PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — A Glimpse Of Hope In The Face Of Death

Marti was a rescue dog. We found her through “Petfinder.com.” My youngest son, Ian, was a huge Peanuts fan, and he really wanted a Beagle, and I found a Beagle/Terrier cross at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in my hometown of Willmar, Minn.

It felt like serendipity. I had grown up in WIllmar with a Beagle/(we are pretty sure) Terrier cross, named Mr. Brown, so returning there to get Marti felt like life had come full circle.

The ad for her said, “She is a petite little pea pod that would prefer to stay in her shell. Once she opens up, it’s like a ray of sunshine has come through and she just melts your heart with admiration and love. She just wants to feel safe and sound in someone’s arms and know that you are never going to let go.”

When Ian and I arrived to pick her up, she was indeed a VERY shy and sad dog. She was just over a year old but had been abused and also had already delivered a litter of puppies that I am quite sure were not weaned properly. When we picked her up, we were told that if we hadn’t adopted her, she would likely have been put down the following week because she was just so depressed.

Ian held her in his arms the entire three-plus hour ride back to Casselton, N.D., forming a tight bond with her. Those first few weeks, Marti was shy and hesitant and scared, but we held her, cuddled her and she did indeed open up, melting our hearts with her admiration and love.

She was a rescue dog, but I think in many ways, Marti was the one who rescued us.

The first few years we lived with her were a tumultuous time in the lives of the boys and me. We were dealing with the demise and death of their father, my mother’s decline due to dementia, my father’s unexpected death and the family turmoil that surrounded issues with aging parents and my job loss. There were times when Duncan, Ian and I were walking wounded — all bleeding in different ways, unable to care for each other because our own emotional injuries cut so deep.

But Marti was there, snuggling up to us, offering the kind of unconditional love, acceptance and encouragement that only a dog can give., and providing us with the nurture we each needed when we couldn’t give it to each other.

When I chose to remain in Casselton after leaving the church, Marti forced me to get out and live in the town. Moving from a community leader to persona non grata in a small town is hard, especially when some people rather vocally let me know that they did not expect nor want me to remain there, going so far as to say that I should be forced to move.

It would have been easy just to hide, hunkering down and riding out my children’s last years of school, attending their events and otherwise avoiding people. But I had a dog that needed to be walked, and so I had to see people. Marti gave me the ability to meet them with my head held high, as I walked 10,000 steps a day around town with her. She made me engage and truly live there during the nearly five years that spanned my leaving the church to when I moved to Connecticut.

More than that, though, she also gave me back the community that I had long loved. During the winter of 2017, she ran out the door as I was coming home one night with full arms. She darted in front of a car. It clipped her, or scared her, or something, and Marti ran off. My neighbor and I, and the driver of the car, searched all over for Marti, but to no avail.

So that night, I put out a “Lost Dog” post on Facebook, and it was shared literally hundreds of times. And for the next four days, our back alley, which was where Marti was seen running off, became the busiest street in Casselton.

Every day, many times a day, people went up and down the alley and surrounding area, calling her name. Day cares organized search parties for their activities. Everyone in town seemed to know Marti, and they were looking for her. The love and the concern was overwhelming.

The response reminded me why I had remained in Casselton — and that people who had been cruel to my sons and me were the exception, not the rule. Marti allowed us to redeem our history in the town where my sons grew up and remember the essential goodness of the place. It helped heal my memories.

Even her return after running off gave me hope. I received a call that she was sitting outside my house, barking to get in, at 11 a.m. Jan, 20, 2017, the exact moment the Inauguration of Trump began. I have held onto that for the past four years as a sign that even when things seem their darkest, there is still hope.

Marti made the move to Connecticut with ease. After a brief stay with my sister’s family in northern Minnesota while we moved into our condo, she flew back with us at Christmas. I gave her some Trazodone to calm her, but she escaped her container not once but twice. The first time she wandered into First Class, where she charmed everyone — Marti was a first-class dog.

The second time was as I was packing up. I didn’t see where she’d gone and was in a panic. Then I looked ahead and saw the flight attendant at the door, holding Marti as she greeted everyone as they left the plane.

