PRAY FOR US SINNERS
by Dolly Reynolds
Nearly every day, I witness an animal’s death. I have been a veterinary technician for twelve years and have been present at the moment that hundreds of furry spirits slip the surly bonds of their earthly lives, euphemistically referred to as crossing the rainbow bridge. I have been with Chihuahuas and Great Danes, Rottweilers and poodles, kittens with fatal viruses and emaciated old cats in kidney failure, rats with mammary tumors and guinea pigs with pneumonia, puppies twitching with distemper and, most horribly of all, happy, healthy, beloved pets who get hit by a car or attacked by a coyote or decide to take a bite of that large white mushroom growing under the oak tree. I try to offer what comfort I can, and I feel I often fail. The animals look at me in the last moment of their lives; as I hold their little paws and stroke their heads and whisper that it’s going to be okay, they look me right in the eye and see me for the liar that I am.
Hora mortis, the hour of death, is a sacred and blighted time. The skies over Judea turned black when Jesus bowed his head and took his last breath. Every euthanasia is devastating, even when we all agree the time is long overdue. In a small way, I feel the skies over our clinic darken every time the life spirit leaves a furry little body cradled in my arms.
This is in some ways the worst job to have, but I keep showing up for it, week after week, death after death, trying to be kind and offer comfort and respect long after it is too late. It’s my obligation. It’s the only way I know how to atone for the one death I will never get over: my mother’s. She died alone and freezing, at the bottom of a snowy ravine, calling for help with her very last breath, as the man who had killed her climbed over her body and back up into the world.
At my mild Presbyterian church, we remember the death of Jesus in a candlelit Good Friday service that is largely silent, the organ playing mournful music as the evening fog billows past the church’s stained glass windows and the parishioners sit together in the pews, our heads bowed, and remember. It is a melancholy service, but one that I find intensely peaceful and comforting. For one evening, at least, I do not feel so alone in my grief.
It was a shock to my Presbyterian sensibilities to see the Baroque rituals re-enacted each Lenten season at the parochial school where I sent my small daughters. There was so much that I, a non-Catholic, initially loved about the school. The unapologetic presence of God throughout the school day was thrilling. I loved that my daughters were taught that mercy and charity were moral imperatives, that there was always hope and comfort to be found in faith, that God loved and cared for them, and that they reflected God’s love by caring for each other. Each morning assembly concluded with a prayer: “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”
One spring day when I picked them up from school, I was surprised to see them both weeping in their car seats.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
They looked at each other for a moment, and then responded, “Jesus fell three times.”
The school had begun to enact the Stations of the Cross.
These stations depict Jesus’s journey to the cross and subsequent crucifixion in fourteen heartbreaking scenes. Each day leading up to Holy Thursday, the school would go through one of the stations (#1: Jesus is condemned to die, #10: Jesus is stripped of his garments, #11: Jesus is nailed to the cross), and for my uninitiated daughters, and for me, it was very rough going. This was a far cry from the calm and gentle Good Friday remembrances at my own church. Now, I wanted to rage and weep and howl. It was hard for me to talk to people; it seemed impossible to be in the world and to carry this load. Some days I felt as if my body would crack open with grief. This was a sorrow I knew all too well from my mother’s death. Grief was a raging monster that roared up from my belly and filled my throat. It boxed in my ears and blackened my eyes. Holy Mary and all of Christendom seemed to understand this sorrow, to know what it was like to live beyond a death that felt like more than I could bear.
There was one station, however, that helped my daughters and me. At Station Six, as Jesus is carrying his cross through Jerusalem, a woman in the crowds is overcome with pity for his suffering. She leaps up and offers her veil to wipe his sweating face. Although she cannot stop this terrible procession, she tries to offer comfort in the only way that she can. Jesus is so grateful to her that when he hands back her veil, he leaves an image of his face on the cloth. Later, the woman comes to be known as Saint Veronica. Veronica: the icon of truth. Maybe, I thought then, this was a way that I could be in the world as well.
