When I was a very little boy, probably in the second grade if memory serves, Father Gannon made his weekly visit to my classroom. On one occasion I asked him what heaven was like.
"Anything you want it to be," he responded.
I liked that response. I like it even more at this moment.
If I get to the Pearly Gates, I certainly hope to be reunited with my father, my grandmother and so many other family and friends who have passed on. So much to talk about. But heaven wouldn't be heaven without our dogs and especially our Lizzie, who went over what has become known as the Rainbow Bridge early Monday morning.
She was 16½, which would be about 115 in dog years. That's an awful lot of tail wagging. And even more smiles of joy.
It is the unwritten contract we make with our dogs. They will protect us, love us unconditionally and be a constant source of amazement and fun and solace. And in return we will do right by them, which eventually brings us to the realization that it is time to send them off to a better place.
Lizzie was simply, purely, a good girl.
We had gotten her 16 years ago from Golden Retriever Rescue of Mid-Florida. She had been an abused dog, uncared for and tied to a tree all day long. And yes, I rethink my position on the death penalty every time I hear of one of these cases.
She was the perfect dog for two boys who were 10 and 14 at the time. With boundless energy she chased after tennis balls. While she was a terrific retriever she never quite understood that after retrieving the tennis ball it is customary to give up the tennis ball so that it may be tossed and retrieved yet again.
Lizzie would occasionally escape the confines of the home and visit the players on a golf course near the house, happy retrieving their golf balls and sitting in their golf carts in the hope of a ride. Some were amused. Some were not.
As a conqueror of the duck world, Lizzie was an abysmal disappointment, racking up a perfect 0-for-10,573 failure rate in her Wile E. Coyote-like quest to hunt down even the most morbidly obese, lumbering Muscovy.
Still, she was a dog generous in her willingness to mentor other hounds in the life skills of being a canine. She found in the younger Gracie, our goldendoodle, an apt and eager pupil who quickly absorbed the fine points of how to sit at the front window and bark at people walking down the street, or even at a leaf falling in the driveway.
As for cats, Lizzie was largely indifferent to them, regarding felines as beneath her to warrant so much as a half-hearted lunge even for appearance's sake.
There is no exercise easier to embrace in life than living with a dog. Lizzie asked nothing of us except for our undivided 24/7 attention. How hard was this?
In recent months she began to show the inevitable demands of her years: the occasional stumble and a weakening of her once ferocious — but completely harmless — bark. Strangers and leaves began to get a pass.
And we knew, despite the futility of engaging in denial, that the day of the final trip to the vet was drawing ever closer.
For about the past week, I had to help her stand up and I could feel the ravages of her weakening hind legs and hips taking their toll. Accidents were happening with increasing frequency. Her eyes seemed to be telling us: "I'm really not having a good time here."
Gracie saw it, too. In recent days she had begun to keep her distance from Lizzie. Dogs sometimes know the answer to a question before the rest of us do. Was it time? Yes.
Our vet, Dr. Gary Barsch, had treated Lizzie for 16 years, saving her life on a couple of occasions. This was no easier for him than it was for us. As we stood weeping over Liz, petting her, soothing her one last time, Gary first injected her with a sedative and a few minutes later with a lethal dose to stop her heart. She just sighed — and closed her eyes.
We're never going to get another dog. We can't go through this anguish again, we said through the tears. Gary smiled. "You don't find them. They find you."
Wise man. Good girl.