The friend in question was Thumbelina, whom I mentioned here last April. I found her one day when I was walking home from the train, the second of the now five cats I've fostered since I came to Philly. She was hanging out outside a bar, scrawny and bedraggled but still pretty, approaching everyone who went in and out, seemingly desperate to find someone who would befriend her. She was so friendly that I assumed she must have a family somewhere, but I was never able to find anyone who would claim her, and we eventually concluded that she had probably been abandoned. I took her home and got her cleaned up and spayed and fed back up to normal weight, but we already had more than enough cats of our own, so I knew we couldn't keep her forever. Fortunately, one day my neighbors down the street met her, fell in love with her, and gave her a permanent home.
She was an intelligent, loving, playful, and responsive cat, a perfect fit for their family, and a good playmate for their young son. She developed gentle morning wakeup routines with them, defended their home from bugs, and learned to use a scratching pad instead of their new couch. The only habit they couldn't train her out of was her love of going outside. I don't know how long she lived outdoors before I picked her up, but even once she had a loving home of her own she still considered the sidewalks and street near her home to be a natural extension of her turf. She was very clever at slipping out and very difficult to catch if she wasn't ready to come in, and she seemed to be appropriately alert and cautious when she was out there, and to not go too far from home. So none of us really worried too much about her excursions. Instead we just tried to exercise a certain amount of supervision and to reduce their frequency and duration as much as possible.
Unfortunately, there were limits to the protection her competence and cleverness could provide. A week or so ago, she had a very close call with a car, but fortunately the undercarriage was high enough and the timing was just right, and the car passed above her rather than striking her. After that, she seemed afraid and didn't want to go out again for a while, and we were all somewhat relieved, hoping that maybe she'd finally gotten the outdoors out of her system. But this Saturday morning, she changed her mind and slipped out again, resolutely eluding her family's efforts to retrieve her. So they let her be and went back to their morning tasks, figuring she would get bored and come back in soon. And then came the knock on the door. She died as we desperately rushed her to the vet.
The driver who hit her didn't even stop, and another car drove above her without striking her as she lay injured in the street. There wasn't even a screech of brakes. Our street is a narrow one-way with densely parked cars on both sides, and many families with young children and pets live here, yet drivers turning off of the higher-traffic street at the end of ours often accelerate recklessly along our block. I'm told that Thumbelina isn't even the first to be struck by a careless driver on our street — a human kid on a bike apparently got hit too a little while back, although fortunately in that case the victim survived.
It's hard to accept that lives can be ended so suddenly and so callously. I can't get her out of my head, or stop mourning for all that bright beauty, snuffed out in a second of inattention by some oblivious and anonymous monster. And she's never coming back, she's just gone. The only thing we can do is go forward and love the ones who are still here with us, maybe give the home she occupied to another cat in need, knowing that that cat won't ever replace her, it'll just be someone different whom we can honor her by rescuing, and whom we will also love.
Depending on which religious interpretations one listens to, one may hear either that this is the right response to the death of a pet but the wrong response to the death of a human, or that it is the wrong response in either case. Many Christians will say that non-human animals don't have "souls", and therefore there is no "afterlife" for them, whereas humans do have "souls" and do get an "afterlife". So in this interpretation, when one loses a feline friend, that friend is gone for good, whereas we will indeed see our human friends again in heaven. Gentler Christians will say something along the lines that our pets do indeed have souls and so we will see them again, or perhaps that heaven wouldn't be heaven if we couldn't have the ones we love, so of course our pets will be there, souls or no.
If we go only on what is explicitly stated in the Christian bible, neither interpretation seems to be terribly well supported. As far as I've read, there is nothing in these texts that directly answers the question either way. Theological pronouncements on the subject seem instead to be based on more subtle interpretations, e.g. the purported superiority of humans relative to non-human animals proclaimed in the opening chapters of Genesis (thus they apparently can't have souls like us), or the notion that the Christian god is a decent sort who attends even unto the fall of a sparrow (thus of course they have souls). It's hardly surprising that the authors of the various texts that comprise Christian scripture weren't terribly fussed about making it clear whether any, much less all, dogs go to heaven; dogs, after all, were not the target audience for their writings. Yet for those who love their pets it leaves a painful gap in the comfort Christianity claims to offer to those who mourn.
One way to plug this gap is simply to choose, in the absence of theological authority pointing either way, to adhere to the more pleasant interpretation. And, in a sort of backhanded way, science even supports this interpretation to some extent. After all, we now know that, indeed, we are animals, just like all the rest. There's nothing in our biology that is fundamentally different from other species on our planet. Every single trait that has been claimed to be uniquely human — tool use, language, culture, emotions, morality, personality, social intelligence, lying, and more — has turned out to exist in other animals in at least some rudimentary form (see this article for a summary of some of the evidence). Science has systematically stripped away any basis for believing that we are fundamentally different from our fellow earthlings, rather we have simply taken certain of the common traits of intelligent, social animals to absurd extremes. So there is no reason to believe that, if there is something in us that survives our physical death, our fellow animals, particularly our close evolutionary relatives, would not have at least some prototypical version of this characteristic as well.
The problem here, of course, is that science also rather dramatically fails to support the notion that there is any part of us which survives death. While some of the early experiments, such as attempts to measure the weight of the departing soul, might strike us as a bit silly, modern neuroscience has slowly been building a much more devastating case against the belief that our minds are anything other than an emergent phenomenon arising from the physics going on in the few pounds of meat that constitute our brains. Recommended reading on this subject includes António Damásio's Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain and Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. For an internet-accessible sampler, try Wikipedia's page on frontal lobe injuries.
