In Dante's Footsteps
A Modern Divine Comedy in memory of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who paved the way
One morning an email with "invitation" in the subject line was waiting for me on my computer. "Ready to have me as your Virgil again?" it said. "More later. Edward."
Huh? Edward, or Father Edward as we knew him at St. George’s Academy, had been dead for seven years. He was the school’s acting chaplain on loan from the Church of England and my Latin teacher.
My journey in Dante’s footsteps began in the spring of my junior year when I was in Edward’s office in the chapel after I finished my Sunday chores following the school Eucharist.
"Well, Thomas,” he asked me, “have you decided what you want to do for your senior project?"
He had suggested a paper on one or more of the classics and had mentioned Homer, Sophocles, Dante, and Shakespeare as possibilities. Not Virgil because I was reading the Aeneid in Latin Honors. Having an oedipal complex of my own, I was fascinated by Sophocles’ play about Oedipus, the Greek prince who killed his father and married his mother, but Dante’s Inferno sounded much more interesting, especially after Edward told me Dante put clergy and even popes in Hell. That got my attention right away since I was from a clerical family. My father and both my grandfathers were clergymen, and I was expected to go and do likewise.
"I've been thinking about that Hell poem you told me about. Can I do that one?"
"You certainly can," he said with a big smile. "You already know enough Latin that you can read it in the original. With the help of a dictionary, of course."
"Really? Won’t that be too hard?"
"Not at all. The Florentine vernacular Dante wrote in flows right out of Latin. Here, let me show what you'll need."
He went to the bookcase and brought back a big black book that smelled like the old books in my father's study. He put it down on his desk and opened it.
"This is an Italian dictionary of the Middle Ages that has all Dante's words in it. I'll also give you an English trot so you don't have to worry about getting stuck. And I'll be here every step of the way to answer your questions. How does that sound?"
"Sounds good." I moved my fingers over the black letters. "Yes, this is what I want to do."
"Eccellente, Thomas. It's all set then. In the fall, you'll follow in Dante's footsteps, and I'll be your Virgil. We'll go to Hell together." We both laughed.
The day before Commencement Edward invited me to his office to say good-bye. He was going back to England to teach at Sussex University, so in a way we were graduating together.
"So, Thomas," he said over tea, "what do you think you'll be doing farther down the road?"
"I'll probably end up doing what my father does." I heard the note of resignation in my voice.
"You don't have to do that, but if that's what you decide, I'm sure you'll make a fine priest. Just don't do it because you think you should, or because others think you should. Whatever you're meant to be--writer, teacher, lawyer, priest--your calling will keep after you and won't let you go."
I liked what he was saying. It gave me more breathing room. I thought it was interesting that when he listed the possibilities, he put writer first and priest last.
"My guess is you won't find your true vocation right away. I think you'll be more like Dante, who had to take a long detour through the Inferno and Purgatory to get to Paradise. Don't misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with detours. More often than not they're the way we get to where we're meant to go. Just don't make up your mind too quickly. What you end up doing may surprise you.”
Commencement took place on the lawn in front of the chapel with my parents in the front row (my mother's favorite place to sit). When it came time for the academic awards and it was Edward's turn to present the Latin Prize, he went to the podium. Since he already told me, it wasn't a surprise when he announced I was the winner.
When I went up to receive the prize, he handed me Dante’s Commedia in Italian, which I immediately recognized as his not so subtle reminder that he wanted me to read Purgatorio and Paradiso, which I did in college.
When I got back to my seat, I opened it and read what he inscribed: "Thomas, it was an honor and pleasure to be your Virgil. You were a wonderful travel companion. Dante would be proud. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. Blessings to you always, Edward."
He had already invited me to study more Dante with him in the UK, so I assumed that's what he was talking about.
At the end of our last Latin class he told me he would love to be my Virgil again. "And who knows? If you keep going at this rate, maybe someday you'll be the new Dante.”
Huh? I had no idea what he meant by that, but I never forgot it. How could I?
I kept staring at Edward’s invitation on my computer to try to make sense of what I was seeing.
Having imaginary conversations with him from time to time was one thing, but now there he was on my computer. Or was he? Was this some kind of a sick joke?
I thought about the inscription he wrote on the flyleaf of Dante’s Commedia. I hadn't looked at it in a long time, so I went to my bookshelf and read the part about his being my Virgil again. "You were a wonderful travel companion,” he wrote. “Dante would be proud. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. Blessings to you always, Edward."
