Saturday night. 8 PM. The day before Sunday, the Sabbath—the day of rest. He comes flying up the stairs to find me sitting in the library reading Isaiah, Chapter 40:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God . . .
He is our ever-present help in times of danger. Our comfort in sorrow.
Shocked, all I could say is “What?” in disbelief. Oreo was fine at 1:30. Now, the black-and-white-and-black guinea pig, not even a year old, lay limp and still warm on his pine shavings, next to his plastic blue igloo where he ran to hide from intruding hands.
To be sure, Nick was sad. The 17 year-old held back his tears, the dam threatening a break. What could I say?
“Oh honey! I’m so sorry. It’s OK to cry.” I reassured. But what 17 year-old wants to cry at all, let alone in front of his mother? Still, his left hand rose to wipe both eyes in one sweep. His choked throat couldn’t say a word. I let it be and put my arm around his shoulders.
When his voice returned he told how he had fed and watered his guinea pig just fine. How could this happen? Only got him in April. For his birthday.
We talked scenarios. Maybe a disease that showed no signs. Maybe a heart attack. There would be no answers and we would need to accept the not knowing, like so many hard things in life.
It was dark, the sun buried beneath the horizon. There would be funeral tonight, no ceremony, no final goodbyes, no laying to rest our tears at this late hour.
Dad gently removed Oreo from his shavings, using the kitchen towel on the counter, and placed him entombed in the garage freezer, plugged in tonight for this particular purpose.
“We’ll bury him tomorrow, honey, after church, when we’re all together,” I assured him. Nick nodded. “Do you know yet where you’d like to place him?”
“No. You choose.”
So I did. I chose the spot. There on the highest point of our farm, overlooking Lake Michigan, where two of our beloved dogs lay beneath an old wooden cross that has fallen and separated from age.
After church, Todd cradled Oreo, wrapped in kitchen cloth, as we made our way to the burial site, silent. We’ve done this before. Funerals are good for letting the grieving cry, for remembering fond times and special love, for holding each other, for praying, for digging deep into hearts and allowing ourselves to ponder and feel the full circle of life, for remembering that our God has defeated all death with the cross and because of this—great—love—we will live again and see our loved ones, no matter how insignificant some may believe them to be.
When we reached our farm’s highest point, Todd and Zach began. Sharp cut earth straight open and lifted heavy. Stab, stomp, lift, pile. Keep going till you’re deep enough.
“Good job Zach. I’ll shape it out now.” Todd finished the hole while Nick held his lifeless pet. Gently, Todd took the animal from the crook of Nick’s arm and placed Oreo in the hole, kitchen towel still wrapping his body.
“Can we all say a few last words before we bury Oreo and then I’ll end in prayer?”
We held hands.
“Thank you Oreo for being a great friend. You were my buddy. I’m sad you’re gone. But I know you’re in heaven. And I’ll see you again someday.”
Darn near floods a mother, those words about a guinea pig, even though she’s not particularly fond of anything in the rodent family.
Next came Anna.
“He was a fun pet. He’s with God now.” Simple. To the point. Very Anna.
And then Zach. Very Zach.
His mouth opened and he choked out a couple words I can’t remember because all I can remember is the melting heart, the falling tears, the sad pouring for his brother. For a rodent. And maybe for himself? For the world? For all the sad that’s part of life. He’s a sensitive sort. I love that about our boys, how they can express their feelings and yet not fall apart.
I walked straight across our family circle and wrapped my arm around his shoulders. I want our boys to know that real men can cry. That real men can receive comfort from another, even a woman. That it’s OK to cry when you’re sad, if you feel like it.
“It’s OK, Zach. Thank you for sharing your heart. It means a lot.”
My words of gratitude came next. Then Todd’s. And then Todd’s prayer. The sweetness. The tenderness. All for a guinea pig and a couple sad hearts. We held hands, our family circle. And in that moment of prayer, I looked around and into the lowered faces of each one—my husband, our daughter, our two sons—surrounding a new hole on the highest point, next to two others that had been dug years ago, where we had placed love and gratitude, topped with a cross. I was struck with profound gratitude that I have this little family—this circle of real—who doesn’t shy away from the difficult—who comes together in times of sorrow and embraces, cries, supports, accepts emotion, expresses faith in a good and great God. All this rich life. Because of death. And I thought . . .
Isn’t it something that loved ones hold hands and stand encircling death yet these are some of the family times where we feel most alive. The authenticity. The vulnerability. Even the emotionality. All is pure beauty, when we draw closer to God and each other.
And as for this mother who will allow another rodent in the house, if he so chooses, I’m most grateful for Oreo who gave us an occasion to come close on one sad, but glorious, Sabbath day. Oreo. Black and white. Life and death. Sorrow and joy. The grand mix of a true life with God.
Postscript . . .
I asked Nick how he would feel if I wrote a piece, including discreet photos, describing our family funeral. He said this . . .
“I’m fine with it, as long as it will help someone come closer to God.”
Another reason for thanksgiving—this sacrificial son of ours.
You, dear reader, will draw your own conclusions about this piece and your invitation to come into our intimate circle of grief and joy. May God’s will alone be done. May you be blessed.