Does saving a life always mean preserving it, or does it sometimes mean letting go? When Gail Gilmore’s beloved dog Chispa is diagnosed with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, her first instinct is to fight for Chispa’s life; to do everything possible to bring the symptoms of this neurologically debilitating condition under control.
But treatments fail, and Chispa’s symptoms worsen. Faced with many emotionally complicated questions and difficult ethical decisions, Gail repeatedly visits the one place where she believes she might find the spiritual guidance and wisdom needed to make the best choice for Chispa—a tiny, extraordinary church in St. Johnsbury, Vermont called the Dog Chapel. Within the simple beauty of the chapel, its walls deeply layered with overlapping photographs and anonymous notes from thousands of previous visitors to dogs loved and lost, Gail seeks and eventually finds both answers and peace in the wise and loving words of the unknown people she comes to consider her tribe.
A story of unconditional love and devotion, Dog Church is also a story of finding comfort in faith and the ways in which the emotional threads of love and grief can bind complete strangers together for brief moments in time in ways that are ultimately life-changing.
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|Publisher:||Bedazzled Ink Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.40(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Gail Gilmore
Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Gail Gilmore
All rights reserved.
I BECOME A congregant of the Dog Chapel on the most ordinary of days. Driving west on Route 2, on the outskirts of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, I'm headed to my favorite Northeast Kingdom shoe store. It carries a surprising array of up-scale brands for these parts, and I love shopping there. No hassle, no pressure, just gorgeous shoes and the smell of brand new leather — the perfect place in which to spend a mindless hour or two on a Saturday afternoon.
Up ahead on the right, just beyond the big red Farmer's Daughter Gift Barn, I see the sign for the Dog Chapel. This is not the first time I've driven this stretch of Route 2, not the first time I've noticed the unusual sign with the life-size dog walker and pack of leashed dogs poised atop a tall granite base, an arrow beneath the words "Dog Chapel" pointing the way up a dirt road. I've always been curious about the Dog Chapel, but for whatever reason have never taken the time to visit. Next time, I invariably tell myself. Definitely next time.
And now, on this Saturday afternoon, I find myself inexplicably drawn to the sign, curious about what lies in the direction of the pointing arrow. What is this place? Could it actually be a chapel for dogs? Unlikely, I think, but if it is, who created it — and why? The sudden need to know the answers to these questions is absolute and overwhelming, and I pull off the main road to investigate.
I drive slowly up the longer and bumpier than expected dirt road, pull into a small unpaved parking lot, and get out of the car. Walking across the expansive lawn toward the chapel, I pass a small pond and a Colonial-style white building with a sign that reads "Gallery." This, I soon learn, is the gallery of artist and author Stephen Huneck, who considers the Dog Chapel, meant to celebrate the unbreakable bonds between dogs and the people who love them, his most significant piece of work.
I don't know what I'd expected, but when the Dog Chapel comes into view I'm astonished by what I see. The chapel, about the size of a one-room-schoolhouse, looks exactly like a nineteenth-century New England village church, right down to its white clapboards and high steeple. But when I take a closer look at the steeple, it's clear that the similarity to a traditional village church ends there. On top of this steeple, where I expect to see a cross, there's instead a carving — a gilded, winged Labrador retriever poised as if in flight toward heaven.
The doors to the Dog Chapel are open, the invitation obvious. As I approach the entrance, the sign near the steps makes me smile: "Welcome. All creeds, all breeds, no dogmas allowed." Good words to live by. For a moment, I envision what the world might look like if this sign, its words translated into thousands of languages, were posted outside every place of worship, all across the planet.
A recording of what sounds like Native American flute music, audible from outside the chapel, redirects my focus from visions of religious peace, harmony, and pluralism backto the present. The notes of the music are ethereal and haunting, and I follow them into the chapel.
Inside, I immediately notice a stack of brochures and a pile of colored index cards placed neatly on a long wooden table in the chapel's vestibule. I open a brochure and glance through it quickly. It recounts the history of the Dog Chapel, along with why it came into being, and provides a brief bio of Stephen Huneck. I slip one into my shoulder bag.
As I turn my full attention to the space around me, I realize that the walls are covered with randomly placed drawings, photographs, index cards, and post-its, creating a collage of vivid and overlapping color. When I approach the wall for a closer look, what I see amazes me. On every one of those index cards and post-its is a hand-written message for a deceased pet, left by a visitor to the chapel.
"To my loving dog Bear: I loved you more than anything in the world and no dog will ever replace you in my heart ... Thanks for being there when no one else was."
"My loves Butter & Bonnye — My best friends who changed my life and saw me through so many changes. I miss you over and over again, seeing you in so many other blessed dogs."
"You were my best friend. I'll love you forever. I miss you every day. Still. I wish I could have allowed you to live forever."
"Hannah: Tevy — My girls — I miss you so. Wait for me."
"Riley — Run free, my wonderful friend. We love you always."
"For my sweet little Ruby, who was my solace & my comfort through the dark nights of my childhood."