That's what it said all right. Perhaps we can do it again sometime. I went back to the email, clicked Return, and typed, "Is it really you?" Moments later it bounced back with a message saying the address was not valid.
I thought of my seminary friend John as a possible culprit. He liked to kid me about my church family and predicted half-jokingly that I would be the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church by the time I was 40. But because he knew what Edward meant to me, I couldn't imagine him making fun of it. Still, I was curious to find out what his take on it might be, so I forwarded the email to him and wrote at the top: "John, what do you make of this? Love to Wendy and the kids. Tom."
That night he wrote back. "Messiah! It’s great to hear from you. If anybody deserves to go to Hell, you do. Maybe your Father Edward really does want you to join him. With your Dante background, I can't think of a better candidate. Go for it, my friend. Give my regards to Satan. John."
Three weeks later something much more unnerving happened. I was in bed starting to fall asleep after watching the eleven o’clock news when I saw a blurry light across the room. It had a sort of human shape that reminded me of the ghost of Hamlet's father I had recently seen in a black and white film on late night television. I sat up for a better look at the blur that came into better focus as it got closer. Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. Can it be? It looks like...yes, I think it is. It's Edward!
I closed my eyes hard and opened them to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.
"Thomas, it's wonderful to see you again under these unusual circumstances."
It was Edward's voice all right. I would know it anywhere. What was going on? Was he a ghost? He certainly looked like one.
"You're not going to believe this, but I'm here to invite you to join me in the Underworld."
"That's what they call it."
I was in total shock. Seeing Edward and having him talk to me was more than I could handle. He looked and sounded like Edward, but was it really him? When I had imaginary conversations with him, I always pictured him in my mind’s eye, but this was different.
"I can't believe it's you. I mean, I know it's you, but I can't believe you're really here because...well, because you're dead."
Edward smiled impishly. "Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated."
The Mark Twain quote proved he really was Edward. He loved quotations, and by the time I graduated I knew many of his favorites.
"Thomas, my resurrection, so to speak, was a big surprise as you can imagine. To suddenly wake up and be conscious again. And now to be up here talking to you. I can't believe it."
"I can't believe it either. Let me make sure I have this right. You want me to go down to the Underworld? There really is such a thing?"
"There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The quote from Hamlet was another one of his favorites.
"To answer your question, yes, there really is an Underworld, but it's very different from what Dante had in mind."
"So, then you're not talking about the Inferno, or are you?"
"Yes and no. Hell is down there, but it apparently has its own separate area. I can’t answer the many questions I'm sure you'll have because I'm very new to this. They told me it will all be explained later. They’re starting a visitor’s program, and they sent me to invite you to be part of it. That's why I'm here."
I heard what he was saying, but I was having trouble making sense of it. "Will there be other visitors?"
"That's their plan. They want the visitors to come back up here and spread the word. They don't think people up here are getting the right message about what happens after they die and what’s expected of them while they‘re alive. They think the visitors program will help change that. You’ll be one of the first visitors…that is, if you agree."
I couldn't believe I was having this surreal conversation. I was glad I was on the bed because I was beginning to feel dizzy.
"Can you believe this, Thomas? It looks like we’ll be able to go on another Dante adventure together, but this time it will be the real thiing."
"Do you remember what you wrote on the flyleaf of the Commedia you gave me at Commencement?"
"Refresh my memory."
"You wrote, 'Maybe we can do it again sometime.'"
"Did I say that?” He smiled. “How prescient of me.”
"This may sound like a strange question, but did you send me an email?"
"Ah, so they sent it after all. I told them I didn't think it was a good idea, but they thought it would help break the ice."
"It broke the ice all right and nearly drove me crazy trying to figure out what was going on."
"Sorry about that."
"How long is this visit you want me to make supposed to last?"
"Just a weekend. Friday to Sunday. In and out like Dante."
By now I was thinking this must be some kind of waking dream. What else could it be?
"Thomas, there's something else you should know. It’s something they think may help you make up your mind. It's about your father."
"What about my father?"
"He's down there."
"My father's in Hell?"
"He's not in the Hell part. Some areas down there are for good people, and he's apparently in one of them."
"I'm just telling you what they told me."
"If he’s there, does that mean I'll I be able to visit him?"
