Across the country, young married couples have settled on the perfect preparation for parenthood: a puppy.
It is a trial run that delivers many of the same tussles and delights – a tiny, big-eyed creature who is named and measured and potty trained, who interrupts Netflix and upends the budget, protracting Saturday mornings and contracting Saturday nights. Someone to worry about and brag about, to snuggle and scold. Someone to put in the Christmas card.
It may seem silly, but the multi-vitamin dog treats and rhinestone-encrusted collars come with the immediate miracle of getting outside yourself – committing to that pup and feeling your heart rise and fall with its every whimper.
Puppy training is, indeed, parent training.
Three in four Catholic households report having a pet, according to the American National Election Studies. This month we salute their patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, and all the motley pets we’ve loved. We gather under the slanted sun for animal blessings, a reminder of the catholicity of Catholicism, that the stuff of home life has a place in the church – even the critters that shed.
Jackie, 48, a curly-haired Catholic who has never married, cherishes her Shih Tzu. Without her, the New Jersey native says, “this house would be really lonely.”
Jackie lost her male Shih Tzu in May, “after 15 and a half years of happiness and love.”
Hallmark introduced pet sympathy cards in 1984, and over the years, sales have steadily increased. “Your pet was part of the family,” reads one card, picturing an empty soft chair. “That’s what makes saying goodbye so hard.”
The more hours I log in my office, the more I appreciate even passing animal encounters, like the four raccoons that cautiously descended our oak after a thunderstorm, crawling in pairs and leaning against each other. Or the tree frog that landed on the front door one August evening, mystifying with its bulging yellow eyes.
Sit too long at a computer and you can forget everything outside the inbox.
That’s why my family packed three binoculars and a 16-gigabyte memory card on our recent Alaskan cruise. We yearned to see some hulking mammal living among the woodland and waterfalls. Goats and moose and bears – oh, my!
Bald eagles flew overhead, salmon swam below us. And I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for whale watching. Two and a half hours and a guarantee of a whale spotting or your money back. I handed over my credit card and signed up.
Two and a half hours later, the outlook was bleak: gray sky, gray water, biting wind and pelting rain.
“This is when they toss out the battery-operated rubber whale,” someone joked.
And finally, a humpback. On our side of the boat. Not far.
The dorsal fin made a smooth arc, sliding from right to left. I snapped my camera repeatedly, pointing it at the whale and lowering it to my chin so I could observe directly, without any filter.
Here was a 40-ton beast in an endless ocean choosing that very moment to dip above the water. Witnessing that spontaneous act in that natural environment felt like peering behind the curtain into a secret world. You only get a few seconds, but you memorize the sight.
“All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures,” St. Francis wrote in his Canticle of the Creatures.
We echo his words today, craning our necks to take it all in. The world is big, and we are small.