One Christmas past, my daughter and her friend brought home fifteen sick puppies from a kill shelter rescue mission that had gone awry. I imagined a family home Christmas as a video, swarming with curious, slightly weak puppies around the Christmas tree.
I didn’t know much about Parvo at the time. Reality hit quickly. When we saw how sick the puppies were, we rallied to a new mission, setting up an emergency vet clinic.
For the two days leading to Christmas we nursed half-pound infants, trying desperately to save them from the grim effects of the disease. We kept our arms full, set alarms and devised a way to hydrate with homemade IV’s. Instead of going to a midnight service we prayed for their survival as we held them and watched them fade. Hour after hour the little pile of bodies in the corner grew. In the end only one survived, born miraculously on Christmas Eve.
My blog post that season said “This will be the Christmas of Dead Puppies soon, and we will laugh. Someday.” When my son Ben read it, he said he cried, and I saw how powerful my protective shield had been, and how truly traumatic it had been for all of us. We needed to grieve. Now, ten years later, I have the distance to see the whole picture and appreciate how we coped.. We cried plenty, but somehow even in the midst of it all there were moments of hilarity.
What saved us was being able to see our own powerlessness in the face of the absolute absurdity of the scene. We told ourselves that it couldn’t get any worse and then it did. Again and again. I guess you could say that dark humor became our greatest ally. This and the power of distraction. My memories of the year feature us stumbling through some Christmas carols, playing Pictionary, and awkwardly dancing to a Wii Rock Band workout featuring Beatles music. But mostly I remember the laughter.
It may seem strange, but ten years later I realize that this may be have been our most deeply soulful Christmas of all, working together through the crisis and still finding a kind of humor in the midst of an awful situation. Later I heard Anne Lamott call laughter “carbonated holiness,” and I knew just what she was talking about.
This is what I wish for each of you this holiday season.
Without the dead puppies.
Just some carbonated holiness.
Dead Puppy Christmas
Today in the mist of a stroll
through the Advent calendar
I open tiny windows of Christmases past,
The first scene is one I tenderly recall,
Dead Puppy Christmas
There we are, five of us humans,
jostling fifteen half-pound puppies
before the Grinch of Parvo took over,
now sick and getting sicker.
Across from the tree in this diorama
is a small I-V stand
Each hour another pup stops breathing
and a tiny body Is added
to the pile in the corner.
In between we cry,
stumble through carols,
distract ourselves with sugar cookies,
eggnog, gingerbread and games,
Tending to life and to death,
Awaiting the miracle of Christmas Eve,
one surviving puppy.