dogs see all the fear and anxiety that we humans carry around about the subject of death and—loving us as they do—they take pity on us. Wanting to help, they volunteer to die early, as a way of saying: “Look! It’s not hard! Let me show you how! All you have to do is let go. Here, watch…”
This is exactly what Oscar did on Monday. He stopped eating, then he stopped walking. He let us know that he was near the end. And he gave us just enough time so we could gather together the people who loved him—me and our beloved friend Cat in person, and Suleika and her family on Zoom from the hospital room at Sloan Kettering. The last voice he heard was Susu’s—calm and brave. He could not have been more serene as he gently exited our world. He died in my home, without pain or fear. He died as he lived: swaddled in cashmere and surrounded by women who adored him.
Our hearts are broken. There will never be another Oscar. But all of us who were there at the moment of his death also felt the rightness—the peace, the beauty, the intimacy, the mastery—of Oscar’s departure.
“Look,” he said. “Let me show you how. It’s not hard. All you have to do is let go…”
Suleika would like to thank you for the great love that so many of you have shown toward Oscar over the years, and for the love that you continue to shower upon her. She feels it, and so does he.
All we can do is love our very best, and then let go. Thank you.
Today’s prompt is by the great Nadia Bolz-Weber. It’s adapted from a meditation that first appeared in her newsletter, The Corners—in praise of animals and the things they teach us.
On March 1, 2022, Suleika’s memoir Between Two Kingdoms comes out in paperback. Pre-ordering a copy is the best way to support Suleika’s work—whether you’ve yet to read it yourself or you want to gift her powerful story and hard-won wisdom to a friend.
Prompt 184. Thank God for Our Animals by Nadia Bolz-Weber
One morning, while sitting in the parking lot of an animal hospital, I tweeted, “Veterinary emergency rooms should have chaplains.” The replies were heartbreaking. The love we feel for our pets is real, and therefore the grief we feel from losing them is also real. It is also a grief that is uncomplicated by the ambiguity that accompanies the loss of humans.
Growing up, I had a Siamese cat named Susan who was two years my senior and who consistently sided with me in any family conflict. She was unbothered by my mood, ill health, or anger. Every couple of years may have brought another move to yet another town, but the familiarity of my cat—her smell, her fur, her affection—remained constant. I was eighteen when Susan died, taking with her an understanding of who I am that no human could have shared.
I never had a dog—or knew I could ever love a dog—until Zacchaeus, a 160-pound gentle giant of a Great Dane, came into my family’s life in 2010. For six years, that gorgeous house pony was my primary source of affection.
He lived with my son at the end, and the morning he died, I wept for my kid, who had to say goodbye to our sweet boy without me there. I wept with gratitude for getting to love such a great dog. And I wept for myself, knowing how lonely I was in the years he companioned me.
Our pets love us in a way humans never can. In turn we love our pets in a way we can never love other humans. So maybe the grief we feel when we lose a pet touches the grief we feel for not being loved in the way we need to by the humans in our lives.
(I once looked at Zacchaeus and said, “You know what my favorite thing about you is? That you will never ask me to write the forward to your book.”)
I got a French Bulldog in March 2020 named Gertrude Stein. I wrote that tweet about chaplains while she was in the hospital, being treated for pneumonia (from which she recovered!). But at the time, my heart was in my hands. I couldn’t believe how much I loved that silly little dog, and at the same time I could believe it.
Here’s a Psalm—
I love that the praise of God comes forth from flying things, creeping things, mountains, cattle—and only then do we get to human beings.
Maybe animals have something to teach us about praise. Creeping things of the Earth praise the creator by simply being creatures. Their being is praise of the source of their being. Sea creatures aren’t looking to the Dow Jones or their Body Mass Index to know their value. Their value rests in their createdness.
How beautiful is that? And what if the same is true for us? Your being is in itself an act of praise toward the source of your being. Maybe it is this uncomplicated love and acceptance we glimpse in our sweet little animals.
