I found Heaven on a Sunday in the summer of 1982 while walking home from church. Noticing this cute 6-month-old Australian-shepherd-mix puppy outside of the bodega just a block away from my house, I thought she was the proprietor’s new pet. When I went into the store to inform Hector that his puppy was running loose, he told me she was a stray that had been hanging around all week. Deciding on the spot that I would take her, I purchased a box of dog biscuits and wooed her home.
Heaven got her name not because she was by any means an angel. In truth, Heaven was quite hellish most of her life and she possessed both deva and devilish qualities. She got her name from the African-American hymn, “When We All Get to Heaven,” which we had sung in church that Sunday, and which was still playing in my head as I walked home.
Heaven died at the age of 11 on July 16, 1993, at Angell Memorial Hospital, from inflammation of the lungs. Just 10 days before, Heaven and I had been swimming in Spy Pond without a worry in the world. She had spent eight days in the canine intensive care unit when the dreaded call came. Heaven’s time was approaching, her veterinarian told me, so please hurry to the hospital to say goodbye. At four o’clock that morning I held Heaven in my arms, singing to her “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” as I watched her expel her last breath of life.
Early that morning, when I walked away from Angell Memorial Hospital without Heaven, I had no idea I would plummet into a state of deep despair. Her death caught me completely unprepared for the range and intensity of emotions I would experience. The tightness in my throat and the heaviness in my chest lasted for months, because there was a gaping hole in my life: Her physical presence, our daily routine, and the social and emotional interaction I had become accustomed to were suddenly gone. As I grieved her death, I realized there were few resources to support bereaved pet owners. Too often we keep our pain hidden because we are embarrassed or afraid no one will understand.
However, I felt her absence warranted my grieving — publicly and privately — because Heaven had taught me many life lessons. The two that stand out the most are the lesson about the preciousness of life and the lesson that love knows no species boundaries.
The Christian gospel is founded on the premise that love knows no boundaries, and animals are inseparable from that proclamation. Christian compassion mandates that we covenant with one another — humans with humans and humans with animals. In wanting to celebrate the covenantal relationship I had with Heaven, and by extension with other pet owners and their animals, past and present, I performed a “Blessing of the Animals” worship service. On July 31 at Old Cambridge Baptist Church people brought their animals or pictures of their deceased ones to place on the altar. During a “Testimonial of Our Friends” in the service, I thanked Heaven for the generosity of her love and for the wonderful years of our life together.