Marti was always a “people person” dog. At the dog park she would ignore all the other dogs and go and check out the people, begging for affection, as though she was neglected at home. She adored being petted and wanted people to love her, which they did.

I would often bring her to work with me, and on the occasional pastoral call, when the people said that was OK. She loved that. During the pandemic, she became an even more integral part of my ministry. I had never been good at children’s sermons but during this time when we couldn’t gather for worship, I decided to start doing my children’s sermons with Marti. Suddenly, it became so much easier.

The last six months of her life, I think, must have been her happiest, because she was never alone — with me working largely from home and Ian around all of the time. Marti wanted us around.

Her illness came suddenly. We noticed she was losing some weight, but she was still eating. She spent the week Ian and I vacationed in Cape Cod with my other son, Duncan, and his partner, Karen, with whom I jokingly said I had a “dog share” program — they would take her whenever I traveled and they noticed nothing.

But suddenly she quit eating, and try as we might, there was nothing that was going to turn it around. Her kidneys were failing and there was no turning back.

I did my last children’s sermon with her a couple of days before she died. I felt I needed to explain to the kids what happened to my co-host. The kids, and Marti, deserved it. For someone who never thought I could do a children’s sermon, I think it is one of the best things I have ever done in ministry, a tribute to Marti and what she taught me.

My theme was that as much as I loved her, my love was limited. I couldn’t keep her from dying. But as much as I love her God loves her more. And God’s love isn’t limited. God’s love leads us from death into life. I said this was true for pets and for people. For I believe that  our beloved pets are a part of heaven.

Paul talks about the reconciliation of all creation in Romans, and Revelation talks about a new heaven and a new earth, which contain the fullness of this creation. And Jesus talked of how much God cares for all of creation.

Martin Luther — Marti’s feminized namesake, along with one of my favorite seminary professors, Martin Marty — believed there were dogs in heaven. And Pope Francis, like his namesake, St. Francis, agrees. I mean, as every animal lover knows, it wouldn’t be heaven without our furry four legged friends.

Marti was a rescue dog, but, as I wrote earlier, I think she rescued us. She was a companion when my nest emptied and when I moved into a new home. She was a friend who helped me make transition after transition. She was always around. And she gave my sons affection, love and reason to get out when we could have just as easily remained in our cocoon. She showed us unconditional love.

Ian said goodbye to Marti on Saturday, and Karen and Duncan came Sunday to bid her farewell. I held her pretty much nonstop the last 72 hours of her life, even sleeping on the couch with her because I didn’t want her to die not being held.

She had done too much for us not to honor her by doing what it said in that ad we read when she first came to live with us — to help her feel safe and sound in my arms  and know that I was never going to let go until she crossed over to the other side.

I’ve been blessed to be with many people as they’ve died over the years, and often, there is this moment, right before death, when they gain a burst of energy and look around in wonder and awe, seeing what I cannot see, as the veil is lifted for them and the world here and the spiritual realm are merged.

Tuesday, just before I took her to the vet, Marti vigorously lifted her limp head that had been resting on my chest without any energy and she had the look she had when she knew squirrels were nearby, only with a sense of amazement and dare I say, awe. It was unlike any look I’d ever seen in her eyes.

I think she, too, could sense that merging of temporal and eternal, seeing what lay beyond this world as she prepared to cross the rainbow bridge.

A glimpse of hope in the face of death is the gift of a merciful Creator, and it is an apt ending of the story of a dog who was rescued and then became the rescuer, only to be rescued in the final act, by the one who will never let her — or us —go.

3 thoughts on “PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot The Rapids — A Glimpse Of Hope In The Face Of Death”

  • Carol G Argall September 9, 2020 at 10:53 am

    RIP sweet Marti! A friend asking little but to be loved. God Bless your family, Paula for the love you gave her.

  • Lois Irber September 9, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Such a sweet and loving story! My dogs all will be waiting for me someday!

  • Kristin L Hamilton September 9, 2020 at 8:43 pm

    Beautiful tribute to your loved one, Marti. Allowing her to die with dignity is one of the hardest yet kindest roles a pet owner has. Peace to you as you navigate the days ahead.


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