Sing with creation, all that is good
Ancient and holy, daily renewed.
Sing of the fabric not made with hands,
Woven together in all of its strands.
-- Bret Hesla, “Sing with Creation”
I step out into the already muggy July morning and cross the street to the church’s side yard. At first, all I see is a blonde woman walking a tall striking golden-brown dog; then other dogs start to pop up out of the greenery. It’s kinda like being in one of those find-the-animals drawings. Can’t make out anything other than dogs at the moment, though. No cats, as far as I can tell, except, of course, for the ones in the photo in the embroidered bag slung over my shoulder -- Phoenix and his girlfriend Circe, the two Abyssinian cats who brought much joy into my life and who left it way too soon.
Generally, Blessing of the Animal services are held in conjunction with the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi in October. But First Church Granby in Granby, Connecticut always does theirs in the summer “because there’s a better chance of good weather,” explains Helga, one of the deacons. We talk for a bit, and then she introduces me to Dr. Virginia McDaniel, the senior minister who’ll be leading the service.
I find a seat near Lisa, the blonde woman with the high-stepping elegant dog I saw on the way in. This is their first time here, she explains: she and her husband just happened to see the sign as they were heading to their home in Granville, Massachusetts. Juno, she explains, is an Egyptian Pharaoh Hound. They don’t show him, but he does compete in lure-coursing and won Best in Breed. The Pharaoh Hounds, which are “sight hounds” (i. e., dogs that hunt primarily by sight), were, the story goes, bred in ancient Egypt to catch rabbits; the Phoenicians then brought them to the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. True or not, the Pharaoh Hound is definitely one of the oldest domesticated dog breeds, first appearing somewhere around 4000 to 3000 B. C. It has been the national dog of Malta since 1974.
Juno is sporting a very impressive gold-beaded collar for the occasion, something that Elizabeth Taylor might’ve worn in “Cleopatra.” And he does indeed look as though he stepped out of a drawing on the wall of some ancient Egyptian temple.
The service opens with music from a CD by The Paul Winter Consort, followed by responsive reading, prayers, and more music. Some of the songs are traditional hymns (“All Things Bright and Beautiful”), while others are more folk-musicky (Bill Staines’s “All God’s Critters” and Bret Hesla’s “Sing with Creation”). I glance around me throughout it all, noting the young girl holding her puppy like a doll; the woman sitting primly in front of me with her adopted border collies, Ben and Lottie; and the elderly man and woman in their wheelchairs toward the back, just taking it all in. Another older woman, Emily Messenger, sits down near me with her gray-spotted white toy poodle, Prudence. There’s a small boy carrying his hamster carefully in its plastic exercise ball and a woman who has her guinea pig on a lead. The guinea pig is wearing what looks like a hand-made vest (part of its harness?), and I hear one of the owner’s friends exclaiming over it. And during the Procession of Pets, I see a woman wipe away a tear; her young daughter looks anxiously up at her, and the mother shakes her head ever-so-slightly. Even the people without pets have stories.
Emily gets up to share her poem “Morning Walk” with the congregation. Prudence, of course, goes with her…which is only fitting, considering that the poem is about her:
Covered with soft gray and white fur
Running into the wind
Her little white legs moving at top speed
Perky, white-tipped tail erect
Fluffy gray ears streaming back
Beautiful black eyes shining with vitality
Full of wild energy
Stimulated by the cold air
Joyously running free…
Secure on her leash.
Next is John Myers, whose “beautiful gold-colored cocker spaniel” inspired him to write a book – Rocky: The Autobiography of a Chipmunk Chaser (Shire Press). Myers paints wonderful word-pictures of Rocky, recalling how the dog comforted him when his father died…how he sensed when the Myerses were due home from vacation and “sat by the door for three hours waiting for us the night we flew in.”
And he talks, too, about pet loss. “Rocky died on August 20th at 12:30 in 2009. I don’t remember when my father died, and I loved him, but when Rocky died, it was the worst day of my life.” But Myers found an outlet for that grief in “put[ting] together all the fun times we had together” in the book, which is essentially a people-training guide written from a dog’s point of view. All the proceeds from Rocky go to help folks who can’t afford pet care, and it has “saved two dogs and a cat so far, plus helped another person with little money.” (For more on this particular story, check out www.sadiemaefoundation.org.) But Rocky is still very much with them and not just because of the book: “Nothing loved is ever lost, and he was loved so much.”
Myers’s talk is followed by the minister’s blessing and a moment of remembrance for animal companions who, like Rocky, have passed beyond our seeing. Names are called out, skimming across the silence like pebbles on the water: “Fox…Jade…Amber….” I hold on to my picture and just let the voices wash over me.
Later, as the service is ending, however, I share my picture with Emily. I tell her how I lost both cats to kidney disease -- Phoenix in December and Circe that following May. “He made it for a year-and-a-half,” I say. “She wasn’t even as far along when she was diagnosed, and she went so quickly. A friend of mine and I were talking about it, and she said, ‘He was calling her.’”
Emily’s eyes are knowing. “And she heard his call.” She in turn tells me about how her neighbor had to have his elderly Bichon, Fluffy, put down. Fluffy and Prudence were friends; she still goes up to the door and looks for him whenever Emily walks her.
At the reception, I meet Thumper, a black-and-white Landseer Newfoundland rescue,who is there with his human. I reach down to pat him, and he pulls back. His owner explains that his jaw had been broken when they got him – “I don’t want to know how “ – and as a result, he gets jittery when he sees a hand coming toward his face. We get to talking; the woman, not knowing about the photo in my bag, offers up a story that’s a variation on the Prudence-Fluffy one. Thumper’s best friend, she tells me, is Sparky, a rescue kitten from The Simon Foundation in nearby Bloomfield: but there was another cat before Sparky whom the big dog was equally attached to. “When our old cat died,” she remembers, “he would go and sit there and paddle the cat door, thinking the cat was going to come in.”
“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit,” Chief Seattle of the Suwamish tribe wrote to President Franklin Pierce, “for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are interconnected.” I think about that interconnectedness a lot in the week that follows…about how some of us, like Juno’s owner, were drawn to the blessing ceremony by a simple sign on the corner of the road And how two wheelchair-bound people made a point of coming despite the intense heat and humidity.
So many things stay with me from that morning: Emily’s face as we talked; Myers’s story about Hobo, the stray Maine Coon cat who showed up at their house in Vermont two weeks after Rocky’s death and who is now a much-loved member of their household (“He should have had a sign saying, ‘Hi, I’m here to look after you!’ He walked a mile three times to find us.”); and Dr. McDaniel’s words of remembrance for the “animals who aren’t here….Some we have chosen, and others have clearly chosen us. For your spirit evident in every living thing, we thank You, God. For all those pets who have shared the journey with us, however briefly, and then moved on, we thank You.” That fabric not made with hands is some pretty durable stuff.