These messages resonate deeply with me. Even more curious now to see the rest of the Dog Chapel, I walk into the sanctuary. Inside the small, softly-lit space are five hand-carved and polished pews. The pews show touches of the artist's whimsy, their benches supported on each side by carved, painted dogs sitting in profile — four black Labs, four golden retrievers, and two yellow Labs. Placed throughout the sanctuary are life-size, true-to-breed dogs that Huneck has carved from wood, and the chapel's windows are stained glass scenes depicting not the lives of saints and martyrs, but the life of a black Lab. At the bottom of each window is a word, the Word of Dog: Peace, Play, Joy, Friend, Trust, Faith, and Love. On the floor near the front of the chapel, where an altar would normally stand, a well-worn hooked rug depicts two Labs engaged in a game of tug-o-war. The caption beneath the design reads "Love is Give and Take."
Holy smokes, I say to myself. It's like dog church in here.
I've never seen anything like it.
I sit in the rear pew and take in the details of my surroundings, and it's at this moment that the full impact of the Dog Chapel hits me. Just as in the vestibule, nearly every square inch of the sanctuary's walls, from floor to ceiling, is covered with index cards, post-its, drawings, and photographs. The entire Dog Chapel is a Wall of Remembrance — one great big love letter to dogs loved and lost but never forgotten.
This place is more than dog church — it's Dog Church.
As I sit in the sanctuary of the Dog Chapel, surrounded by the loving memories of people whose animals have changed their lives, I take a few moments to remember my own animals. I picture their shapes and colors, their individual markings and characteristics — the white blaze on a neck and chest, the tufted feet, the black spots on a nose, the long pointed ears that, depending on mood, stood straight up, folded themselves backward along a slender head, or stuck out sideways, like ears made of origami paper. I speak their names into the emptiness of the chapel: Nike, Lucy, Pez, Comet. What gifts their lives were to me, and how deeply I still miss their presence.
But I think, too, of my living animals — Laika, Chispa, Martina, and Mandu — and the ways in which they reflect God's unconditional love back to me in every moment of their existence. Alone in the Dog Chapel's sanctuary, the flute music a backdrop to my memories, I realize with some surprise that I've never felt closer to God than in this tiny church filled with testaments of love, loss, and grief. I begin to feel as if something truly extraordinary might happen to me here.
WHEN MY FOURTEEN-year-old black Lab Nike died, I called in sick for several days. She was the first of my dogs to die, and I was completely unprepared for the deep and raw grief I experienced — a grief so incapacitating that even the simplest tasks of daily living seemed, for the first few days, overwhelming and impossible. On the day I returned to work, I decided not to tell my colleagues why I'd been out. I was terrified of hearing, either outright or implied, the words "She was just a dog." The idea that my colleagues might even think those words, regardless of whether or not they spoke them, was enough to make me choose not to share with them what had been a very significant life event for me.
Nike's death taught me that grief can be one of life's most isolating experiences, particularly when one grieves the loss of a pet. But sitting in the Dog Chapel now, surrounded by the remembrances of others who grieve their deceased pets as deeply as I grieve my own, provides a sense of connection to a vast though unknown community of people like me — people who love their animals with their whole heart, who understand the ways in which the wordless and unconditional love of an animal can change everything. "Just a dog" doesn't exist in our communal lexicon. Instead, the words left behind by visitors to the Dog Chapel are like a silent conversation in which thousands of dog-bereft people reach out to one another and say, "Yes. I understand."
It's this feeling of connectedness to those who've visited the Dog Chapel before me that inspires me to get up from the pew and walk over to the back wall of the chapel. I want to bear witness to the love and grief of those who've written the thousands of notes stuck to the chapel walls, and to the joyful lives of the animals who have inspired those words. I look at a few more photographs, read a few more cards. Almost immediately, I wish I hadn't.
Drawn to a particular photograph, I don't realize until I begin to read the words beneath it that this remembrance is for a shelter dog. He is beautiful — white with golden brown spots on his haunches, ears and patches on either side of his face the same shade of golden brown as his spots, and a white muzzle. His tail is up, his head slightly down, as he looks at the person taking the photograph. He stands in a shelter pen, water and food bowls nearby. I love this dog at first sight.
The remembrance, written by a shelter worker, doesn't fit on an index card; it's written on a large sheet of white paper. I can't bear to read it in its entirety. The woman who writes about this dog describes her grief at having to put down dogs no one remembers or cares about. As I stand in the chapel's sanctuary, where the animals remembered are people's cherished pets, I'm grateful to this woman for bringing to mind all the others. No individual tributes will be written and left on the walls of the Dog Chapel for these abandoned dogs, but she speaks for them, remembers them, in a way that spares the reader no detail and no pain.
I'm completely unraveled by what I read, but the one small part of that emotionally naked remembrance I choose to take with me is this: "On this day in May there were enough tears to make the brightest, biggest rainbow especially for you, as you passed over the bridge and met your old and new friends waiting ... Please say we will meet again, for the first time, someday ... I hope every day there is a sunny day in May so you can romp and play ... never look back here where humans hurt and failed you ... I will never forget you." I hold onto those words tightly.
