An Elegy for a Dog

I’ve never been much of a dog person, but I’d thought maybe that Sport, the yellow lab we brought home from the rescue shelter three years ago, might be the one to change that. After all, most of my friends are dog people, and I’m supportive of dog ownership in theory. Maybe Sport could take what I suspected was true and make me a believer.

fullsizeoutput_48He didn’t, not entirely. The dog loved to run, to the point that most of our neighbors knew where he belonged and would quietly sneak him back into the yard when he managed to escape. He dug holes, wrecked the garden, chewed up hoses. He wouldn’t even stop to be petted, getting so excited when a human came close that he bounced up and down as though his front legs had hydraulics.

All of which makes my response to his death all the more perplexing.

Sport was older than we realized when we adopted him–probably closer to 8 years than the 4 the shelter had estimated. This past year, he’d developed a kind of doggie epilepsy that kept him from going on long walks or playing fetch for more than a throw or two. We knew he would not live much longer, so it wasn’t a surprise when I found him struggling for breath in the back yard. I sat beside him for awhile and then went back in the house for something to eat, thinking I was settling in for a long and painful wait. When I came back out, he was dead.

So what did I do? I sat there and cried, and then cried some more. Part of my sorrow was no doubt dread. My family was away for the weekend, and I would have to bury their dog and then find a way to tell them about it. And part of it is more existential in nature–recognizing just how powerless we are over death, especially for a creature we have promised to protect. It makes the whole Christian resurrection thing seem like a bit of a lottery ticket–far away from our daily experience, yet the only real hope we have.

But as I was wrapping Sport in his doggie blanket and carrying him to the grave I’d dug, I realized that most of what I was feeling was actual loss. He made my kids happy. I was going to miss him.

Much of the reason I’m not really a dog person boils down to simple selfishness. Dogs take a lot of work. They need a lot of attention and time, neither of which I have in abundance. Sport caused me to rearrange my life in ways I didn’t want to for the sake of another creature. In that way, he was a partner in my spiritual formation.

I won’t be in a rush to get another dog, knowing as I do now the struggle of caring for such an animal through the Dakota winters. But I also know I’m going to miss Sport. Maybe I’m not so hard-hearted as I thought.

What Time Does

Grief is a formless, dense, unyielding thing. It is a parachute full of sand you are tasked with dragging uphill. This grief has no handles, nothing by which you can grasp it, no way to gain enough purchase to move it forward.

Sunrise over the River Valley, October 22, 2013. The end of a terrible sleepless night, but a gentle reminder that time is a gift.

Sunrise over the River Valley, October 22, 2013. The end of a terrible sleepless night, but a gentle reminder that time is a gift.

I wrote those words a year ago this week, on some friends’ couch at 1:00am. It had only been hours since our friend Jason died, and it was more than sinking in. The grief was threatening to pull us down with it.

Now, when I read the rest of that post, I can see that I wasn’t hopeless, even then. I knew more or less how to get through my own mourning, and I had some general (albeit imperfect) idea of how to grieve alongside Emory and so many other friends. But healing seemed so far away and–cliche though it sounds–the only way to get there was through time.

I’ve paid enough attention to know that time itself doesn’t actually heal anything. Time is just something we travel in, like a train car. It moves us continually forward, past one thing and toward the next.

Time is only a vehicle. It determines that we will move in some direction, but it doesn’t determine the direction itself. That part is mostly up to us.

It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say I’m over Jason’s absence. I knew from the moment Billy called me with the news that he was an irreplacable person in my life. We had too much history together over too many years for me to be able to fill that space with someone else. I will always carry an empty pocket with me, now that my friend is gone.

But I’m no longer dragging that parachute of sand. Rather, I’m carrying some much lighter reminders–peppermints, let’s say–of one of the most enduring friendships of my life. Although it is sad to have lost that friendship–at least on this side of heaven–the reminders of that loss sit alongside plenty of memories I treasure.

So when I reconnect with old friends this week and feel once more the pangs of loss, I’ll remember to be thankful for what time does. It gives us history to bind us to other people, a framework for which to understand our lives. And it presents for us a pathway to travel beyond what otherwise might crush us.

We cannot go back to retrieve what we’ve lost, but we can move forward to whatever good things are to come.

 

Night Things, and Saints

You can survive being that vulnerable. I think it is at the heart of being human, sorrow and sadness. It’s certainly an essential component of loving. If you don’t want to cry, then don’t love anything.”  –David Saetre, campus minister, quoted in The End of Night by Paul Bogard.

For years, Halloween has easily been my least favorite holiday. I don’t say that as some in my tribe do, with spiritual condescension toward those who celebrate it. For me, it’s just a matter of personal preference. I don’t like being scared or startled. I don’t like gore. I think zombies are interesting only as metaphors, not as costumes. Generally, I just don’t participate, lest I become the Grinch who stole Halloween.

