Sunday Sermon

The house smelled like Christmas - cinnamon and sugar, ham, candied yams, and melting marshmallows. An LP crackled and hissed on the ancient record player, filling the house with the voice of, naturally, Bing Crosby. The tree stood twinkling in the living room, and the place settings sparkled in the dining room, but all attention was on the newest member of the family.

Jeopardy was small and clumsy, but it was generally agreed that he was very lucky. His mother's death had left him an orphan so he was skinny and a bit behind the curve on size, but now that my mother had seen to his vet bills, he was reasonably healthy. His black and white coat was sleek, and free of the fleas and ticks that had plagued his earliest days. He was being passed from person to person, petted and fawned over, and generally being spoiled rotten.

"He's getting stronger everyday," someone said, "but the vet says we still have to watch him. He wouldn't have made it out there for much longer." We all agreed again how lucky he was.

The timer on the oven dinged, and our focus shifted to dinner. Whatever failings my family might have, they are not in the kitchen. My grandmother, my mother, my aunt, and my sister all cook quite well, so holiday dinners are usually an epic event at our house. Like many Irish folk, we obsess over food. We communicate with it. We say "I love you" or "Happy Birthday" or "It's good to have everyone home for the Holidays," by filling the table until it groans; that way, we don't have to say those awkward things face to face. My mother once said to me, "I'm sorry to hear you're getting a divorce" by way of a big plate of spaghetti, and I understood her completely.

Given that food means so much to us, it was only natural that no one was watching Jeopardy closely. It wasn't until we heard the ornaments crashing to the floor that we suspected anything.

We rushed into the living room, to find him hanging by his neck from a loop of the twinkling Christmas lights. He was flailing wildly, spinning the green wire into a tightening noose. We grabbed him and tried to untangle it, but his panic had made quite a knot. He stopped thrashing and lost consciousness as a knife was hurriedly fetched from the dinner table. He hung limply as my mother carefully slipped the blade between his neck and the wire. Just as she began to pull the blade up and away from his throat, it occurred to me that the lights were still plugged in...

That was about 17 years ago - he was indeed, quite lucky. Jeopardy not only recovered, but he overcame his rough start in life to become a mighty giant of a cat, both in size and in capacity for love. I'll admit, he wasn't quite right (in the head) after his 'shocking' hypoxic first Christmas, but he was possibly the sweetest cat I have ever known.

My mother had to put Jeopardy down yesterday; he had a fast-growing tumor in his jaw. He had been a part of the family for over half my sister's life. Although he didn't seem to be in pain, it had reached the point that he wasn't really able to eat anymore. The vet came to the house and gave him a lethal injection while Mom held him wrapped in his favorite towel.

Our animal companions are great teachers. Emotionally honest, comfortable in their identities, and definitely living in the moment. I'm convinced that my American Eskimo, Tobi, stepped up the ladder during reincarnation - I can't really be so sure of that for myself.

I've been somewhat disgusted of late. The greed, the selfishness, the whining, the brutality, the laziness - and that's just me; don't even get me started bitching about other people. I'm not going to insult you all now with some lame-ass moralizing about trying to be the people our pets think we are - I'd just like to be half the people they are. Over the years, my pets have been some of the finest human beings I've known.

A cat never mopes about feeling that she's not a very good cat. Dog's don't have midlife crises. My parrot isn't worried about renovating the cage to keep up with the Joneses. They simply are. They love us when we are there, and they miss us when we aren't. They listen when no one else will. They tolerate our foul moods patiently (albeit sometimes by going under the bed, but who's to say that's not the best method?). They forgive, and if they ever take revenge it is usually limited to the destruction/disappearance of a sock or something similar. Pretty mild considering that we usually cut out their sexy parts...

At the holidays I always see the dog and cat stockings. This year I have even seen them for birds - complete with four little toes - filled with honey sticks and chewies. But we know those gifts are for our benefit, really. If you asked your pets what they really wanted for Christmas, they wouldn't ask for toys and treats. They would just ask for more time with you. Give them that gift. They have something great to give you in return.

See you 'round, Jeopardy.

Go in Peace.


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