Gradually I become aware of the presence of another woman in the Dog Chapel, and make an effort to contain the intense emotions that have now rushed to the surface. But despite my attempts, the tears rise up and over the rims of my eyes in one quick and fluid motion — tears for the shelter dogs, for the loss of my own animals, and for the collective loss represented by every one of the photographs and notes pinned to the chapel walls.
Eventually my emotions drown themselves, and I walk slowly into the vestibule, pick up a small pastel-orange index card, and write a little love letter of my own. I then walk back into the sanctuary, climb up a small step ladder, and attach the card to the rear sanctuary wall with a pushpin, careful not to obscure other people's memories with my own. I climb back down the ladder and sit for a few moments on the bottom step, exhausted by all that's transpired in this place. And then, what I consider to be a little miracle happens.
Across from the step ladder a gangly, long-haired black dog lies on the floor, observing me quietly. I assume the dog belongs to the woman I noticed earlier in the vestibule. Glancing over at the dog, I feel there's something about her, something in the positioning of her body on the floor and the way she looks up at me, that's so familiar. I watch her for a few seconds more before making the connection — she reminds me of Nike. I extend my hand toward her slowly, tentatively.
The dog gets up from the floor and walks over to where I sit. She stands in front of me and gently licks my face, then my hands, in a purposeful way that seems to hold an intent known only to her. As the dog's tongue moves softly across my hand, I feel a rush of what I can only describe as the purest form of love sweep through my body. The sensation is fleeting, there and then gone, like a ghost.
But it happens.
It's as if I've been touched by something that's deeply known, yet beyond understanding. I wonder if perhaps in this place, for a very brief moment in time, one of my dogs has managed to reach through the liminal barrier between the living and the dead and, through this dog, touch and comfort me one more time. As I contemplate the possibility and meaning of this, the grief that overwhelmed me just moments earlier is transcended. I rub my hand along her neck, whispering over and over, "You're a special girl." As the dog and I sit there together, the woman enters the sanctuary from the vestibule. She walks over to the wall and places her index card near the shelter dog's remembrance. She notices me watching her, and hesitates a moment before speaking.
"Did you happen to read the letter about the dog in the shelter?" she asks.
I nod. "That was a tough one ... it pretty much undid me."
"I know what you mean. I volunteer at an animal shelter in the South. It's a kill shelter, so that letter brings up a lot of pain and anger for me. It's almost unbearable, reading it."
After a short silence, I ask what her dog's name is.
"Her name's Annie. She came from the shelter I volunteer at."
I tell her about the way Annie comforted me, and although I want to share my belief that the soul of one of my own dogs, dead now for nearly nine years, reached out to me through Annie, I stop just short of doing so. The feeling of resurrection that's come from my interaction with Annie feels too personal, too impossible to articulate. I've been touched by God in this place, and I know it. What I don't know is how to explain it.
Instead, the woman and I smile at each other and shake our heads slightly. We stand there together for a moment, eyes on Annie. I want to commit the dog to memory, every last detail of her. I watch her intently, taking in the color and texture of her fur, her wagging tail, her smile, the warmth and depth of her brown eyes and the love that radiates from them.
Out of nowhere, a silent prayer for her takes shape in my mind: May you live a long and happy life, may you be comforted as you have comforted others, and may the unconditional love you give with such joy come back to you over and over, now and forever. Amen.
I say goodbye to the woman, then run my hand over Annie's head one last time before leaving the chapel. I know I'll be back, but can't yet begin to imagine the way in which this tiny chapel overlooking Vermont farmland and built on a hill called Dog Mountain will become, over the years, one of the most sacred places in my spiritual landscape.CHAPTER 2
IT'S ABOUT TWENTY-FIVE minutes from St. Johnsbury to Littleton, New Hampshire, where my spouse Marisel and I have a vacation home, but I make the drive in a little less than twenty. My mind ignores the speed limit signs, instead pulling up image after unforgettable image of carved dogs and stained glass windows, notes and photographs, and Annie. I can't wait to share my discovery with Marisel. I pull the Jeep into the driveway, the tires crunching the loose gravel beneath them. That sound is the alert for our dogs, their cue to begin a frenzied yet oddly harmonic barking, meant as either welcome or warning depending on who you are and how you smell. I glance up at the living room window and spot them, Laika and Chispa, their heads just visible above the windowsill.
"Hey, girls," I call to them as I get out of the car.
At the sound of my voice, the barking morphs into excited whining and their heads disappear from view. They race over to the glass storm door to greet me as I walk up the steps onto the front porch.
Marisel isn't inside. I walk through the dining room, open the sliding glass door onto the back porch, and stand there for a moment gazing at the view of the mountains across the Connecticut River. I've stared at those mountains more times than I can remember, yet the sight of them never grows old for me. I loved them from the moment I saw them. They're beautiful, yes, but I love them for a different reason — for their constancy, their permanence. They will absolutely outlive me,those mountains, and loving them feels to me about as emotionally safe as love ever gets.
Excerpted from Dog Church by Gail Gilmore. Copyright © 2017 Gail Gilmore. Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
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