I have four daughters, mature women, three of whom are dotty about small furry animals. One of them will cross a crowded street in order to fix an innocent passer-by with a winning smile and ask ‘Please may I say Hallo to your dog?’
Another, who lives alone, adopted a house cat called ‘Ash’ a little over a year ago, who is suffering from cat HIV, as well as being an exceptionally battered looking stray. For a year he has stayed hidden away under the sofa coming out only at night to feed. It was a huge source of joy to her that she woke up in the middle of the night recently to feel a warm bundle asleep on her bed, purring loudly.
And the third adopted a cat from a friend who had in turn taken him in from a cat rescue so ‘Ed’ too came with a certain amount of ‘previous’: he was very cautious about going outside, and would shoot into hiding if anybody remotely unusual came to my daughter’s home. Not all the ‘previous’ had negative consequences, for it endowed him with quite a deal of character, and under my daughter’s love and care, it would not overstate the matter to call it ‘spoiling’, he flourished. But now at the grand old age of seventeen she has had to have him put him to sleep. The crematorium and its setting was a lovely place, the people there were kindness itself, and the whole process was handled gently, lovingly and yet with dignity. She and her partner celebrated Ed in anecdote and song as they drove home, and blow me if there wasn’t the most perfect rainbow they had ever seen across the sky. My imaginative and intuitive self can see Ed in ‘cat heaven’, home at last, sending a farewell kiss and a ‘thank you’ as a little farewell gift!
I’m not sure why my daughters are such a soft touch for small furry animals, but I suspect that I may not need to look far for an answer. One of the most painful decisions I’ve ever had to make was when my wife Sylvia had to go away knowing that our dog Leo would not be alive when she returned, leaving me with the precise timing of his departure. I couldn’t consult him, as one would another human being, and so I had to ‘read’ him, and he effectively had to trust me with that decision which I would make on his behalf. So it all hung upon the quality of the relationship between us: and I guess the deeper the relationship, the harder the decision. I remember that it felt an awesome yet privileged responsibility. I recall weeping as I drove away from the vets, and more certain than I’d ever felt before that Leo would be safe in whatever passes for ‘doggie heaven’. I was also grateful that one of my other daughters was with me at the time, so I was not alone.
This is by way of a long introduction to a story one of my daughters alerted me to recently about an autistic boy who can’t be touched or hugged by anyone, but who has connected for the first time – with his new service dog. Apparently, five-year-old Kainoa Niehaus travelled to the 4 Paws For Ability centre in Ohio from Japan after two years of waiting for an animal to become available.
His mum Shanna shared a photo of her son on social media, resting his head on Tornado the dog. “See this moment? I’ve never experienced a moment like this,” she wrote underneath the post “This picture captures the face of a mother who saw her child, who she can’t hug, wash, dress, snuggle and touch, freely lay on his new service dog of his own free will, with a purposeful, unspoken. attachment. As a mother, I have seen countless challenging and painful moments my son has encountered and cried countless more. Yesterday however, I cried for a different reason. It is a feeling that is indescribable
I’m reminded of the story Atul Gawande tells in his wonderful book ‘Being Mortal’ about a doctor assigned to a Nursing Home in the USA, who was determined to address what he called the Three Plagues of nursing home existence: boredom, loneliness & helplessness. It’s a fascinating tale but the nub of it is that he managed to persuade the authorities to introduce one hundred parakeets, four dogs, two cats, plus a colony of rabbits and a flock of laying hens into the nursing home, together with hundreds of indoor plants & a thriving vegetable and flower garden. The result was that the number of prescriptions required per resident fell by half, the total drugs cost dropped to 38%, and deaths fell 15%. The lives of many residents were transformed.
And I’m reminded of the book ‘Guardians of Being’ words by Eckhart Tolle, art by Patrick McDonnell, which gently makes the point that small furry animals have a capacity for simply being still, stopping, looking, listening and focusing on the present moment in a way that keeps millions of people sane.
Very often the most heartfelt prayers are impossibly difficult to put into words, and a symbolic act is necessary: such as lighting a candle, allowing the flame to carry your prayer to the divine without recourse to words, Candles aren’t the only way of doing that of course, but their use is becoming increasingly popular.
I sense that God also ‘lights candles’ as symbolic expressions of Her providential love for all creation. Small furry animals are an excellent example. But just about anything that is ‘alive’ will do: a flower, a tree, a river, the wind, the warmth of the sun, whatever touches you deeply. If it feels ‘alive’ then it will reach out and touch you, and you may sense yourself blessed and transformed. Millions of people know this of course, and feel their lives to be enriched. Most wouldn’t dream of describing it as I have done. God in Her modesty probably isn’t too fussed about that providing the ‘candles’ are doing the job she, in part, designed them for.
And, of course, it works the other way too. If these are indeed ‘candles lit by God’ then we should treat them with appropriate respect and honour. If we could manage to do that then there would be no cats and dogs needing rescuing, no rivers needing to be cleansed of pollution, and the world would be a healed and interconnected place: rather like heaven!
Google ‘An autistic boy who can’t be touched has connected with a service dog’ to see the article and a photo.
‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande
‘Guardians of Being’ by Eckhart Tolle and Patrick McDonnell