"I don’t know, but I don’t think they would have me tell you he was down there if that wasn’t going to be a possibility. But I can't promise anything. There's something else I should mention. On the weekend they want you down there, there’s going to be a “great thinkers” conference with famous people from history. And there’s something else too, but I’m not sure I should tell you.”
He hesitated. "It has to do with them wanting us down there together as a teacher-student pair. I probably shouldn't say anything, but you have a right to know what's going on." He stopped as if he wasn't sure if he should tell me.
"What do I have a right to know?"
"If you decide not to go, I won't go either."
"What do you mean you won't go either? What will happen to you?"
"They'll send me back."
"Back to what?"
"Back to where I came from. The Big Nap."
"So, if I don't agree to go down there, I'll in effect be killing you. That's what it sounds like."
"Thomas, I shouldn't have said anything. It's not fair to put you on the spot like this. But I want to be honest about what’s happening."
I didn't know what to make of this bizarre conversation. The whole premise was wrong. Everybody knows that the so-called Underworld, or Hell, or the Inferno, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't exist except in ancient myths and in Dante's fertile imagination, and today in the rantings and ravings of demented imams and preachers. Yet here I am talking to Edward's ghost as if Hell really exists and he wants me to go there.
"Is it safe to assume you don't want to go back to being dead?"
"That's a fair assumption, but listen, Thomas, I feel bad about barging in on you like this. I can imagine how unsettling it must be. Don't worry about me. I shouldn't have mentioned it. Do what's best for you. 'If I am not for myself, who will be?'" That was the first line of his favorite Talmud quote.
"If I am only for myself, what am I?" I said.
"If not now, when?'" we said together and laughed.
"Are you living down there now?"
"For the time being I am, but as I told you, I'll only get to stay if I can get you to go down there too. Thomas, my time’s up. I have to go. It's been wonderful talking to you. I hope you accept my invitation, but if you decide you can't or don't want to, I'll understand. I won’t hold it against you. I'll come back to find out how you're doing with this."
Before I could ask him any more questions or even say good-bye, he disappeared like a light suddenly turned off.
[More Sample Chapters]
My father was very much on my mind the morning I took the crosstown bus through Central Park to the New Beginnings office on the East Side. At lunch in the Union Seminary cafeteria my ears had perked up when I overheard a conversation about a small employment agency run by an ex-nun called New Beginnings that helps church people find non-church jobs. I had left my parish to come to New York with my bishop’s permission on a leave of absence for “theological study and reflection” as he put it. Since a new beginning was just what I needed, I called New Beginnings and made an appointment even though I knew my father would turn over in his grave if he knew what I was doing.
At the brownstone on East 89th Street where the their office was located, I rang the bell and was buzzed in. I walked up to the third floor where Mrs. Brogan was waiting for me at the door. Dressed in a black pants suit with her brown hair tied in a bun behind her head, she looked as formidable as she had sounded on the phone. She gestured for me to come in and sit down in the chair next to her desk.
When I told her I was interested in working outside the church, at least for awhile, she said, "You've come to the right place. First of all, let me tell you how we operate so you'll know what you're getting into. After we find you a job, you give us one month of your annual salary that's payable in installments. That's what keeps us going. We have some private funding, but it's nowhere near enough. We barely keep afloat as it is. We think one month's salary is fair. How does that sound to you?"
"Good. The first thing I want you to do is start thinking about the work you did in a new way. People who come here tend to underestimate the value of what they did. The truth is you've dealt with many different kinds of people and have had experiences most people haven't had. That's why employers will be interested in you. So when you fill out the questionnaire I'm going to give you, you'll understand why it's so detailed. But for now just give me a brief run-down of your church experience so I get the picture."
She took notes while I told her about my clerical family--my father and two grandfathers, my father’s father who had been the Dean of the Cambridge Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and my mother’s father who had been the Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut for thirty years. I also told her about my two years as a curate in Darien, and my four and a half years as the rector of St. Luke’s Church in northern Connecticut.
When I finished, she put her pen down and leaned back. "So let me make sure I have this right. You resigned from your parish, and now you're in New York with your bishop's permission. You want a new lease on life and would like to earn some money."
"They didn't catch you in bed with the bishop's wife?” She smiled. “Or with the bishop?"
"No, no, there was no big scandal if that's what you're asking."
"Because if there was any funny business, I need to know about it. These things have a way of coming out sooner or later."
