The little girl wearing a red plaid dress patiently waited for me to finish a conversation with the music director.
Sunday morning worship had finished for the week. The congregation had faithfully marched forth into the fellowship hall for cookies, coffee, and conversations. I was standing in the sanctuary near the pulpit engaged in a discussion about next week’s service. Judging by the girl’s height and appearance, I guessed she might have been seven or 8 years old.
When I finished my “adult” conversation, I looked at the little girl and smiled. “Hello,” I said, “I’m Pastor Grice.”
“I’m Maria,” she said as she extended her hand to shake mine.
“How are you today?” I asked.
“Fine,” she said. “Thank you for praying for Dorothy this morning.”
Dorothy? It took a second for me to register what the girl had just said. Then I remembered: yes, Dorothy.
Filling in as a guest minister to preach and lead worship during September, I did not have many opportunities to get to know each member of the congregation. Other than shaking hands, offering greetings of “Good Morning” and “Thanks for being here today,” and exchanging the pleasantries people who are more strangers than even acquaintances exchange with one another, I had few opportunities or shared experiences to come to know the members and worshippers on a personal level. That’s how it is with “substitute clergy” and “pastoral temps.”
The few people I knew by name included the man from the church’s worship committee who contacted me to lead Sunday services, the music director, and the secretary. These three were the people I’d work with, although I did meet and remember the names of several parishioners and those who served as liturgists to read scripture and the everlastingly valuable and eternally inspiring church announcements. Now I knew Maria.
“Thank you for writing about Dorothy on the prayer card the usher handed to me during the service,” I said. “I’m sorry she passed away. How are you feeling?”
“I’m OK,” Maria said.
“I know how hard it is to lose those we love. Did you know her for a long time?” I asked, and then realized that was kind of a dumb question to ask a 7 or 8 year old.
“All my life,” she answered, and added, “But she was very old; and she’d been pretty sick.”
I nodded my head. Then I asked, “What was Dorothy?”
“Just an old mutt.”
“I had one like that when I grew up,” I said. “His name was Skipper. My folks got him about a year before I was born. I grew up with him. I was 16 when Skipper died and I still remember how hard I cried.”
“I cried, too,” Maria said, “but I’m better now.”
“That’s good. Do you think you’ll get another dog?”
“Not right away. My mother said this isn’t a good time for us to have a dog.”
“Do you have other pets at home?”
“Fish,” she said.
“Fish are nice,” I said, “but don’t take them out of the water to play with them. And certainly don’t take them for a walk. I heard fish can’t catch a tennis ball very well; do you think that’s true?”
Maria giggled. “Thank you,” she said with a big smile. “Thank you for praying for Dorothy.”
“You’re welcome, Maria,” I responded as the girl turned and hurried along the center aisle to exit the sanctuary.
Family pets are special creatures. They provide affection, entertainment, friendship, and love. Pets are near and dear to their owners, and hold a special place in their hearts. And when a pet passes away we feel the loss. We miss their companionship of being around or just being underfoot. We miss the routines of feeding them, going outdoors for a walk, or appreciating how they greet us when we return home from work or shopping.
As Maria’s prayer card read: “Pray for Dorothy, my dog, who died and went to heaven.” With our pets as with people who fill our lives we genuinely and sincerely hope our pets are in a happier, better place, perhaps even a place where we’ll have the opportunity to be together again.
The hope---and with it, the prayer---that we’ll be together with loved ones and creatures great and small seems to be embedded in the soul nearly everybody’s DNA, even that of a little girl who faced the passing of her old dog. “Good-bye, Dorothy, until we meet again in Heaven.”