Tag Archives: grief

So long for now, Sergeant Spatula

Spatchy in specs

Today marks the end of an era. For the first time in almost 17 years, I find myself without a furry companion. We lost Pete more than two years ago, and today we said goodbye to our beloved pastel calico cat.

Sergeant Spatula came into our lives just after my first cancer surgery more than 14 years ago. We were living in upstate New York where I was a pastoral intern when my friend and my daughters conspired to bring this palm-sized bit of fluff and sass into our lives. She was born to one of Crazy Cat’s litters (yes, that was really her name) in friends and parishioners’ dairy barn, and complaining vociferously from her flea bath she entered our home (well, actually the Methodist Church’s parsonage) and hearts to stay.

Sergeant Spatula

Affectionately known as “Spatchy,” the Sergeant received her name and rank from my daughters, who were evidently in a military kitchen implement naming phase. Life with Spatchy was quite an adventure. In her first year she managed to pull down the Christmas tree, bolt outside during a storm and climb some 30 feet up in the neighbor’s tree, and regularly perform acrobatics by climbing pants legs and curtains. She could open doors and cabinets and drove my mother to distraction with her uncanny knack to know just where mom wanted to sit and beat her to it. She was, however, cute and cuddly, and that covers a multitude of feline misdemeanors.

Although she loathed the pet carrier, she was a stalwart traveler, moving from New York to North Dakota to Tennessee and finally to Pennsylvania. She put up with the indecencies heaped upon her out of pure love for her humans, allowing herself to be carried like a baby, wrapped up like a kitty burrito, dressed in humiliating Halloween costumes, and have her nails clipped to try (mostly unsuccessfully) to prevent the shredding of my husband’s leather sofas.

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The cat definitely had the proverbial nine lives. In North Dakota she ingested 18 inches of decorative ribbon with wire edges. Several hundred dollars, a long car trip, and an emergency surgery later, the Sergeant pulled through and came home with the pictures and ribbon retrieved from her gut to prove it. In Pennsylvania she was accidentally sprung from the back porch during  a package delivery. For three weeks we posted signs around our small town, followed up on every lead, put food out near potential sightings, and refused to believe that she had become coyote snack. To our great joy a skinnier but relatively healthy Sergeant Spatula turned up chilling on the den sofa one morning.

Despite her combat-themed name, she was a lover not a fighter and claimed not one mouse kill to her name. The chipmunks tormented her through the glass storm door, and so did the neighbor’s cat, Hugo. We are fairly sure, however, that she had a secret crush on him but was simply too proud to admit it. She also served as sermon inspiration and writer’s muse, usually by plopping her corpulent self on top of my keyboard.

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For the last several days she was clearly not herself. She hid her illness quite well, something the vet tech said cats were prone to do. After the ribbon incident in North Dakota she was always a picky eater, and she was aging, so we tried a procession of new foods with varying success. For the last 48 hours all we could get her to eat were a few bites of chicken baby food and vanilla ice cream.

A trip to the vet revealed advanced kidney disease with no real option to prolong her life without additional suffering, so we made the difficult decision to not allow her to suffer for our sake. That wouldn’t have been fair.

The staff at Colonial Park Vet Clinic deserves a shout out. They were wonderful and helped make her transition as smooth and easy as possible, and they honored our grief so very well. I am grateful to them.

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Why all this fuss about a cat? If you’ve never had a beloved animal companion, I’m not sure I can explain it. If you have loved and lost a fur friend, you know exactly what I mean. In fact, this old world would be a whole lot better if we loved each other like our animal companions love us. We have so much to learn from them.

Thank you, Sergeant Spatula, for the joy and laughter you brought into our lives, for the love we shared, and for the lessons you taught us. You are already so deeply missed.

More than JUST a Dog

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On Wednesday evening, January 18, we said goodbye to our family’s faithful canine companion whose full name was Beechwood’s Peter Rabbit, but who was affectionately known simply as Pete. He was 14 and a half years old, had been with us since he was a pup, lived in four states, seven homes, and was the most wonderful goofball of a Springer Spaniel I’ve ever encountered. He was more than JUST a dog.