My relationship with my father did not survive my mother’s death. He was a brilliant, scholarly, deeply generous, and terrifying man—the rock star of my childhood, loved by me above all others. Yet the sarcastic and emotional woman I came to be was an endless affront and disappointment to his sensibilities. I lumbered and crashed like a bull through his carefully constructed life. My mother, on the other hand, had been a classic beauty: lithe and graceful, charming and incandescent, the belle of every ball. In the grief-fueled haze after my mother’s death, I decided to challenge my father for the first time ever over a ball gown of my mother’s that he planned to give to a friend. I wanted to keep it for myself. The ugly argument escalated until my father stood alone in the center of the room screaming that I was the source of every bad thing that had ever happened to him in his life, words that could never be taken back, and which seemed to me then, ultimately, to be true.
Why, oh why, I have asked myself ten million times, did I choose the worst of all moments to dig in my heels? Why didn’t I just let him have the ball gown? What I, what we both ended up losing after that night was so much more than a dress.
My father did not go back to work. Instead, he began drinking, two bottles of wine at night and whiskey in the afternoon until he passed out. Then whiskey at night and in the morning too, when he got the shakes. Then two bottles a day and then more and more until he believed there were bugs crawling all over his body. When we put him in the hospital, he had weeks of alcoholic seizures and then delirium tremens until, when the seizures finally abated, he had almost no brain function left, no capacity to swallow, and almost no capacity to breathe.
* * *
I am alone with my father when he dies, in a Lutheran hospice near the balmy Atlantic Ocean in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. I have come to be with him from California. Death is very close, the hospice nurses tell me, but probably not tonight.
My sister has gone home, and I am staying on a cot in his room. I play the lullabies he used to sing to me when I woke up terrified as a little girl, “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Edelweiss,” on his bedside CD player. His eyes are closed and he is breathing quickly, an oxygen mask over his nose. Slowly, he turns his head to look at me, a single tear rolls down his cheek, and he breathes once, twice, and then no more. “Dad?” I whisper. “Dad?” I’m on my knees now, kneeling over his body, his small, smooth hands in mine, and I’m kissing his broad forehead, the skin so unbelievably soft and warm, kissing his cheeks, laying my head across his still chest and never, ever, even for one minute letting go of his hands. This is the first time I have ever touched my father like this. This is the most intimate moment of our lives together. This is the first moment that I know, absolutely, to the core of my being, that my father loves me, with all his heart.
The nurse finds us like this an hour later, when she comes in for her nightly checks, my head still on my father’s chest, our hands clasped together. This is the first time a dead body has become, to me, something holy, something full and shining, resplendent with a love I couldn’t grasp when my father was alive.
“It’s the horsemen that come at the moment of death,” the hospice pastor tells me, when she comes to bless the body. It is eleven o’clock at night, and she is a middle-aged woman with her hair pinned up and cream on her face. She lives at the hospice with the patients and comes to my father’s room ten minutes after the nurse calls her.
“The horsemen bring the person who most needs to be here, and then they send everyone else away,” she says, her hand brushing the hair from my face. “Yours was the relationship your father most needed to heal. Once you were here with him, he could go. There’s no doubt he loved you. Absolutely no doubt. The horsemen are never wrong.”
There were no horsemen at my mother’s death, at least not that I know. She died alone and freezing at the bottom of a ravine near the reservoir in our Connecticut town. A man came out of the woods and attacked her while she was walking her puppy along an access road below the reservoir’s dam, far away from help. He beat her, strangled her with the puppy’s leash, stabbed her, and slit her throat. In his confession, he told the state detectives that she was still alive and crying for help when he climbed out of the ravine and left her to die. I have heard slightly different versions of this story from the detectives, the prosecutors, the investigators, and the defendant himself, but every version is horrible in its own way. Her suffering must have been unimaginable. She was all alone and no help came. Though she died in the middle of the day, her body was not found until eleven o’clock that night, covered with snow. It wasn’t removed from the reservoir until the following afternoon.