"There was no funny business, as you call it."
"What kind of work would you like to do?"
"Something to do with writing if that’s possible. One of the things I liked best about the parish, believe it or not, was writing the sermons. I have a box of them in my apartment if anybody's interested. They're not bad if I do say so myself, especially my Dante sermons."
“I like that he takes on big subjects like love, death, Heaven, Hell, things like that. Plus he's a great poet. The greatest ever in my opinion.”
"Do you think your interest in him might have something to do with your thinking about leaving the church?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you're obviously going against the grain of how you were brought up, so maybe you feel guilty about doing that. Maybe you think that if you leave the church you'll be punished. Go to Hell."
"I never thought about it that way. Are you a therapist or something?"
"I was, but not anymore. At least not officially. But it does come in handy when I see people doing things that undermine their progress. But that's not something we need to worry about now."
She opened the bottom drawer of her desk and took out a large envelope. She put on the desk and pushed towards me.
"Here's everything you need to know about us. Take it home and read it. If you have any questions, give me a call. The questionnaire I want you to fill out is in there. Get it back to me as soon as you can so I can get started on your resume and line up some interviews."
"There's something else that's important. On the first Monday of every month we have what we call a 'transition workshop.' The next one is Monday night. Everybody's expected to attend. It's right here." She pointed at the room next to her office that had a long table, chairs, and a podium. "It's a combination rap session, support group, and social hour. Sometimes we have a guest speaker, and we'll have one on Monday. You'll get to meet the others, so it's important that you be here. It starts at 7:30. Will that be a problem for you?"
"Not at all."
"Good. As you probably already know, the job market's a bit iffy these days, but don't worry about that. We haven't failed anybody yet. Every person who comes through that door gets help sooner or later. But you have to be patient and persistent because it can be a slow process and usually is. But I can promise you this--if you want to make a new life for yourself, you will."
"That's good to know. How long have you been doing this work?"
"Nine years." She turned and pointed at a chart with colored markings on the wall behind her. "That's what makes it all worthwhile. Each mark stands for somebody who made it."
"What do the different colors stand for?"
"Catholic, Protestant, marital status, children, that sort of thing."
"Who gets the gold stars?"
"That's for a priest, nun, or monk who gets a secular job, gets married, and has at least one kid. That's doing pretty good as far as I'm concerned." She stood up and pointed at one of the gold stars. "That's my favorite. It's my husband Joseph."
"We have two boys, and we're in the process of adopting a little girl from Vietnam. Joseph was a Jesuit, so he likes to tell people he's starting his own Society of Jesus. The boys and I have fun calling him Father Superior."
"It looks like I won’t be a candidate for a gold star since I'm not Catholic, I'm not married, and I don't have any children."
"You'll get a red circle. That's for a Protestant clergyman who gets a secular job. But we don't have to worry about that now. First things first. Fill out the questionnaire, and we'll take it from there."
She got up, and I followed her to the door.
"Thank you very much, Mrs. Brogan."
"Call me Ma."
She had told me on the phone to call her Ma, but that was going to take some getting used to.
"OK. I already feel much better."
"Good. You're on your way."
We smiled at each other and shook hands.
"See you Monday. Welcome to our little underground railroad."
The next morning I was sitting on the couch staring at the goldfish and brooding about my jobless, moneyless plight when the phone rang. I hoped it was Ma with an interview.
"Hello, Reverend Reed, you don't know me. My name is Lucy Amory. I'm calling because I have a problem I hope you can help me with."
"What's the problem, Mrs. Amory?"
"A terrible thing has happened.” Silence. “Winston passed away."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Right away I guessed what she wanted. In Pineville the tilt of my priesthood had been toward death and funerals. I felt like a marked man.
"I would like to know if you would be willing to do the service."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Amory. I'm not in the active ministry anymore. I suggest you call one of the churches."
"I tried that, but I'm afraid they haven't been helpful. Besides, I'm not much of a churchgoer these days."
"Then a funeral home will be your best bet."
"But I want something special right here in our home. I've made the arrangements for the burial, but I'm having a terrible time."
Her voice started to crack.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Amory. I've retired from parish work. In fact, I'm in the process of switching careers."
"I know. That's what Mrs. Brogan said."
"That's right. She gave me your name. She told me what a fine young man you are. I'm sorry to bother you like this, but with the burial scheduled for Thursday I'm getting desperate."
