It was our shared love of animals – as well as our faith, of course – that brought Debbie and me together. We were separately members of a Christian singles organisation. There are some dodgy ones out there, but we had each found a sane one, called The Network. Every few months, those members who were interested in ‘introductions’ would receive a list of several other members who might be appropriate for them, along with each person’s brief self-description.
One day, around September 1999, my name appeared on a list they sent to Debbie. She noticed I was a dog lover, and thought I might therefore be not only a Christian but also kind to animals. This was important to her, as she owned two cats she had rescued, Sam and Trixie.
I had a dog of the obscure breed I had grown up with, the Finnish Spitz. Being a pedigree, he had to have an original name for registration with the Kennel Club. My dog’s breeder was famous in Finnish Spitz circles, Mrs Griselda Price, and my parents had bought a succession of dogs from her over many years. Her tradition was to find original names with successive letters of the alphabet for each consecutive litter. She told me that one of her bitches was pregnant, and that this litter would have names beginning with ‘T’. Could I please think of a name no other dog could possibly ever have had, that began with ‘T’?
Well, where’s a minister to go at a time like that? To my Greek Lexicon, of course. I chose the noun ‘Tarachos’, which is used twice in the Acts of the Apostles. On one occasion it means ‘mental consternation’, and on the other it means ‘riot’. I thought it highly appropriate, as the Finnish Spitz is a very noisy breed. Mrs Price pronounced my choice ‘ghastly’, but proceeded to register the name for me.
When Debbie and I first met (after a protracted period of writing letters – remember that? – and phoning) the three pets didn’t get along. Yet they brought us together.
Today, that era ended when Trixie had to be put to sleep at the vet’s. That followed the deaths of Sam three years ago and Tarachos four years ago. After last night’s episode, the vet diagnosed a stroke. He gave us a range of three options: euthanasia at one end, anti-inflammatory tablets in the middle, and an array of blood tests at the other end. However, he could give no assurances that the anti-inflammatories would do much, and the blood tests might only confirm something even worse had happened to her system. We already suspected kidney trouble, since she was borderline dehydrated. The tablets or blood tests might only buy us another couple of weeks with her. With great heartache, we chose euthanasia. And when he came to administer the fatal injection, he had trouble finding a vein, because they, too, were deteriorating.
Rebekah had come with us to the surgery. She was off school with a rash, and was deeply distraught, whereas Mark, although sad before school this morning, was matter of fact about the situation. I took Rebekah back to the car before the injection, while Debbie spent a last couple of minutes with her cat. We three reunited at the car, all in floods of tears. You see, Debbie didn’t simply identify me correctly ten years ago as an animal lover: I’m a great big softie for them. So is she, and Rebekah has inherited that personality trait.
When we picked up Mark from school, I broke the news to him at home. As with this morning, he was sad but matter of fact. He was happy to talk later about arrangements for finding a new pet soon, whereas Rebekah has remained distraught.
It has been an experience trying to explain death and Christian hope to the children. They aren’t completely unfamiliar with such talk, as they are used to hearing me talk about funerals. Good Friday this year also provoked a lot of discussion about death, including Mark wondering whether he would die on a cross like Jesus.
However, whatever routes or metaphors we try, they blow holes in them. I don’t have a problem with including animals in the Christian hope. I know they aren’t made in the image of God like human beings, but in Revelation heaven is filled with more than humans and angels. There are some (admittedly strange!) animals, too. So theologically, I include them in the new creation. I’m happy to talk about them being given a new body by Father God, just as people will be in the resurrection.
But it’s so hard to avoid conversations that sound like they are giving geographical directions to heaven. However much I read Tom Wright, it’s still surprisingly easy to slip into ‘up in heaven’ language. Debbie ended up talking about all the dead animals taking a train up into the sky to heaven. She hasn’t read ‘Surprised By Hope‘. Rebekah decided she could take a hot air balloon and poke her hand through the top of the sky to bring Trixie with her new body back down to earth. If any readers have better ideas about how to explain these things to children, I’d be only too glad to hear your suggestions in the ‘Comments’ section below. Perhaps Wright should write the kiddie version.
We’ve had a family conference over fish and chips tonight (we didn’t feel like cooking our own dinner). Thankfully, with some ease we unanimously agreed that we shall buy one or more cats soon, having dismissed Debbie’s joke suggestion that we buy a crocodile. We have already tracked down a couple of local rescue centres. The cat or cats will need to be young, because we cannot put the children, especially Rebekah, through another bereavement soon if we buy an older cat. We’ll leave it a week or two before visiting anywhere. For the next week or so, we are looking after a neighbour’s pets while he is away, so we shall take vicarious pleasure in them while dealing with our loss.
Finally, I want to say thank you for the kind wishes sent through the technology of social media. While tweeting on Twitter didn’t produce any response, status updates on Facebook certainly did. At time of writing, a dozen friends have left messages on my profile since I mentioned Trixie’s death this morning. Having trailed her ill health last night, one friend commented then and enquired again this morning. Debbie has had eight or ten comments, too. Whatever people say about the value or otherwise of community across a distance via a stream of ones and zeroes, these little messages have been small oases for us today.