by Mary Button
The first six months after graduating from college, I wandered the streets of New York City listening to anything and everything ever sung by Levon Helm.
I had loaded onto my iPod all of The Band’s albums and all of Levon’s solo work. Levon’s plaintive timbre accompanied me to and from my first 9-to-5-401k-optional-real-adulthood-job. But, in spite of my gainful employment, or perhaps because of it, I felt adrift.
The transition from art school student to cubicle dweller was difficult. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I felt out of place with my friends who were still students and equally out of place with my new co-workers. With Levon playing in my ear buds, I gradually made my way through all sorts of new adult experiences: student loan payments, buying actual furniture, hiring an accountant, and the list goes on.
Fast-forward five years, two states, and a graduate degree later and the same mixed feelings of loneliness and transition met up with me, this time in Memphis, where I’d just started serving First Congregational Church as their first minister of visual art. For the first time in my adult life, I was without a roommate and in an apartment with a backyard. I decided that I was in need of a canine companion. The Friday before my new church’s pet blessing, I drove out to the city shelter and adopted a beautiful, copper-haired Labrador-mix that I ceremoniously named Levon.
Levon seemed to be everything that I needed. That first Friday night together, I slept better than I had in the previous weeks; Levon curled up in his dog bed, me on my human bed. Levon had been neutered on Thursday, so when I adopted him I was told to expect a certain amount of lethargy and an upset stomach from him. But, by Sunday morning, something more serious seemed to be wrong and so I kept my new friend home from the pet blessing. By Monday morning, my sweet dog was clearly very ill and I rushed him to a vet’s office near my home. He was diagnosed with Parvo (a dangerous canine virus) and I was told that the chances of his survival were slim, but still existent. So, I emptied out what little I had in my checking account to pay for his treatment and left the vet’s office broke and sobbing.
That night I had to teach an art class at the church. Every few minutes I had to excuse myself for fear of breaking down in front of those kind souls who had come out to my studio for a fun night of art-making. Luckily, my dear friend Stacy came by toward the end of class to check in on me and brought with her a copy of a book called Women’s Uncommon Prayers. In it, there is a very special litany for those faced with the loss of a pet. Together with another friend, we sat in my studio and prayed:
We praise you for the pets of your saints, who have gone before: for Dame Julian’s cat, for the dolphins who led St. Brendan safely to land, for the wolf tamed by St. Brigid, and for all animals everywhere.
Early the next morning I received a call from my vet that Levon had died during the night. I was inconsolable. I can hardly account for the weeks that followed Levon’s death. Before I felt adrift, but then I suddenly felt unhinged by grief. I came home from work at night to a home full of dog toys, but no dog. All the people in my life did their best to be of comfort to me. Coming from a family of dog-lovers, there were no weird looks or uncomfortable silences from my parents in the weeks that followed Levon’s death. And my new church family rallied around me, offering sympathy and prayers. Then, in late November, a woman in my congregation named Zarabeth offered me a second chance at pet ownership.
An emaciated, mostly-bald pit bull had wandered onto the playground of a school where Zarabeth worked. “I’ve been calling her Pumpkin,” she said. I agreed to foster Pumpkin for a little while, but equivocated on the adoption issue. Pumpkin was sick; she had heartworms, stress colitis, and a skin infection that left her little legs totally hairless. I knew that I couldn’t handle losing another dog, but I could handle feeding a sick dog fatty puppy food and taking her for walks. Slowly but surely, though, I fell in love with this odd-looking, sick little pit bull. She was terrified of the space heater in my bedroom. She would sit down right on top of my feet while I sat at the kitchen table. And after a long day at work in my studio she would lick my feet and sigh like she, too, had been working all day.
Around Christmas time I knew that I couldn’t let go of Pumpkin; I knew that she was my dog and I was her human. I made the adoption official. A few weeks later she was given a clean bill of health.
Pumpkin has been a gift in so many ways; she is a comfort to me at night when I find myself lying in my bed alone, worried too much about too many little things. She is a furry little jokester who always makes me laugh when she stares with total concentration–one ear up and the other down with her head cocked to one side–at a little statue of a bulldog that a neighbor has in their front yard. But, the greatest gift that she has given me is her creatureliness. Her little sighs, whimpers, yawns–all the things that remind me that the two of us are animals created for each other by a loving God.
So now I have my own little family, maybe not a conventional one, but a family all the same. And for that I have Levon to thank, just as I once prayed in remembrance of the dolphins who led St. Brendan to safety, I pray now in remembrance of Levon who led me to Pumpkin.
Mary Button is a graduate of the Tisch School of Arts at New York University and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She is an artist and writer and is currently serving First Congregational Church in Memphis, Tenn., as Minister of Visual Art.