To those with new pets, I celebrate with you and hope that house training comes quickly. To those having more time at home with your animal companions, I share in your gratitude. For those who are grieving the loss of a beloved pet, I see you. Even this grief is holy.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about an animal who came into your life and taught you something—about being, about praise, about love and acceptance, about all creation.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments below, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is an ordained Lutheran pastor, founder of House for All Sinners & Saints in Denver, CO, the creator and host of The Confessional, and the author of three NYT bestselling memoirs: Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint; Accidental Saints: Finding God in All The Wrong People; and Shameless: A Sexual Reformation. Subscribe to The Corners to receive her writing in your inbox weekly.
From the Archive: On Touching the Truth
In October 2020, Nadia Bolz-Weber joined Suleika for a Studio Visit. They covered so much—from prayers of desperation, to freedom, to sunlight as disinfectant for shame. To listen to an audio version of their powerful conversation, click the button below.
Losing a loving friend hurts to the core, especially when they are with us through thick and thin. Sending you so much LOVE in the hopes that you can hold all the perfect moments with him in your heart. I have never EVER shared my writing, but here goes. I lost my loving golden retriever friend about 5 weeks ago. He was there by my side through breast cancer, and then a hysterectomy-- and I was by his side for life's simple pleasures of walks and cuddling every day. My need to voice my anguish and love prompted this love letter to him:
Yesterday came upon us so suddenly in some ways, and so progressive in the other ways. You died at nearly 14– 13.75 years young to be exact. OLD for a golden. The night before, I had a clear vision- the kind of vision one has between sleep and awakeness. It said “I am afraid”. I felt into the feeling and went to sleep, in the hope of accepting the fear, and trying to understand it. You were feeling good all night, sleeping on your side, touching me all night. We two are one. In the early morning, you went and slept on Bobs pillow beside me as he went to pee. You haven’t moved from you spot in months at night- but I know you love the pillow. You are a dream come true, and I am thankful for every day we were together.
The morning was our usual- you going out to pee and poop and coming back in and waiting patiently for me to be ready to go for a walk. You gave me a clue you weren’t well when you didn’t want to come up the stairs—because of the salt- I thought. When you came up I had to coax you, and it was frigidly cold so we waited for the day to warm up a bit.
Then you started uncontrollably shaking and I went over to hold you-- screaming for help-- adrenaline rushing ,and my legs couldn’t stop shaking. The seizure felt like it lasted forever- you with your tongue out, legs moving, sweating and wheezing. When it stopped you couldn’t see us, listened but couldn’t see. You growled at Bob and Talia, and I thought you were trying to protect me as I held you. But you didn’t recognize my voice and you turned your head and bit me— a big chunk out of my lip.
Why go over this story of the end, when we have so many other love stories to tell? Like the day we got you, and you immediately decided that I was your one and only. That changed over the years, and you gained a few other one and onlies— after lots of love and confidence building.
The meta story is one of love and connection. For the past 11 years I have taken you on long walks every day, fed you raw meat, took you to to the best holistic vets for color therapy, acupuncture, massage, and everything else to heal you. You wanted an alpha who would offer you the structure you needed to be the best dog you could be. And I delivered. But I got so much in return. I got whole-hearted connection EVERY DAY, and you showed me how to open my heart and keep it open.
WE are a love story. A never ending love story. Even the photos recollect your awe and love for me., and my happiness with you. You keep telling me: stay open, and I feel calm. I will forever feel your ultra soft auburn, red and golden hair, and your rose colored muzzle turned grey with age. You lived the way you died, smiling and content in my gaze.
Sarah always said she thought you were a lover from a past life— your eyes always on me. To be seen, truly seen is the best gift a person could ever have, and for that I will be forever grateful.
I understand the heartbreak Suleika is feeling over Oscar’s death. There’s just nothing like the loving bond and heartfelt experience of having a dog. It’s undecorated love at its best! All of us who have dogs know part of the journey is departure, the dreaded goodbye and the emptiness that follows. I am sorry the timing of Oscar’s death was while Suleika was healing herself and planning to return to him. Thankfully with the passage of time, the raw sting of death subsides and memories sustain us. I see that sweet Oscar was loved and always first in her thoughts and concerns. In her absence, you, Liz, sustained Oscar and gave everything you had to make his days happy, meaningful and full of love! A beautiful send off when it was what he needed.