If our minds are purely a product of the functioning of our meat, if damage to our meat damages our minds, then what happens to our minds when our bodies die? In the face of all of the evidence, it becomes very difficult to defend the notion that turning off our bodies leaves anything of our minds still floating around in the ether. When we turn off a computer, we don't expect that the video game we were playing minutes earlier is still somehow continuing to play itself invisibly somewhere, although perhaps our saved game may still be stored on the hard drive. And when our own bodies cease to function, we can't even rely on them to store our data with fidelity comparable to that achieved by a hard drive. Cells begin to break down chemically very rapidly after they cease to receive fresh blood supplies, so our "saved state" deteriorates quickly, and even the intricate neuronal traceries and interlinkages that make us our unique selves begin to fall prey to obvious decay within days. Even trying to freeze a dead person for later resurrection is probably futile using current methods, what with ice crystals rupturing the cells and other such hazards. Entropy takes us all down in the end, and to halt its ravages and salvage a recently dead or dying brain is a task of such awesome complexity that with all our knowledge, we don't yet even have any idea of where we would begin.
So what happens after we die? The slowly strengthening consensus answer from scientific investigations to date is that our experience just ends. After I'm dead, there will be no more me, just a slowly cooling hunk of meat and bone and blood and shit and piss, and perhaps if I'm lucky there will be a few grieving friends and family members looking on. Maybe a few of my organs will be salvageable as replacement components for other people who still exist, or for medical research, or for making into creepy Halloween decorations. But I won't be there to see it. I won't get to see my funeral and rage spectrally about how they did it wrong. I won't see my grandparents or my childhood cats or anyone else in some heaven. The experience of a world in which I'm deceased is something I will never have, just as I will never experience a world in which I haven't been born yet, or a world in which the Twin Towers weren't destroyed in 2001. It's an exercise in imagination, something that can never be part of my actual life.
The world I will experience is one in which people I love do end. One day, their meat will stop working, stop producing the emergent phenomenon that is them, and that will be it. I'll never be able to do anything with them again, or at least, I have no good reason to expect that I will. And I'll have to learn to live with that, learn to go on in a world that doesn't have them in it anymore, find other people to love instead, and make the time I have with those people as good as possible, because I know that that time is necessarily finite. The clocks tick steadily forward, and my time with those who have died is now in the past and cannot come again, so I must try to appreciate the good things that I got from them and look to what comes next.
It's a terrifying and austere vision of the world, and it's easy to ask why I should resign myself to this rather than embracing the possibility (no matter how slim) that just maybe there might be something someday, regardless of what all the evidence says. But the problem with "embracing" that possibility is that it's almost certainly not true. And if I live the one life that I know I've got in expectation that things will all be fixed somehow, magically, someday, forever, then I deprive myself of the proper appreciation of those few moments I do have with the people I love, and of a proper understanding of the urgency of making those moments as good as possible.
If this life is the only one I have, the only one I'll share with them, then it matters all the more to take that moment to touch a hand, or to scratch behind an ear, since there may never be a chance to make it up if I miss it. Embracing what's almost certainly true instead of what's almost certainly a fantasy means that I've got an ironclad argument for doing now the things that I know matter, rather than just putting them off to the indefinite future because some power in the sky will make it all work out okay in the end. I accept that things might well not work out okay, which means I have to do my damnedest to make them come out as well as they possibly can under the circumstances.
It also means that I will know, when things don't work out okay no matter how hard I tried, that I did my best. And I don't have to desperately struggle to search for some higher reason or deeper meaning to justify how the bad things that happen in my life are actually all for the better in the end. When the worst happens, when someone I love dies, especially when they die so suddenly and at a time when they should have had so many good years ahead of them, I don't have to tear myself apart asking why. I already know why — it's because the universe isn't designed to make me happy. In fact, it's not designed at all. It just is, and any happiness I get is a lucky roll of the dice, while any sadness I get is just the same. It doesn't mean anything that Thumbelina died the way she did. It's just a brute fact, and it's sad and awful and, as far as we know, unalterable, and I have every right and every reason to openly and honestly be sad and angry instead of trying to lie myself into pretending otherwise. I'm free to feel my real feelings about this in their full depth without having to make excuses for them.
So if I'm right, I make the best possible use of the life that I have, and then I die and regret only that there wasn't more of it. I receive a very precious and rare thing, and I enjoy it while it lasts. But what if I'm wrong? It's a hard question to give a single answer to, since every one of the thousands of human religions will tell me I'm wrong in a slightly different way, but in general there are two possibilities. The first is that I'm wrong, but that whatever comes next is good in some way, whether because living my life in as good a way possible based on the evidence available to me is self-rewarding by some mysterious law of the universe, or whether it's because there's some decent sort of supervising being that recognizes and respects evidence- and reason-based decision-making about the world. In this case, anything that comes after I die is gravy, and I'll embrace it gladly, but I can't base my whole existence on this slim possibility.
And of course, the second possibility is that what comes after life is monstrously horrible in some way, either because evidence- and reason-based decision-making for some reason is self-punishing (which seems to be a circularly unavoidable trap, escapable only by the "lucky" chance of being born irrational or delusional), or because there exists an entity which will deliberately choose to punish me for basing my decisions on reasoning from the evidence it permitted me to access in life. In this last case, the entity is a monster, and if I knew in advance that such an entity existed, I would defy its commands with every last ounce of my life anyway, so believing in it would not change how I live. So even asking, "What if I'm wrong?" is not enough to elevate this remote possibility of an afterlife over the certainty of what I have now.
I don't claim to know what tomorrow will bring, any more than anyone else does. I experience uncertainty, fear of death, fear of failure, fear of loss, just as everyone does. The difference is that I know very clearly that now matters, because tomorrow is made out of now, and the only ones here to make it are you and me.