Pete’s heart was strong right up to the end, even though his body was fast failing him. I’m convinced his big heart was so full of love for us that he kept on going on the strength of that alone. This good dog would just gaze at us with eyes full of love, and he was always girls-pete-2002there with a lick, a nuzzle, and warm fur coat ready to hug after a hard or horrible day. Even the best of days were better with Pete because of his zest for living. You see, he was more than JUST a dog.

It’s taken me a while to write about Pete’s death because of my grief and because the decision to euthanize him was one of the toughest I’ve had to make. It was, I am certain, the right thing to do. Pete had reached the point where his back legs were no longer supporting him, he was losing control of his bodily functions on a regular basis, and the neon signs of doggy dementia were clearly evident. Still, it was an agonizing choice because Pete was much more than JUST a dog.

This good boy walked with our family through some really tough times. We drenched his brown and white fur with our tears on many occasions. He carried us in his paws of love and loyalty through a difficult and traumatic divorce, through the aches and pains of two daughters’ growing up, and through my bout with breast cancer. One of my most treasured memories of Pete is the image of him curled up at my feet after every chemo treatment watching me, never taking his eyes off me to make sure I was going to be all right. Pete held so much of our family’s pain, fears, hopes, and dreams in that big heart of his with no  expectations beyond our affection and a few biscuits. When I married the love of my life five plus years ago, Pete gladly transferred some of his allegiance to Rob. Pete had more than enough love to go around. He was just that kind of dog, and he was way more than JUST a dog.

Pete was eight when a pickup truck clipped him, and we almost lost him. He came through the ordeal in typical Pete style, and although he spent the rest of his days on a daily regimen of drugs, really never missed a beat. Sometimes I wondered if anything could do that dog in. One Christmas he managed to get an entire pan of rising yeast rolls off of the counter and into his belly before any of us could get into the kitchen. Then we learned what rising yeast does in a warm, moist tummy. His poor stomach ballooned up, and we spent a long time walking the miserable pup around town trying to get him to rescind his potentially deadly snack. He did, but rather than outside he chose to deposit his yeasty offering on the blue carpet right in front of the Christmas tree.  Oh, Pete. You were much more than JUST a dog.

The boy definitely had no governor on his appetite. Throughout his life he downed entire pans of brownies, plates of cookies, assorted sandwiches, pounds of ham, steaks stolen off plates, a large bag of brown sugar, and a pound of Kilwin’s dark chocolate truffles with a wag of nub and happy-go-lucky-but-guilty look on his face. Pete had a sideways stealth move that was second to none. From kibble to groundhog and everything in between, the boy surely enjoyed his victuals. Even so, he was so much more than JUST a dog.

img_0363Dogs may be  man’s [sic] best friend, but Pete was definitely this woman’s faithful companion and sounding board, and I miss him so much. One of my seminary professors, the late Rev. Dr. Sue Hedahl, often quipped that “dog” is “God” spelled backwards. Maybe that helps explain our canine companions’ purpose in our lives, to help show that unmerited, unconditional love of our Creator. Oh yes, Pete was more than JUST a dog.

We tried to make Pete’s last day with us as good for him as possible. We bought him a McDonald’s cheeseburger and cut it into pieces which he ate bite by bite with clear relish. He enjoyed a Starbuck’s “pupaccino” (whipped cream in an espresso cup). When I told the barista what the occasion was she wrote his name on the cup and drew a paw print. He even had a photo shoot thanks to Aaron Amato Photography. I give special thanks to the wonderful and compassionate team at Colonial Park Animal Clinic for how they handled this difficult step. This great group of folks truly cared for our beloved boy, and they showed it in spades that January night. Thank you. I know you all understand that Pete was more than JUST a dog.

Pete’s cremains came home in a lovely carved box this week, and it’s good to have at least some element of him back. Part of me wishes he came with instructions “mix with water and watch your puppy come bounding back into your life.” But none of us, no creature, is meant to live forever in these flesh, blood, and bone bodies. There’s much more to life and death and eternity than that. I take comfort in the scientific principle that matter doesn’t go out of existence but only changes form (sorry for the non-scientific way of saying img_0231this) and in the words of the writer of Colossians

So spacious is he [Christ], so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe–people and things, animals and atoms–get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (1:19-20, The Message)

You see, Pete was more than JUST a dog to me and to my family. If you have pets I’m pretty sure you understand what I mean. Another way to spell dog, I think, is L-O-V-E pure and simple, and love never dies. Knowing that, I’ll just gaze into the clear night skies and try to see my beloved Springer Pete romping as floppy-eared stardust across the cosmos with his brother and litter-mate Fred by his side. Good dog, Pete. Good, good dog.

