Our family dog died yesterday. Her name was Chips; she was 18. Or 126 in those fabled dog years. The timing of her death wasn’t the best, practically speaking. She died right after I’d left town for a twelve-hour church conference. And my wife Kathi had the grading of papers and the chaperoning of our daughter’s field trip already on the docket.
The timing of death is rarely convenient I suppose.
We kept reminding ourselves how long she’d been with us. And what a kind, tender and relaxed friend she was. Heck, after 16 years in Florida she’d survived two more years up north. And made it through two bitterly cold Iowa winters. She’d learned to find comfort lounging fireside, and on beanbags. And knew where to find the brightest, warmest spots to lay in the house to achieve the highest quotient of sunlight she could find.
For a dog from the Sunshine State, she’d adapted to her new digs really, really well.
While I was away my wife cleaned up the physical mess often associated with the final moments of life. She found a small box and made an impromptu coffin, complete with Chips’ blanket and toy chipmunk. And put her in the beer fridge freezer downstairs, anticipating burial would likely be a day away.
She told the kids. Five-year-old Graham cried. Hannah, now nine, stormed upstairs, angrier initially, loudly proclaiming that “I’ll never be happy again.”
Emotions were raw; we were all really pretty fond of her.
Truth be told we all cried that day.
Kathi ordered pizza that night and cuddled up with the kids to watch a Lego movie. By the time I got home later that evening, I quickly realized the hard work of the day had been done. As I tucked the kids into bed we talked of Chips, our joys, our sorrows, our memories of her. We imagined her now running, carefree, in heaven, reuniting with her dog-sister Salsa.
Salsa and Chips go together. One without the other is incomplete. We named them so for that very reason. And now, after several years apart, they are together once again.
My wife had done the hard work that day. I was grateful for her strength. And proud to be on her team.
When it came time for the burial the next day I picked out a couple of shovels and a trowel from the shed. We selected a spot in the back yard not too far from our fire pit. And near a large bush birds often gather at to sing.
I started in, Hannah picked up the spare shovel, Graham selected the trowel.
It was a family affair. A pleasant, unexpected surprise.
Kathi suggested today might be a good day to plant a tree. Hannah had been given a sapling at school on Arbor Day. Mom and kids then shifted their focus to the tree, finding a spot for it, digging, and planting.
We then spoke of death, and life. And how both were fully present in the back yard. Fully visible from our kitchen.
Grave now dug I retrieved Chips and grabbed a small prayer book I use for funerals. We gathered around the graveside. Liturgy began.
First, Psalm 23, and valleys, and shadows, and goodness, and mercy.
Each of us shared a favorite story. Of first meetings. And high jumpings. And dog runnings. And comfy cuddlings. And lamb-bone eatings, not too very long ago.
Earth to earth. My wife placed a shovel of it on the grave.
Ashes to ashes. Hannah placed another shovel atop the first.
Dust to dust. Graham took the trowel and added a bit more.
Rest eternal grant her, O Lord.
We imagined light perpetual shining on her now, and forevermore.
Kathi later joked that Chips been given a Lutheran burial. My mind wandered to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his own stories of dogs and the afterlife. I realized she was probably right.
Graveside service now complete I dismissed the family to depart in peace – as pastors always do – and was again pleasantly surprised.
They wanted to stay and help put the rest of the dirt on Chips’ grave. We took turns, with shovel and trowel, moving the earth to its final resting place.
Kathi found a gazing ball and stand in the front yard we’ve wanted to move for a while. We decided it would make for a better gravestone, so we moved it to the back. And that’s what it now is.
Kathi and I then went inside. We embraced. We sniffled. We shared a kiss.
The kids asked if they could play outside. Yes, of course. We watched as they went to the playset to swing high, high in the air. A playset less than 20 feet from the gazing ball now serving as a gravestone.
A gazing ball we can see from our kitchen.
And I realized, in that moment, that all was as it should be.