But for the first time in my life, I’m gazing at this Halloween with an eye toward the other side of it. Most of us know that the word Halloween means “all hallows eve,” but we associate that only with ghosts. In fact, however, All Hallows Day is a Christian festival that has been celebrated for a millennium and a half to honor all the saints. In my tradition, that term is applied to all who have died in Christ, particularly those who have joined the church triumphant in the previous year. Like many others, I will be standing in honor of a friend this year when that part of the service comes around.

As I was reading Paul Bogard’s book on the need to preserve darkness, I came across the above quote. The pastor he references says that he spends his time signaling toward the divine, but also reminding people not to pass too lightly through the times of doubt and struggle. After all, the rhythm of our world is darkness and light, darkness and light. Both together are necessary for our health.

I won’t be wearing a goofy costume or watching slasher movies this Halloween. But I think I will be contemplating the necessity of darkness, the need to be still, the promise of resurrection. During our All Saints celebration, I will try not to cry in church, but if I do it’s not because of despair. It’s because both love and loss are the very fabric of human experience, part of our souls’ rhythm. Light and darkness, but always hope.

On Jason, and What’s Next

How do you carry a grief like this?
Jason Molitor, a husband and father and friend, died Monday morning of a heart attack at age 41. He was many things to many, many people, and I love many of those same people too much to risk speaking for them. For me, he was at the very least a brother, and no other words I might spill can convey what he meant to me. What he means still.
This is not my grief, though–at least not mine alone. Jason was woven through hundreds of lives, each with their own stories of his love and generosity. He is even now cherished by Emory and their daughters and innumerable others. His absence creates a real and present void.
How do you carry a grief like this, weighty as it is? It is a formless, dense, unyielding thing. It is a parachute full of sand you are tasked with dragging uphill. This grief has no handles, nothing by which you can grasp it, no way to gain enough purchase to move it forward. You can’t move it. Neither can I.
But I believe we can together, if we take it slow.
These past two days I have hugged and laughed and cried with old friends I rarely see. But these friendships were forged in Christ’s love decades ago, when we were with Jason as students at Tech Wesley, and they have held. It’s only one of the circles in which Jason mattered deeply, but it is the one I most belong to. We are all within speaking distance right now, pulling together, carrying the weight of grief with as much grace, humor, and love as we can.
The only way to do the work of grieving is to do it together. And so tonight, broken hearted, I am nonetheless thankful that I am not alone.
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for life comes from God.” –1 John 4:7
Billy and I watched the sun come up on Mt. Nebo, remembering our friend.

Billy and I watched the sun come up on Mt. Nebo, remembering our friend.

You Have Reached Your Destination

 

Last week, I was scheduled to help a friend move into her new apartment across town. I had my GPS app pulled up to guide me, and mentally checked out until I heard the voice commands.

“Turn right. Then turn left.”

I did—off the main road and through the open iron gates, into a grassy field dotted by shiny, flat headstones. I stopped and looked for a sign. Sure enough, built into one of the yellow brick entrance columns was a plaque. Jonesboro Cemetery.

That in itself seemed funny enough. Just another comical failure in technology, akin to autocorrect snafus. But when I started to loop back around toward the exit, my GPS spoke again.

“You have reached your destination.”

Yikes.

I laughed it off then, and I still think it’s funny now. But there’s some truth in it I’m not so comfortable with. The fact is, my GPS is right. I might not be buried in Jonesboro, but somewhere down the line, my life will end and I’ll either be lowered into or scattered on top of the earth. Ashes to ashes and so forth.

Thus began several days of meditation on death, fed by a slew of outside information. A colleague announced that he has terminal cancer. Two members of our church died. Even the book I’m reading—ironically entitled The Living, by Annie Dillard—opened with the accidental death of a child and proceeded to kill off dozens of characters in the first hundred pages. In words frighteningly metaphorical, I could not get away from death.

All of this sounds morbid, I admit, and I suppose there is some truth in that judgment. I don’t want to consider dying, nor do I want to think about people close to me dying either. If our destination is death, I’m in no hurry to arrive.

The upside of these thoughts, however, is that it casts life in sharp relief. If I have a limited number of years, what do I want to accomplish? What do I want other people to say about me? How do I want to be remembered?

Beyond that. How can I enhance the lives of others? What can I do to make sure that life for others is better because I’m in it? Is there a way to live that makes a better life possible for everybody, even people I may never meet?

I’m not very good at answering these questions. To tell the truth, the more wrapped up in them I become, the more cranky and withdrawn I get. So I recognize that there needs to be some balance between thinking about life/death and actually living life. Enough people in my profession already live in the philosophical rather than the tangible, and it’s no good for anybody if I become one of them.

But the question remains. If I will someday die and be carried away—my body returned to earth and the rest of me to heaven—what do I want to leave behind? What path will be the most joyful on the way to that destination?