It was meant to be a slightly glamorous Christmas. Festive in the right sense, of gold vestments and Gregorian chant, rich dinners with friends too long unseen, a little bit of glitz to contrast with humming and drumming of the hard work done all year. I’d planned some slightly hectic travel, interspersed with a couple of dinners where I’d spend a little too much and tip too lavishly — to compensate the folks working hard through the holy days. Best of all, a reunion with the woman I love, whom health issues and circumstance have kept from me for more months than I care to count.
I had it all planned out: My teaching work done for the semester, my columns mostly written, my editing work closely scheduled so it wouldn’t ruin the fun — and a cozy berth for my zany beagles Susie and Franz Josef with a nice homeschooling family in town, "dog people" whom I could trust. I got these critters years ago on the advice of a spiritual director (read that story here), who said that a dog’s unconditional love was the closest earthly model we have of agape, the love God offers us — and seeks in return.
I would drop off these theological beagles, then take a train to New York City for a party at the home of a friendly millionaire — a conservative philanthropist who supports some good works in which I’m involved. Cocktails served on a silver tray, then a subway back to Queens to crash with my closest friend since second grade. In the morning, we’d go out for brunch at one of Flushing’s best Dim Sum spots, then I’d take the Long Island Railroad to my sister’s house for an early Christmas dinner. In the morning, I’d race back into the City for Mass at the Church of Our Saviour — the once-battered midtown parish that Rev. George Rutler has restored to rich reverence, complete with iconic Byzantine murals, exquisite chant, and a liturgy worthy of the London Oratory.
I’d have brunch with a group of brilliant new Catholic friends I’ve made through literary circles — led by the multi-talented Matthew Alderman, artist and architect, and an editor of the Shrine of the Holy Whapping. Then I’d head down to Dallas, to visit my beloved and gad about Highland Park — heading out for an elegant dinner on my birthday, the Feast of St. John. We’d spend New Year’s together, and then she’d head back with me to visit New Hampshire, reclaim the beagles, and spend some cozy evenings over clam chowder at local inns. As a break between two very busy semesters, it seemed like a lovely plan, just what I needed to spice up my diurnal drudgery with coriander and cinnamon, with gold and frankincense.
So how did I end up with just the myrrh? It all started mid-week, when the power failed. The "thundersnow" that plowed through New England felling trees and electric lines left perhaps a quarter million of us to freeze in the dark — including all the students, and most of the faculty, of my school. With no heat or light for four consecutive evenings, I lived by flashlight and huddled for warmth with the hounds. Sure, it got down to 45 degrees in the bedroom, but dogs give off a surprising amount of heat — as I’d learned from Jack London stories. A couple-hundred dollars’ worth of food was rotting in the fridge, so I gave the hamburger meat to the dogs and resolved to leave town early. I found a working Internet café, charged up my cell phone, and arranged to drop off the beagles with the sitters — whose lights had never gone out.
I almost escaped. In another twelve hours, I would have been ensconced in the Acela quiet car, reading Dostoevsky’s The Devils for next semester, en route to my reunions. Then disaster unstruck. As I bedded down for one last night of canine survival training, the lights blinked on like a newly christened tree. Those road crews I’d silently blessed as I searched the town for batteries had proven my undoing. I would stay in Nashua three more nights. Or so I thought.
As I packed my stuff and tied up loose ends, I encountered a minor beagle issue: After just two meals of raw organic meat from Trader Joe’s, Susie had gotten spoiled. Now dry food wasn’t good enough for the little princess, and she refused to eat it. I got upset, raised my voice, may have even called her a "bitch." I broke down and served her expensive canned food, worrying that if I let her get used to the stuff, she’d never eat dry food again — which would triple the cost of keeping her. But there wasn’t time to engage in the fine art of dog politics; I could hardly leave some nice homeschooling household with a hound on a hunger strike. Franzi stayed true to his Franziscan simplicity, and snortled his way through bowls of kibble without complaint, but for Susie I’d have to drive through the snow and find some more cans of Pet Promise — a brand I buy because of Catholic social teaching. (No joke: Their food is all made up from critters humanely raised on small family farms, so, in the spirit of Chesterton, I buy it. "Think eschatologically, shop locally.")
Time was running short, and the roads were getting hard to negotiate, as a new blizzard threatened to roll into town. My 1990 Chevy was fishtailing on the snowy streets, the wipers were frozen solid, and the door handle, crammed with ice, broke off on the driver’s side. This meant I now needed to open the passenger side and crawl across the seat . . . The glamour was rapidly fading.
Then Susie’s misbehavior began to escalate. She started urinating in the house — which is very bad form, and quite unlike her. I chalked this up to the fact that she was in heat. (While Franzi came to me "fixed," I’d never mustered the will to have Susie spayed, reluctant to put her needlessly under general anesthesia, and always thinking on some level how much I would like to have nine more little beagles around the house.) The third time I stepped in a puddle on the bathroom floor I began to feel anxiety. This was really out of character. Did she sense I was leaving her for two full weeks? Was this a rebellion of the bladder? Franzi seemed to be joining in: Every time I tried to pick him up, he bayed with distress — the first time he’d acted this way.
So the morning I meant to leave, I made a last-minute trip to the vet. I expected to hear that Susie needed some antibiotics, and Franzi some baby aspirin. I checked the time on my phone and called my beloved in Dallas to assure her that I was on schedule. Then the doctor returned with the news: Franzi had a minor neck complaint, which called for restricted movement and pain medication. Unfortunate, but manageable. And Susie . . . had pyometra, an infection of the uterus. Indeed, hers was filled with pus, and needed to be removed immediately. I couldn’t believe it. The little hound was rushing back and forth, the picture of health, throwing back her head and howling — just as she did when we chased skateboarders through the street of New York City. And she was close to dying?
Thanks be to God, the operation went smoothly, and Susie’s underlying health brought her through with flying colors — and an ugly scar that’s fastened with metal staples, so her poor shaven belly now has a zipper. She and Franzi are both on pain medication, and I’m trapped here in the house intermittently by blizzards. I missed the party in New York, missed family and friends, and will spend this Christmas and my 44th birthday not with my girlfriend but with two convalescent hounds. I barely made it to Confession and the Vigil Mass this past weekend, between two snowstorms — with more to come. At least I’ve stocked up on beer.
Has God played Grinch with my Christmas? Is there some sub-codicil of the natural law that specifies I don’t get to leave New England? Such thoughts have run through my head. I was whining along these lines to the homeschooling mom who was meant to watch over the dogs, concluding: "Of course I’m so relieved about Susie. A lucky thing I took her to the vet."
She answered. "Was it luck? I was praying about this. For some reason, I was moved to pray: ‘Please God, don’t let one of John’s dogs die on my watch.’" And it pleased God that they didn’t.
So I look down at Susie, still tender but brimming with health, and Franzi, free of pain, and I can’t help but smile. I’ll spend this Christmas with the beasts, the innocent creatures free of original sin, whose every action pleases their Creator. Their brown eyes, on the vigil of the feast, will recall for me the cattle that gazed on the tiny baby who willed their very existence. If the power goes out, we’ll huddle for warmth, as Our Lady did with Our Lord.
A blessed, beastly Christmas to one and all.