Sunday, November 9, 2014

Luke, the dog

Since I mentioned the funeral for a dog in my last post, I'll include that story here, though I know I've told it deserves re-telling.

Luke, a dog
Luke was a beautiful Golden Retriever with the deepest, loveliest brown eyes ever. He was Michael's dog before he was Jo-Ann's dog. Michael was Jo-Ann's son and had lost both legs while still a young man. Luke was a trained companion dog who was Mike's legs. But he was more than that. Once, while asleep, an IV in Mike's arm slipped out and he began to bleed. When the blood was pooling on the floor, Luke started barking and pulling at him and woke him up. I don't know how long it would take to bleed to death from an open IV vein, but Mike was not healthy and I think he could have. After Mike stopped the bleeding, he must have washed the blood off Luke's fur and thanked God for such a brown-eyed angel of mercy.
Luke came to church with Mike and when Mike had his final illness, someone with enough sense to break rules that need to be broken let Luke be in Intensive Care with Mike. Mike's missing legs made room for Luke to lay where Mike's leg's should have been had life been kinder to him. And he laid there until Mike died. The medical personnel who initially had been horrified by a dog's presence in ICU melted when they looked into Luke's eyes. “I'm just laying here where I'm supposed to be,” he eyes said, “next to my human.”Anyone would have melted. So the nurses and orderlies took turns taking Luke out when he needed to go out. Luke could go to the bathroom on command. Would that we could train young children to do that....
After Mike died, the companion dog people were about to take him back when Jo-Ann, who was most of the time in a wheel-chair herself, convinced them to let her keep him and be a therapy dog. She took him to the hospital where Mike died and to nursing homes around the area. I saw him do it. It came naturally to him. He was never assertive, always patient, always waiting for the human to make the first move. And he was as gentle as a spring breeze, as sweet as the smell of honeysuckle, as healing as magic chicken soup. I can't imagine how many people Luke touched in those years with Jo-Ann. But I know he touched me profoundly.
Jo-Ann always came to the adult forum on Sundays. When she and Luke got to the church library, she let him come and greet me, putting his short leash in his mouth so he could guide himself. He'd come and give me a nuzzle and a lick (though he was also interested in rolling on his back on the rug in the library!) That greeting and lick was always one of the highlights of my week.
When I was in seminary, I had a course in 'creating liturgy'. Since I came into the church via a 'house church', I wanted to replicate that experience for my class. We met in our apartment in Alexandria and Robert Estill, the professor, was the celebrant. My dog Finney was standing next to Bob as we stood around the table. Bob broke the bread I'd baked and passed it around. But before he passed it, he broke a piece off and gave it to our Puli. Finney didn't leave Bob's side until he left for the evening.
I asked him about giving communion to a dog and he told me a story from his first parish church. They used home-baked bread, like we did that night, and since the loaf was always more than the little congregation could consume, Bob would take it to the back door and throw it on the grass for the birds. After a while, the birds would start gathering half way through the Eucharist and sing as they waited to be fed. Bob told me it was a wonderful addition to the music of the little church.
However, one day the bishop visited and was horrified when he saw Bob feed the consecrated loaf to the birds. The bishop forbade him from ever doing it. As someone once described me, Bob was 'reluctantly obedient' and stopped feeding the birds.
“They kept coming for weeks, months,” he told me. “Long after the bread was withheld from them, they kept singing for us. But finally, half-a-year later, they stopped showing up to sing the communion hymn.”
I think that's a metaphor for how the church misses the point of 'being the church'. We let rules and regulations and canon law and dogma come between the sacraments and those who long for them. I've known people that happened to—they were turned away, rejected, shut out by the church and the church lost them, finally.
So, when Luke came to the communion rail with Jo-Ann, I always gave him a wafer or a hunk of bread if we were using home-baked that Sunday. Since I was seldom the only one administering the bread, I kept an eye out if someone else was giving communion on Luke's side of the rail. If they passed him by, I'd rush over with several wafers or an especially big hunk of bread for him. I didn't want him to feel left out. (I always gave him communion with my left hand in case anyone objected to dog mouth. But I drew the line at the cup!)
One seminarian who worked with me was horrified at first. She even took it to her field work support group but most everyone thought it was decent and in good order. I'm sure there were people who found fault with it, but I never asked permission. It was simply right.
