Because I am married to a Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal fellow with a very low barrier of understanding the difference between “pets” and “critters,” our family ends up with a wide variety of domesticated and semi-domesticated fauna sharing space. (Some days I do chalk up my children in the “semi-domesticated” category.) Over the last 14 years, we’ve provided short- and long-term homes for the following:
- Four slightly deranged dogs
- Four Khaki Campbell ducks
- Six Cayuga ducks
- One half-lop rabbit
- One lionhead rabbit
- Two bronze turkeys
- Dozens of disposable fish
- Three African water frogs (who lived in the tank with the disposable fish.)
- One Western Garter snake that my husband bought off a six-year-old kid at a lake
- One salamander (to be a companion for the snake. That did not work well at all.)
- Generations upon generations of chatty crickets
- Two ready-to-lay-eggs mantids brought in from outdoors (to one of which I lost my glass cookie jar. Gross.)
- One red-eared slider turtle
- One baby robin damaged by a roving neighborhood cat that dis-articulated and removed one wing at the elbow
- Two Black Cayuga ducks
- Two red hens
- One black hen
- One red and black hen
And that’s just the stuff that’s lived inside the house at some point. There’ve also been flocks of migrating grosbeaks, and about a half-dozen wild hummingbirds who adopted us years ago.
The stark reality of the thing is that with so many animals over the years, we’ve also lost more than our fair share, to animal predation, illness, wanderlust, and old age. With those losses come grief, and a chance for our children to understand death and grieving from a young age… younger than we might like in most cases.
There’s something lovely in a child’s faith, however. They can readily accept that a beloved pet (or person) has gone home to live with God, and we can see them again, someday. Since I do believe in a God who has His eye upon the sparrow, I have no qualms in reassuring my children that all beloved things find a home in Heaven.
Heaven is, however, a fairly abstract concept. Couple this with our habit of discussing loved ones who have gone home to God in a fairly present-tense sort of way (because we do still feel them with us), and the whole geography of mortality versus eternity can get a little murky.
My Spicy child, having visited my Beloved’s Mother at her hotel when said Mother was visiting us, was determined for the next year that Grandma lived there, and we just needed to drop in to see her (and, lucky me, Lefty has taken up the refrain after this year’s visit…) At some level, they can understand that Grandma lives far, far away, near the ocean (which they’ve only seen once, and it was the wrong ocean).
In that same way, I believe they see Heaven as just a far-off place, peopled with those we don’t see anymore… great-grandparents who died before they were born, and pets, for instance. Knowing that Great Grandma Fern grew up on farms, and might love the company of a small black duck (who was too badly injured to survive here), gives them some comfort, makes the separation a bit easier to bear. It’s only just awhile before we visit and see them all again, isn’t it?
And really, don’t I do the same thing? I love to think of my favorite grandmother, sitting in an overstuffed chair with her favorite book, in the sun-speckled light of a fall afternoon in Heaven. I see her in a small green cottage, surrounded by wildflowers and roses. I see her blue eyes crinkle against the sun as she pauses at the gate, the breeze blowing the folds of her print apron just a bit. She would indeed enjoy the company of a small black duck, or a faithful old dog, or a well-behaved rabbit to hop about in her front gardens.
The whole scene doesn’t feel so very far away, after all. Perhaps my own geography, trying to push a wide gulf between mortality and eternity, is the problem. Perhaps my Spicy five-year-old has the knack of it: that Heaven is quite close, just a half-step sideways into forever, and Heaven, and God.