Exit Plan

Let’s face it, we all negotiate with God. When we’re stricken with an illness, or have a child in jeopardy, or find ourselves in the trenches—where, as we’re told, there are no atheists—we strike some bargain with God. Get me out of this mess, Lord, and I’ll...(fill in the blank).

Usually our promise is negative: we assure God we’ll no longer commit a certain transgression. But sometimes the bargaining chip is something positive: for example, we’ll promise to say the rosary every day. Recently, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quoted a professional football player who said, “I made a pact with God. I’ll sign every autograph. Just let me make this team.” And if he doesn’t make the team? Maybe the player didn’t put enough on the table. Signing autographs sounds pretty light to me.

In any case, God seldom participates in our bargaining; and regardless of the situation’s outcome, we seldom keep our end of the bargain. I’m not exempt from this kind of quid-pro-quo bartering, but then, I’ve got an ace in the hole. I’m moving toward the exit sign—a movement well described in the novels of Philip Roth, John Updike, and Richard Ford. Last December, I turned seventy-one, and I’m quickly gaining downhill momentum.

So I’m bargaining with God for an extension. It’s been a long time since I stepped to the bargaining table—more than forty years, when, before my last child was born, I asked God for another “healthy child” (two had already been negotiated). I’ve forgotten what I promised in return. This time I’ve put two of God’s favorite things on the table: books and dogs. I love them both, and have woven them into my life in such a way that God cannot take my soul without disrupting these two hearth-bound creations. How do I know these are among his favorite things? Easy. What’s “dog” spelled backwards? And isn’t God’s whole story right there in a book, the bestseller of all time?

Here’s how my ace works. Dogs always appear in my life at propitious moments. They’re usually mongrels, lost or abandoned, covered with ticks and mud, and starving. They just wander across my path. I was born a dog-lover and cannot turn these four-legged beggars away. I take them in, give them love, and find it rapidly and unconditionally returned. Rosie is the latest dog to come under my aegis. She’s almost six now. The pup in her is gone and middle age is taking hold. She is my shadow, my buddy, my best friend. She understands everything about me. She understands my every word, every facial expression, every physical move—sometimes better and faster than my wife does. I am her pack, and she depends on me completely, with a devotion that is scary, tender, and unwavering. She would be lost without me and God knows it. I am convinced he won’t take me while she is alive and hunkering at my side.

The other half of my ace is books. God loves books. Not all books, of course, just the good ones. I try to follow Mark Twain’s advice and read only good books. I think it pleases God as well as me. The point is, God wouldn’t take me while I’m in the middle of a good book. That would be totally unfair, and very unlike him. So, needless to say, I move from one good book to the next without much pause between them.

There you have it, my bargain: Let me read and take care of dogs. How can he turn that down? But the march toward the exit goes on. I only hope he’ll stay the inevitable moment until I hold Rosie during her final breath. And then I intend to pick up, once more, The Brothers Karamazov. If, at the end of it, the exit door opens, I’ll step through. We will both have kept our part of the bargain.

Published in the 2008-04-11 issue: 

W. E. Mueller is a retired marketing communications executive. He lives in St. Louis.

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