After all, Luke was as good a Christian as any dog could be—bringing joy and healing and comfort to so many. He actually was a better 'Christian' in his works of charity than most people. He'd earned his place at the Table.
The kids of the parish adored Luke. They would flock around him at the peace in ways that most dogs would have reacted negatively to. But not Luke—ever humble, ever hospitable, he took whatever the kids dished out with equanimity and generosity and doggy Love. One of the kids was moderately autistic but the parish had made a deal with her parents to treat her like any other kid. I don't think Luke did 'treat her like any other kid'. I think Luke, so used to being around the frail and helpless and confused, treated Twyla with special gentleness and love. Twyla grew better and better, more interactive, more social. I'd give Luke a lot of the credit.
At the General Convention in 2009, a resolution was passed authorizing the Liturgical Committee to prepare services for the death of an animal companion. Several people at St. John's were really excited about that. It spurred the creation of a Book of Animal Remembrances along with a statue of St. Francis that was placed in the collumbarium are in the back of the sanctuary. Dave, one of the guys who helps out around the parish, installed the statue. “Stations of the Cross and now a statue,” he said, “are we going back to Rome?”
“Wait 'til you see the racks of votive candles I've ordered,” I told him.
He laughed and shook his head. “Least we could make some money on that....If people didn't steal it.”
My Grandmother Jones, God bless her soul, used to divide the world into “church people” and those who weren't. She'd always say things like, “those boys I saw you with yesterday, they aren't 'church people' are they?” And she referred to a family down the mountain from where she lived by saying, “they're poor and not too clean, but at least they're 'church people'.”
I tend to divide the world into 'dog people'--those who love dogs—and those who don't. I like to be around 'dog people'. And besides, there is that oddity that 'Dog' is 'God' spelled backward. Luke could make a dog person out of almost anyone. He'd look at them, lower his head and wag his tail a bit. Those eyes, I've told you, make anyone besides a dogmatic hater of dogs just melt.
I heard part of a local PBS radio show the other day that was wrestling with the question: 'do dogs have souls?' The whole concept of eternity is a little vague to me—but if there are no dogs in the Kingdom it won't nearly be as blessed and happy as it's been cracked up to be. I personally am holding out for a heaven where every dog I've ever had as a companion will come frolicking across the streets of gold to greet me at the Pearly Gates. “Where've you been?” they'll be barking.
Just before I retired, someone said in the Adult Forum, “What's Luke going to do without Jim?”
Jo-Ann shook her head and frowned. “He'll be looking for him everywhere....”
Good Lord, I thought, I feel bad enough about leaving all the people, how am I supposed to cope with leaving Lukie?
But he didn't have long to look after me. Luke, who'd had trouble standing and moving around for a month of so, was diagnosed as having untreatable cancer. So, a week or so after I left, Luke died in Jo-Ann's arms, as was only right.
(In the past year or so I've known ten or so people, in and out of the parish, who have lost dogs. Somehow, it seems to me, the initial pain we feel when a pet dies is deeper and sharper than when a person we love dies. But it is a cleaner cut because when a beloved animal dies, their aren't mixed emotions on our part. There is no 'unfinished business' with a dog. There is no lingering resentment or words that needed to be said that are left unspoken. The relationship with a dog is so clear, so uncomplicated, so immediate and in the moment that our pain is 'in the moment' as well. But it is so acute. With a person, we almost always the question of how much they really loved us. With a dog such wondering is vain and pointless. Dogs love us as much as they possibly can...and then a little more.)
When Jo-Ann called about Luke, I told her—after we cried together—that she had to ask the Senior Warden if I could come do the service since retired priests are supposed to make themselves scarce from their former parish.
Of course he agreed. He called me to let me know it was alright. “Besides,” he said, “Luke wouldn't want it any other way....” All Senior Wardens should be 'dog people'.
We interred Luke's ashes out in the Close, as near to Mike's resting place as we could estimate. We did that first and then went in the church for hymns, a power point slide show a talented woman had put together about Luke. Then Jo-Ann spoke and made everyone cry. There were about 200 people there, a good number of them brought their dogs and the dogs didn't make a sound during the whole thing.
At the reception people in the parish provided, a man came up to me and introduced himself as the Intensive Care Physician that had made it possible for Luke to be in the room with Michael. I told him I considered him a medical saint. He told me there was no way around it--”I looked into those sweet brown eyes and just melted,” he said.
I told him I knew...I knew....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.