After Ginger, my Cocker Spaniel, died at the age of thirteen on Thanksgiving Day 2010, I suffered as never before.
A friend, a fellow dog lover I met in Central Park, empathized. “The pain is worse than any I’ve ever known,” he said. But he added, “You just have to ride it out.”
As anyone who’s lost a beloved pet knows, the friend was right.
I couldn’t help wondering, however, about what—if anything—happens to Ginger next.
It was the ancient question of whether or not animals have souls. I am all too aware of the weakened inner-state’s susceptibility to self-delusion, but I couldn’t help occasionally asking myself, “Is that all there is?”
Steadfastly, I resolved not to look for any extrinsic affirmations of Ginger’s spiritual carryover to a better place. Science has all but ruled out the legitimacy of such efforts anyway.
Besides, why add disappointment to the grief?
Then, this past August, a full nine months after Ginger died, things began to happen.
I had just arrived at the vet with Molly and Mandy, my two Shih Tzus, when I saw a tan Cocker Spaniel. “Come on Ginger, let’s go,” said the owner.
Naturally, I stopped. “I had a tan Cocker Spaniel named Ginger too,” I said. “How old is yours?”
Thirteen—the same age as mine when she died. I grimaced at the irony.
The following month, as we were going in to see the same vet for a follow-up, the outside door opened. I saw a man bringing in . . . a tan Cocker Spaniel. I asked the dog’s name. It was Joey. The dog was thirteen—again, same as both Gingers. Just another coincidence—if that.
That night I saw two more tan Cocker Spaniels. One was named Molly, the name of one of my remaining two dogs—the one who was closer to Ginger.
A total of three Cocker Spaniels in a couple of hours on a “vet day.” I couldn’t help thinking that weeks and weeks—sometimes months—go by when I don’t see any tan Cocker Spaniels. They’re just not that common these days. (There are almost two dozen breeds that are more popular today, as well as the wide range of mixed-breed dogs.) And I walk my dogs for four miles every day in Central Park where we see dozens of dogs. As I thought about it, I couldn’t remember another “multi-Cocker” day in Ginger’s thirteen years.
A few weeks later we were on our way to the vet again (Molly and Mandy are both 15, so we’re at the vet a lot) when I saw . . . another tan Cocker Spaniel. I was becoming intrigued. On the way home, we saw yet another one. My intrigue was growing. Either the coincidences were really piling up, or somebody was trying to tell me something.
Soon afterward, while on a short errand, I saw two more tan Cocker Spaniels within a few minutes of each other. I was puzzled—this wasn’t a “vet day.” Maybe Ginger was confused. But then I remembered this was the day I was supposed to call my vet with a progress update on Molly. Could the sightings be tied to that call? Then, another trip to the vet. I’d be lying if I didn’t say my hopes were up. Alas, I looked everywhere, but there were no tan Cocker Spaniels. I was disappointed, but after all, there had been four straight vet-related “sightings” and they couldn’t go on forever. Maybe they were just coincidences after all.
But later that day—a Friday—I was debating whether to pick up a prescription from my own doctor. I had decided to wait until Monday but then said, no, let’s get it over with. Worth mentioning because . . .
Halfway into my walk, I glanced ahead momentarily and saw the back half of a tan-colored dog as it got into a car about a half block away. (An instant later and I would have missed it.) Was it a Cocker Spaniel? I couldn’t tell, so I ran to make sure the car didn’t pull away. When I got there I saw a woman about to close the door and . . . two tan Cocker Spaniels in the back seat. I felt my heart skip.
I asked about the dogs; they were brothers, Louie and Luigi.
Two brothers (two Ls) and my Molly and Mandy (two Ms) were sisters. L and M: adjacent in the alphabet. A reach? Perhaps, but it’s what I immediately thought.
Deep breath. How old are they?
Of course, thirteen. Now, on this, the fifth “occurrence,” I actually started to feel—and not merely think—that I was beyond the realm of coincidence.
A week later, when I hadn’t even been thinking about it, two more sightings of tan Cocker Spaniels—this time while taking Molly and Mandy to the canine ophthalmologist.
Yet another coincidence? Or more “corroboration”?
I called my friend Marc, who regularly runs in Central Park. “Now you’ve got me looking for tan Cocker Spaniels too,” he said. “There aren’t any out there.” Well, I thought, if I’m going crazy, I’m not going crazy alone.
I decided to get a “scientific” perspective. I emailed a best-selling academic mathematician. Were the sightings simple coincidences or something more portentous?
The response was short and direct. “I don’t think Ginger’s trying to send you signals, alas.” (I don’t know if that “alas” was for me or for him.)
The more I thought about his response, though, the more dissatisfied I became. In reality there were no statistical probabilities for what I had encountered because, as far as I know, the sequence of events had never happened before. So the rational response would be to ask why or how they happened.
If my encounters were not simply coincidences, what do they mean?
Mark Gaige is the founder of Gaige Business Writing (www.gaigebusinesswriting.com/index.html). He has also taught political science and public management on the university level for over twenty-five years.