Photos: Black and white photo courtesy Aaron Amato Photography.

 

Precious in God’s Eyes

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The death of the Lord’s faithful
    is a costly loss in his eyes. 
–Psalm 116:15 (Common English Bible)

I attended the funeral of one of our retired pastors this weekend and also learned of the death of a dearly beloved former parishioner. In both cases I was reminded of the briefness of our time here on earth in contrast to the vastness of eternity, along with the impact both of these dear saints had in their respective communities. I did not know the retired pastor; I’m relatively new to this area and to my particular call to serve, but the pastor and family did a wonderful job in word, in song, and in presence of painting a vivid picture of this pastor, father, grandfather, husband, friend, and faithful disciple.

By contrast, I had come to know, to appreciate, and to love Virginia. She was one of those dear saints of God with a twinkle in her eye, a prayer in her heart, and a smile and kind words on her lips. Whenever I visited her in the nursing home, I cam away feeling like I was the one who had been ministered to in the short time of our visit. Oh, and she could tell some powerfully good stories–from her childhood, about our parish, and about her contentment in life and love for her family.

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Early on in my ministry in that small central Pennsylvania parish, Virginia took a fall and almost lost her life. Yet this strong woman rallied. She never quiet got back to her pre-fall physical condition, and the anesthesia and severity of the fall fuzzied things ever so slightly for her, but she was not one to complain. Yes, Virginia knew a thing or two about thanksliving, about how to be grateful for life in all circumstances.

“…for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11b-13 (Common English Bible)

Like Paul wrote to his dear disciples in Philippi, Virginia was strong in her conviction that she would be content with whatever life brought. After it became clear that she would not be able to return home and live independently, she determined to make her room “home in every way.” The staff loved her. She often had half a dozen visitors gathered around her on a Sunday afternoon. And she smiled and made the best of it–even on the rare days when the clouds of physical pain shadowed her face.

One day she told me “I have been trying to remember what my kitchen looks like, and I just can’t any more. I can picture some things, but…” she paused. “I guess it doesn’t matter. This is my home now, and I don’t want my children to feel any guilt about me being here. This is where I need to be.” And how do you answer that as her pastor? There aren’t really any adequate words for that kind of grace-filled living. You just tuck away the lesson and pray you’ll be able to approach life with the same bold resoluteness when it comes your time to “downsize.”

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Virginia also knew more than a few things about love. She taught me some wonderful lessons about the power of the human spirit to adapt, to accept, and to thrive. She was way ahead of her time when it came to issues of inclusion and social justice. Her approach to such issues was always wrapped in love and the sure and certain knowledge that her Lord didn’t come to judge the world but to save it (John 3:16-17) and that love covers pretty much everything. Oh, and with her love for flowers and all things living, she took to heart the words that God created everything and proclaimed it “good.”

Now lest you think I’m painting a grief-tinted overly positive picture of this dear saint, let me put your mind to rest. I also spent time with Virginia when she was in deep pain, when she was afraid, and maybe even once or twice a bit miffed and irritated. She was, just like the rest of us, simultaneously saint and sinner, but nonetheless redeemed and being made righteous with every passing day.

And now she, like so many beloved saints before her, has attained the prize, has taken that one step we all have to take alone, and has crossed into eternity and the vast cosmos that cannot begin to contain the love and mercy of God. She’s on that mountain with a feast spread before her in the presence of God. There is no more crying, no more pain, no more sorrow. She has what we who are still here only grasp at and see dimly by our fragile faith.

Her death–passing from this life to eternity–leaves a hole, a rip in the fabric of all whose lives she touched. Her family, friends, and fellow disciples will mourn, and that includes me. Yet, at the same time, I for one will give fervent thanks for her life and for the lessons she taught simply by being Virginia. Thanks be to God for all the strong women and men who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Photos: Internet Book Archive, Creative Commons

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