"How long ago did Mr. Amory pass away?"
"Mr. Amory?" There was a long pause. "He passed away last month."
My God! She has a reeking, rotting corpse in her apartment, and she wants me to bury it?
"I do so much wish Russell could have been here. He loved Winston as much as I did. For both of us he was much more than just a dog."
Dog? She wants me to bury her dog? I had read about these things in the newspaper. What was I supposed to say? That I'm only ordained to bury people? That the church in its wisdom has decreed that dogs don't have souls? That dogs are not sufficiently high up on the evolutionary ladder to rate sacraments?
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Amory. I'm sure Winston meant a great deal to you and I'm sorry he's no longer with you, but..."
"I'll pay you an honorarium, of course."
"That's not the point."
"That's right, but if you don't think that's enough."
"No, no, that's plenty. I mean, it's just that...are you sure Mrs. Brogan recommended me for this?"
"That's why I'm calling. She gave me your number and told me to call you. She thought you might be willing to help."
"Listen, Mrs. Amory, I'm going to have to call you back about this. I need a few minutes." I wrote down her number and promised I would call her right back.
"Thank you, Reverend Reed. Thank you very much." I hung up and was starting to call Ma when the phone rang.
"Hello, Tom. It's me. I'm calling to let you know that a Mrs. Amory is going to call you."
"She just did."
"Ah, she beat me to it. Poor dear, she's very upset."
"She caught me by surprise."
"I bet. I'm sorry I didn't get to you first to explain the situation. I know it's a little off the beaten path."
"Let me fill you in on the background, so you don't think I've lost all my marbles. Her husband was one of our biggest supporters. Not just giving us money, but getting jobs for our people. In fact, Russell gave Joseph his first job. We owe them a lot. So when she called me at her wit's end, I thought of you. I hope you don't mind."
"I don't mind. It's just that it was unexpected to say the least."
"I know, I'm sorry. But you should have heard some of the abuse she had to take, especially from your people because she tried mostly your churches. When she called St. Bartholomew's, the secretary laughed at her and hung up.
"I figured you might be in just enough of an antiestablishment mood to help her out. She's a little eccentric, I know, but she's a dear. Besides, I didn't think you would be against picking up a little extra pocket money. I knew you could always say no."
"What kind of dog was he?"
"Black Labrador. They used to show him. As you can tell, he meant everything to them. His death really hit her hard coming so soon after Russell passed away." Ma was quiet. "So what did you tell her?"
"Nothing yet. I told her I'll call her back. I just wanted to check with you first to make sure this is for real."
"Oh, it's for real all right. Are you going to do it?"
I thought about Mrs. Amory. I thought about those bastards laughing at her. And I thought about the money. "Sure. I'll do it."
"Thanks, Tom. I knew you would.
Thursday morning I took the box of my church equipment out of the bedroom closet, never dreaming I would ever wear my clericals again. As I put on my dark gray suit, black shirt, and collar, I thought about wearing my raincoat and a scarf as a way to hide my identity, but it was a bright, sunny day without a cloud in the sky.
I left the building quickly and was glad not to run into anybody I knew. I went to the corner and took the crosstown bus through the Park to the East Side. I got off and walked down to 810 Park Avenue.
"Good morning, Father," said the doorman. "Mrs. Amory is expecting you. Go all the way back and take the elevator to the ninth floor."
I walked through the lobby with its mirrors and tropical plants past a marble fountain to the private elevator that took me up to Mrs. Amory's apartment. A maid in a black and white uniform met me and took me down a carpeted hallway past a library and a room filled with trophies, ribbons, and photos.
A strong scent of roses greeted me when I entered the living room, now emptied of all furniture except for a stand covered by a white satin spread with gold tassels. Flowers were everywhere--surrounding the stand, on tables, under windows, and in every corner.
"Reverend Reed?" said a voice behind me. "I'm Lucy Amory."
She was a small woman dressed in black with immaculately coiffured gray hair and soft blue eyes. She was wearing a corsage of white roses.
"I'm so glad you could come early. You don't know how much better I feel having you here." She took my hand and gave it a squeeze. "As you can see, this is where we'll have the service. Do you think it looks all right?"
"It looks very nice. I'm going to do the service from this." I held up the prayer book I used for funerals in Pineville.
