Confronting Our Fears Yields Gifts We Might Never Have Imagined

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Something extraordinary happened this summer. I have been slow to find words to describe the sequence of events that taught me that the things we fear most in life have the power to bring us great joy and peace. What if the scariest thing in your life – the thing you feared most – turned out to be the most peaceful, beautiful thing you never imagined possible?

Never would I have imagined that my dog’s passing could deliver such peace and gratitude. Don’t get me wrong… I miss my beloved Congo every day. I cry on walks without her. I go to bed saying her name, and I dream of hugging her in my sleep where I experience the very real delight of having her in my arms again. How could I not? We had nearly fourteen wonderfully bonded years together, always side by side.

Congo had been sick for a long time. It was painful to watch her slow deterioration, but she held on, and on. We never thought she would make it past the winter. It was a brutal winter with one storm after another. I remember waking before dawn one morning to shovel a path through two feet of snow in negative 10˚F so that I could carry her out to pee before she had an accident and carry her back in before she froze.

As the sun came up and cast shadows over the stillness, the purity and the white, I remember looking out at the silence and soaking it all up…the paths I had cut…my breath playing on the air…bare trees in half shadow and light. I remember saying to myself: this is EXACTLY where I want to be. There is NOTHING I would rather be doing

 Our last winter together. A selfie with Congo

Our last winter together. A selfie with Congo

Congo held on through the spring and into the summer. I began to panic -seriously panic - when I realized that our summer holiday was booked and I would not be present for my dog’s passing. For more than thirteen years I had been living and breathing with her. Not being there for her last breath was an incredibly painful pill to swallow. This was not the way it was supposed to end. This was not “The Plan” I had in mind and yet, and yet…there is never a plan. 

Congo spent the summer as she always did - with my brother John and his partner, JP, at their home in Virginia, a place she knew well and loved, having spent six summers there with her two sons, Trouble and Noir. Her final weeks were spent taking part in happy, relaxed moments together with all "her boys" and adoring friends. I am deeply moved by John and JP’s deep commitment and love for her, and for me.  They lovingly picked up where I left off and helped us through this difficult time. I have written about it in a separate blog post [here].

Man’s love for his dog is boundless. It is as complex as it is pure and simple. For me and Congo, and for countless others, there is always a bit of magic wrapped up in it, too. 

Shortly after my husband and I married, we sold our townhouse in London. Together with Congo, we moved to our home in the South of France, for the proverbial year [or two] in Provence. It wasn’t long before Congo and I both fell pregnant. Unbeknownst to either my dog or me [or my husband], our village of Cotignac has a reputation for making ladies – and Queens - fall pregnant, and this is where the “magic” comes in to play, as ancient village lore threaded its way through our lives.    

The story of Notre Dame de Grace in Cotignac began in 1519 on August 10th and 11th when the Virgin Mary appeared to Jean de La Baume and asked him to build a chapel there. Et voila! The townspeople agreed and the chapel was built. Over a century later, on October 27, 1637 the good Brother Fiacre had a revelation that The Queen, Anne d’Autriche, wife of Louis XIII, needed to make three novenas to the Virgin in order for a son to be delivered to them – the first of those three was sent up to our village’s Notre-Dame de Graces en Provence. The queen then prayed with Brother Fiacre from November 8th until December 5th. Exactly nine months later, Louis XIV was born on September 5, 1638 and Notre-Dame de Graces en Provence is now, and not surprisingly, a noted pilgrimage.

Key dates from the story of our village chapel overlap with my own and Congo’s.  I find myself compelled by the coinciding dates and how they provide some “glue” to the age-old mystery of Love and Loss.  There is comfort to be found in context and connection, especially when confronted with loss.

It is possible [but not proven] that Congo fell pregnant on October 27th, 2002 - 365 years after Brother Fiacre's revelation and 66 days before she gave birth to nine puppies on January 3, 2003.

Congo had been deteriorating for over a year yet she held on through a crushing winter and spring in Massachusetts and eventually died in the state of Virginia [!] on August 11th, 484 years to the day the Virgin first appeared in Cotignac and as it happens, the same week that our baby daughter died there eleven years earlier, on August 15th – the day of the Virgin’s Assumption in to Heaven. 

August is definitely my month for angels in France. Our home there is a quiet place of peace and reflection for me.  As much as I resisted leaving my dog in her final days, it seems oddly fitting that I was in France when I received the news of Congo’s passing under the bright light of a super moon. 

I wrote to my friends back home in America letting them know that Congo had left us on a moonbeam. The following day my son and I rode our bikes up to the chapel of Notre Dame to light candles in remembrance and gratitude for the sweet life she shared with us. When we sat down and looked up at the painting of the Virgin lit by votive candles below, I gasped…there was the Virgin floating on a moon beam. This made me happy, deeply so, as though it confirmed all my thoughts of my dog going to heaven on a moonbeam.

We continued to sit there in the silence staring up at the painting and feeling the peace in the chapel. Moments later, I asked my son if he saw what I saw in the shadows of the painting, just above the left tip of the moonbeam. I admit it’s a little like “fifty shades of black” and maybe it’s just the way the shadows fall when viewed from the left pew…but there in the black background that surrounds the Madonna, peeks the little face of a black dog on the tip of the moonbeam. We both saw it and returned a week later to see if it was still there. It is.

Coincidence, synchronicity, chance or imagination – people label things differently. For me, I am not looking for a label, especially when one is not needed. The stars were aligned and the dates fell as they did and we saw what we saw in that peaceful chapel. No matter what it’s called – scientific or spiritual - I took huge comfort in knowing that my beloved dog and all the good in her was mysteriously aligned with an ancient story belonging to our village’s Virgin; and of all places to die, she ended her days in the state of Virginia. It made losing her and letting her go, somehow easier, softer, and I worried less. It allowed me to think less about Loss and more about Love.

Her death didn't have to be an ending. As I carry this love, I am grateful for the lingering sense that Congo has continued on, moving toward something new, something ‘higher,’ just there at the tip of a moonbeam. In the end, what I feared most did not break me. It re-shaped my ability to accept Loss and not fear and resent it. As I hold on to the many happy years Congo and I shared, always side by side, I am filled with Gratitude and Love and I know that this is a very, very precious gift indeed.