Praying to St Francis

2009-05-14 00:00

PERHAPS having pets is a training for the tasks of life.

We have just returned from Easter in Tuscany. Some of my family rented a restored farmhouse deep in the Tuscan countryside. The setting was idyllic. Tuscany is one of those rare places that not only fulfils but even exceeds one’s expectations.

The scenery is surreal. On the hilltops are ancient walled villages, most dating from Etruscan times and fortified by successive generations of Guelphs and Ghibellines and dukes and bishops. Some are glamorous like San Gimignano with its improbable towers, but delectable just the same.

Some are famous like Cortona where Frances Mayes set her book Under the Tuscan Sun (we stayed overnight but never saw Ms Mayes). Some are humble and workmanlike but still functioning centres of rural society, such as Radicondoli, the village near our farmhouse.

We gathered there in the trattoria for long lunches or in the taverna for glasses of Vernacchi overlooking vineyards and sheep meadows. Tuscany is like nowhere else in Italy — or on the earth, for that matter. It is a sort of heaven.

But undercutting the pleasure of our surroundings and the joy of being united with distant children and grandchildren, prickling at the back of the minds of my wife and I was a sadness.

Just before we left for the holiday which had been planned so long ago and so eagerly anticipated, we discovered that Emma, our dear, bouncing, exuberantly loving Labrador, had cancer.

Her illness was the flip side to our holiday happiness. We remembered her in towns and cities as we lit candles for her in richly ornamented churches and duomos.

We remembered her in the countryside as we watched the unusual Italian sheepdogs — dogs who are white like the sheep, and who keep watch all day over the flock, herding them away when they wander too close to the danger of roads or cliffsides.

Our travels around Tuscany took us further afield to Umbria and Assisi. The Basilica at Assisi is somehow different from other large Italian churches. In most, noisy daily life and religious devotion exist side by side.

While guides point out frescoes and artworks to groups of cheeky schoolchildren, and Japanese tourists click their cameras endlessly, priests are saying masses in side chapels, and penitents queue at confessionals.

Each group, tourists and worshippers, are oblivious to the other. It is a particular Mediterranean talent.

Assisi is different. In the lower church of the Basilica of St Francis, where St Francis is buried, tourists become worshippers. Silence and reverence prevail. People talk, if at all, in whispers. The presence of the saint, who lived 800 years ago, seems palpable.

We wrote Emma’s name on a card and pushed the card into the railings around the saint’s tomb. We were embarrassed at our naïvete, our sentimentality.

But if anyone would join our prayers for Emma it would surely be St Francis, who preached to the birds and tamed the wolf.

Perhaps when we returned the cancer would be in remission and Emma her bouncy self once more. How easy to understand the desperate hope of those with an ill loved one for a miracle cure.

But on our return there had been no miracle. If the saint assisted our prayers, it was not to make the cancer disappear. The cancer had progressed. It could only be a matter of days before it was time to say “Enough; let her go now.”

And indeed, less than a week after our return, she was put to sleep.

Of course the death of a pet is part of the price of owning one. Of course we must keep it in perspective and remember that it can only be compared to the death of a spouse, a friend, a child, in a very small way. Learning to cope with the death of a pet is part of a training for life’s greater lessons.

But Emma’s death seems to be a training for something more sombre, even scary.

The cancer came so suddenly and unexpectedly. She was not an old dog. Just a few weeks ago she had been a bouncing bundle of energy with a tireless appetite for food and walks. In what seemed a moment she had changed to a shadow of herself who could just manage a feeble wag of a tail.

It has been a frightening reminder to us of how fragile life and happiness are. One day we take life for granted. It seems life will go on forever. Mortal illness and death are far away in the future, casting no cloud on today.

Tomorrow the unexpected happens and everything changes. In a moment, things changed for Emma.

In a moment they might change too for me. In human versus dog years, although abundant in health, I am older than Emma. Will mortality intervene unexpectedly?

Will I have the courage to cope?

The strength to manage?

I cannot say until that moment comes. Emma’s illness is not just a training for the tasks of life, but for the tasks also of dying.

In a rather Buddhist way, Emma’s death has made me aware again that the things and even the people who give us joy are transitory.

The holiday in Tuscany is unrepeatable. One day I may go back — or not, as circumstances permit.

A second visit will not recreate the first. We may, after a suitable mourning period, get another dog. She will not be the same as Emma.

I may live another dozen years. Or, as with Emma, disaster may strike. The things and people that give us joy, and even life itself, will pass away. We may enjoy them, but if we cling to them we spoil the joy.

Things pass away. Joy remains. Not an original thought, I know — but a newly fresh one for me.

Despite it all, it was still a great Easter.

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