The maid reappeared. "Excuse me, Ma'am. Mr. Dolan is here."
"Oh, good." Mrs. Amory touched my arm. "Excuse me for a moment." She left and returned with a short, balding man with a ruddy complexion. "Reverend Reed, this is Mr. Dolan."
"Glad to meet you, Reverend," he said and we shook hands.
Mrs. Amory sighed. "I don't know what I would have done without the both of you."
"Pets are my business, Ma'am."
I heard grunting, then voices.
"Chrissake, Tony, don't hit the wall."
Around the corner came two men, one pulling, the other pushing a large maple casket set on wheels. They were wearing green uniforms with "Dolan Animals" scrolled on their shirts.
"Over here," said Dolan.
They rolled the casket over to the stand, then lifted it up and set it in place. The shorter man wiped his nose with his sleeve while the other one looked around the room.
Dolan checked to make sure the casket was secure. "OK, that should do it."
Mrs. Amory followed them out but soon came back and stared at the casket with sorrowful eyes. She took me to a small room off the living room where she said I would be more comfortable.
"You can't imagine what a lifesaver you are.” She gave my hand another squeeze. “I'm so glad it will be done right." She told me she would come back and tell me when it was time to begin.
Waiting in the side room for the service to begin, I thought back to the time in Dalton when after my friend, Bobbie, and I found the dead sparrow behind the parish house, we dug a hole and had a funeral for the bird with me doing the officiating naturally.
I loved animals from the beginning, not just pets but all kinds of animals. When my parents taught me to say my prayers before getting into bed, I prayed for animals as well as well as the people I was supposed to pray for—family, friends, clergy, Congress, the President, etc. I began by praying for our cat Constantine and the other dogs and cats in the neighborhood, but I didn't stop there. I prayed for birds, squirrels, horses, cows, sheep, goats, ducks, crows, chickens, raccoons, elephants, hippopotamuses, and any other animals I read about, or saw on television. I even prayed for rats, lizards, snakes, and the cockroaches my mother and the housekeeper used to kill in the laundry room. I thought that if I didn't grow up to be a clergyman like my father and grandfathers, I would be a veterinarian. I thought of them as ministers to the animal kingdom.
Waiting in the side room for the funeral to begin, I felt more at peace with myself than I had in a long time. It was good to be needed again the way I used to be at St. Luke's, especially at funeral time. With the barking and voices getting louder, it was obvious it was going to be a mixed congregation.
When Mrs. Amory came back and whispered it was time to begin, I put the stole over my shoulders and went out into the living room that was now full of dogs and people. As if on cue, all the dogs stopped sniffing and scratching and looked at me with ears perked, heads cocked, and nostrils taut. Realizing I was challenging some sort of canine equilibrium, I went over to the casket slowly and carefully.
Directly in front of me an aristocratic white poodle, attired in fur bracelets, collar, pom-pom tail, and pink and blue ribbons, stared at me with icy contempt. The other dogs in front were deciding what to make of me: an Afghan hound with flowing, hippie-like hair, a nervous little Chihuahua with bulging eyes, and a flat-nosed, bowlegged bulldog, panting audibly with his pink tongue dangling out of the side of his mouth, sending a string of saliva down onto the rug. However, my most immediate concern was the German shepherd to my left who was barely being restrained by a woman in a blue pants suit and dark glasses.
I opened my prayer book and began. "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." With the shepherd growling, baring his teeth, and straining against his leash, I felt like a missionary who had stumbled on a tribe of cannibals.
"We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out."
Although these biblical sentiments seemed to be having a calming effect on the people and the other dogs, they weren't doing anything to pacify the shepherd. I looked out at Mrs. Amory for help, but she was in back caught up in the tribute to her beloved.
I decided to skip the psalm and go straight to the gospel.
"Here beginneth the fourteenth chapter of The Gospel According to St. John."
The sound of a distant noon whistle set the dogs off. The shepherd leapt up on his hind legs and barked ferociously while the other dogs yelped, howled, and did nervous little dances. In the back a fight broke out between a Skye terrier and a Pomeranian. A basset hound broke loose and rushed forward to the casket while a Doberman Pinscher showed his teeth and rolled around erratically on the rug. To quell the pandemonium Mrs. Amory went around the room admonishing the dogs by name, scolding the worst offenders until order was finally restored.