I have thought of and dreamed of my mother’s final moments a million, a billion, a trillion times, always imagining that somehow I am there at the reservoir along with the murderer, that I attack him and save her, that I am Veronica and I wipe her face and hold her head in my hands. Once, three months after her death, I was alone in my apartment in San Francisco, sobbing, overwhelmed with grief, unable to imagine another moment of living with this sorrow, exhausted beyond my capacity to speak. I was listening to Celtic music, and all of a sudden I had what I can only describe as a vision of my mother’s body at the bottom of the ravine, the snow coming down all around her and angels coming up from the bloody ground beneath her, cradling her head and lifting her spirit up out of that place, up over the trees, up to the heart of God. It’s the only vision I’ve ever had, and while it was a great comfort to me at the time, in retrospect it is just as likely to have been the product of my extremis of grief. I still think about those angels, but since, at the veterinary hospital, I have been present at hundreds of deaths where there are no angels, there is only pain and sickness and then the absence of life, that momentary vision has not brought me any lasting peace.
Recently, for the first time, I went back to the reservoir where my mother was killed. I had written to the police chief in our town, a man with the very New England name of Lowell Humphrey, and asked if I could talk to him about my mother’s murder. He sent me back a four-page letter with all the details he could remember, told me the murder had greatly affected his life as well, and said that he would never forget the statement I made in court at the defendant’s sentencing four years after the crime. In that statement, I told the court that I was glad the state prosecutors had decided to forgo pursuing the death penalty and accept a plea agreement in which the defendant would spend the rest of his life in prison. My mother did not believe in the death penalty, I told the court. I said I believed that this plea agreement did more than just punish the defendant for my mother’s death; it also honored my mother’s life.
Making that statement in court did help me, but it did not relieve me of the one burning desire that would not abate: to return to Connecticut and go to the spot in the reservoir where my mother was killed. I thanked Lowell for his letter and asked him if he would be willing to take me to the spot where my mother’s body was found. He wrote back immediately and said yes.
It was a beautiful fall day in Connecticut when we met, the sky blue and the sun shining high in the sky. The path into the reservoir was blanketed with leaves that had fallen from the trees—sugar maple, elm, and oak, orange and gold and crimson. As we walked along the path, leaves crunching under our feet, Lowell talked about his life. He had been born in this small town. His father ran the package store and his wife’s family the town’s cider mill. Both families had many sons who manned the town’s volunteer fire department. Lowell had spent his entire career on the police force, fifteen years as its chief. Now that he was retired, he was part of the volunteer fire department again, on call 24/7 and paid five dollars a call. The radio attached to his belt buckle beeped and squawked as we walked.
When we got to the spot where my mother had been killed, we stopped and stood silently for a moment. Lowell told me that he had been the second person to arrive at my mother’s body after she was found, and that he had stayed with her all through that freezing night. He made sure that she was never alone, even as a winter storm blew in and snow covered the ground all around them. He answered every question I asked, in a way that was thoughtful and kind and honest. How was she lying? I asked. Could you see her face? Where were her hands? What was she wearing? I felt that he would tell me anything I wanted to know and that he wasn’t afraid of my questions as almost everyone else had seemed to be. Lowell had stood by my mother’s terrible death and looked squarely at it. Now, years after the crime, he was trying to offer what comfort he could to me. He became my Veronica, my icon of truth, offering me his handkerchief to wipe the tears from my cheeks. I felt calm and quiet in a way that was new to me, almost happy to be standing in this beautiful place with this kind and thoughtful man while the wind lifted my hair from my shoulders and blew the leaves around our feet.
My mother was gone; there was no trace of her or of the evil that had befallen her that snowy December day. Instead what washed over me was the great decency of the man standing beside me now, the man who had stayed with her body, had protected her spirit as best he could, at that dark hora mortis. At one point he told me to look up from the path we were standing on to the dam far above us. The sun was streaming down through the trees, and the dam seemed very far away.
“There are people up on the bridge. Do you see them?” he asked.
I looked and looked but I couldn’t make them out.
“They’re up there,” Lowell said, and smiled. “They’re waving at you.”
Dolly Reynolds holds a JD from University of California Hastings, and is currently an MFA student at San Francisco State. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as decomP, Red Wheelbarrow, and North American Review. She recently attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She works as a veterinary technician and teaching assistant, and resides in San Francisco with her wonderful family in a tiny house next to the ocean.