Strolling through a crowded craft fair, I encountered a mountain of a dog; tawny, brawny and very tall. A woman with an obvious disability walked alongside, gripping its harness. Both looked resolutely forward, ignoring the curious stares around them.
“That’s a magnificent working dog,” I remarked to the man following slightly behind the pair. “What breed is it?”
He paused. “A British Great Dane,” he said, “Name’s Toffee.” With admiration and obvious pride, he added, “That dog got my wife out of her wheelchair. She has MS.”
After a week of bad news, I needed that encounter. It served as a reminder that life is worth clinging to and fighting for, in spite of any villains that threaten. And that sometimes, God uses animals to bring hope and a welcome distraction – whether a Great Dane like Toffee, or the amicable dachshund that visits residents at the local nursing home.
We have no working animals, the Preacher and I. But we have a fourteen pound cat who thinks he owns us. Who plays feline concertos on the piano nightly and wakes us up each morning by knocking on the basement door. We also have about a twelve ounce Amazon Green parrot that squawks like a crow, screams like a woman, whistles like a man and speaks fluent Parrot-ese. Ernie and Grace bring delight not only to us, but to most (I must be honest) who have met them.
But pets can also be royal pains, as anyone who has ever had one knows. Hamsters escape and build nests in the sock drawers. Birds make messes and big noise (among other things). Cats claw the furniture and insist on running the joint. Dogs bark and chew. Both upchuck on the carpet. But of all bad pet habits, their worst is dying, and few sorrows slice like the loss of a beloved pet.
Recently a stoic young friend lost a favourite pet after several years of close companionship. Tears followed the loss – the first the family had observed for years. What followed that was a softened spirit. Something opened that needed opening, it seems. Even in death, our pets offer us gifts.
Our family has grieved the loss of many pets over the years. Beneath the shadow of those deaths lay valuable lessons. We’ve learned, and relearned, that death is permanent, and we must not treat life with recklessness. That though it hurts to lose something we love, we can learn to love again. That, yes, life is short, but other life carries on. That tears will fall, but not forever.
(We’ve also learned – twice – to keep your hamster’s cage door shut if you also own a rodent-chasing terrier.)
Among all the huge gifts God has allowed his creation, a bond between us and our pets must be one of his best. Thankfully the joy they bring and the lessons we learn from their short lives and sad endings carry on far longer than they do.