When it was quiet again, I finished reading the Gospel and moved closer to the casket to give the blessing. I saw Winston for the first time through the flowers. He was lying there black, beautiful, and serene with his eyes closed as if sleeping. The room was absolutely still. Even Theodosius looked woeful.
"Unto God's gracious mercy and protection we commit you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace, both now and ever more."
As I made the sign of the cross over Winston, a line from Hamlet came to my mind. Since it seemed appropriate, I said it out loud: "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
In the elevator on the way down Theodosius looked up at me with his head cocked to one side and his ears perked. When I made a smacking sound with my lips, he answered with a bark, but not an unfriendly bark. He sniffed my hand and licked it.
"See, he really likes you," said the woman. She bent down and hugged his neck. "Theo's my love. Theo, Theo, Theo, you're my love."
The door opened and the dogs on leashes pulled their human companions through the lobby past the dribbling fountain out onto the sidewalk.
I finished my duties at the animal cemetery in Wantagh on Long Island. The burial was a small, private affair--just Mrs. Amory, Mr. Dolan, two cemetery workers, and a friend of Mrs. Amory with a beautiful, black poodle who watched the proceeding with incredibly sad eyes.
"Man, that is born of woman, hath but a short time to live." The poodle was whimpering. Probably Winston's girlfriend, I figured. "He cometh up and is cut down like a flower." I picked up a handful of dirt. "Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our loved one, Winston, departed, and we commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
I threw the dirt on the casket and gave the final blessing. As the workers started lowering the casket down into the hole, the poodle broke free and rushed to the grave. Had she not been quickly restrained, I have no doubt she would have jumped in on top of the casket. She whined and pawed the ground as she looked down at the casket in its final resting place.
I rode back to the city with Mrs. Amory in the back of her limo. I had accompanied the deceased to the cemetery in Dolan's hearse. Now it was time to be with the bereaved.
"I'm going to miss him terribly," she said. "First Russell, now Winston. My life's not going to be the same."
We were speeding along the Long Island Expressway.
"Winston must have had a lot of friends."
"Oh, yes," she said more brightly. "He was very popular, especially with the ladies." She laughed. "But Melissa was his special friend. They've known each other since they were pups. She took it very hard, causing all that fuss back there. Yes, everyone at the service knew him in some way. The young girl with the blond hair was Winston's walker. His vet couldn't make it, but he sent lovely flowers. Even his first obedience teacher sent a card from Chicago. In his own way, Winston was quite famous."
"Who was the man with the beard?"
"That was Dr. Holtman. He was Winston's psychiatrist. The two of them got to be quite close by the end. Winston was never the same after we stopped showing him. He had a lot of trouble with the adjustment. All that attention, then suddenly nothing. So, we took him to Dr. Holtman. He said dogs have identity crises just like people, especially show dogs after they retire." Her eyes were beginning to tear up. "I wish you could have known him."
"He sounds like quite a dog."
"I always wondered if there wasn't more to it though. I think it was a big blow to his ego when they took him off the stud list at the New York Kennel Club. You know how sensitive men are about those things."
Up ahead of us loomed the Manhattan skyline.
"I wanted to have Winston buried with us in our plot, but they wouldn't allow it. Really," she said with disgust, "people can be so narrow. Don't you think it's silly to have segregated cemeteries? I mean, up in Heaven or wherever we're supposed to go, do you think people will be separated from their pets? I wouldn't accept afterlife if I didn't think Winston was going to be there to share it with us." She sighed. "What does the church have to say about that?"
My collar was pinching like it used to in the old days. "To my knowledge they don't have an official position on it, but I must say it would be hard for me to imagine any god worth his salt who didn't love animals."
"I'm glad you said that. Thank you. I wish there were more clergy like you. It serves them right for losing you."
As we approached the Queens Midtown Tunnel, she took out her checkbook. "I want to give you your honorarium now. You can't imagine how grateful I am for all you've done." She had already written the check, so she tore it out and handed it to me. "Here. This is for you and a little extra for being so nice."
"Thank you." I glanced at it as I folded it and put it in my pocket. $800! "Thank you very much, Mrs. Amory. You're very kind."
"You deserve every penny of it. Now tell me where you want to go and we'll drop you off."
"No need to go out of your way."
The limousine crossed Central Park to the West Side and dropped me off at my door. Feeling self-conscious in my clerical uniform, I darted into the building and dashed upstairs.