There are few perfect places on earth.
I’ve had a lot of perfect moments in my life, sometimes in places exotic and beautiful and sometimes not. Standing on Charles’ Bridge in Prague for the first time in my life, when I was eighteen and idealistic and didn’t know enough to know I was untroubled, was a perfect moment. Driving to the beach at 3am with my friends home from college, and splashing in the ocean with frigid white foam spraying my wet jeans clung to my skin was perfect too. I had many perfect moments with Tim, some of which y’all have read about in the past year and a half.
To me, it’s always been the people versus the place that ensures perfection but there are spots on the planet that don’t rely on people. There are few perfect places on earth, but the Dog Chapel is one of them.
Stephen Huneck built it in 2001, a large scale art project he dreamed up while coping with a serious illness.
I thought it would be wonderful if we could create a ritual space to help achieve closure and lessen the pain when we lose a beloved dog. – Stephen Huneck
Tim and I stumbled up on the Dog Chapel in 2009, the day after we got engaged. I was familiar with Stephen’s work because around that time SmartPak sold dog Christmas ornaments he designed. Naturally, I bought the Boston Terrier one, and as Tim and I drove around St Johnsbury Vermont killing time in our happiness, I saw the sign for Dog Mountain and begged him to pull in so we could explore. It wasn’t a hard sell.
As it turned out, they were holding one of their famous “Dog Parties” that day in the perfect fall sunshine. The place was packed, and we hopped out the car with Eliot and BT, who were young at the time and knew nothing about the sadness that we would all eventually face. Eliot and I played on the agility course while BT stuck her face in anything with a smell. At the art studio, I found a Spaniel print buried in piles of Labrador woodblocks, and was able to get Stephen himself to sign it that day since he was giving autographs to guests. He was a quiet man with a shy smile, and as he signed my print with his burgundy cable sweater and thick mustache he seemed friendly but tired.
Amidst all of this activity, the Dog Chapel stood in the center as a quiet, tiny white building. Tim and I walked inside not knowing quite what to expect, and when I pushed open the wooden door to the explosion of color inside I audibly gasped. Every detail Stephen created showed his love and devotion for the dog. Pews were adorned with carved retrievers on each side. Stained glass windows were decorated with Labs swimming, being petted, or just gazing to patrons inside with the look of love that only a dog can have. The art in the chapel was beautiful, but the cards were what got me.
When Stephen designed the chapel, he made a “Remembrance Wall” that he hoped would eventually get covered in pictures and notes to beloved pets that have passed. In 2009, that notes spread from that wall to the entire chapel. Walking around with Tim and our dogs, I felt like the love coming from that little building was strong enough to explode the windows and send radiance out through all of New England.
I always thought fondly of the Dog Chapel and told people about it, but we never went back with our little family. Two months after we visited Dog Mountain, Stephen Huneck drove himself to his psychiatrist’s office and shot himself in the head. Five months after he died, Tim and I moved to Austin and left New England far behind in the rear view mirror. Stephen Huneck’s widow, Gwen, committed suicide in 2013. In 2015, Tim overdosed and three months later I put BT down.
But in November 2016 I am still alive, and I knew I wanted Tim and BT to rest in a perfect place. So I packed them up and headed to Dog Mountain.
The grounds were rougher than I remembered. The agility course looked like it was gone, I couldn’t see the dog swimming pond for overgrown weeds and the carved statues outside the Dog Chapel seemed like they might be struggling to stand. For years I had read emails, first from Gwen Huneck and then from the “Friends of Dog Mountain” federation, begging for donations to keep Dog Mountain alive. The sanctuary was still standing when we got out of my rental car on a drizzly, cold Saturday but it wasn’t the shining mountain of happiness that I idealized.
My original plan was to scatter Tim’s and BT’s ashes (which were mixed and indistinguishable at this point) on the property, but as I stood looking around the wet hills I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe it was the gray sky and the naked “stick season” trees in the surrounding hills, or maybe it was the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about how cold BT was during the winter in New England. When it snowed, we had to dig her a path where she could pee under the bushes because she refused to pee on white powder. I sat out there shivering with my husband and his dog, long dead in their simple wooden box, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how cold BT would be out here right now.
Then we walked into the Dog Chapel, and I felt instantly warmed. Its tiny peaked roof kept made the spitting rain outside seem like a distant memory. The cards and pictures now covered every inch of every wall and were morphing into the ceiling. They were lit with a amber light cast in from the stained glass windows. Now in addition to cards, people had left small urns of beloved pets and tokens of their life like collars or chew toys along the walls. Images of Stephen and his wife were blown up around the chapel, and I was overtaken by an intense feeling of loss and love. The first time I visited the Dog Chapel I didn’t realize those two words – love loss – mean exactly the same thing. Now I know you can’t have one without the over. Looking up at the dog angel on the largest stained glass window, I stopped shivering.
First I took a picture of BT, clad in a pink thundershirt and laying on top of Tim with crazy eyes, and taped it to a simple note I wrote her in sharpie.
To BT – The best bad dog ever. Love, Lauren & Eliot & Pascale
I taped the note to the picture of her and Tim, and got on a stepladder to attach it to the ceiling.
I sat down on a pew with my wooden box and the two remaining photos I brought with me. To the top of the box, I taped a photo of Tim and BT hiking in Texas square on the top. On the side of the box, I taped a photo of Tim hiking with BT and Eliot in Poconos Mountains. I let the picture dangle over the edge of the box, because taping it down all the way would mean the box couldn’t be opened without tearing the photo. Also because I felt my soul trying to float away from my body in that moment, looking down at sand in a wooden box and the poor empty person trying to do right by it.
There were already ashes in the Dog Chapel. Almost a year prior, I had emailed them asking permission to leave my dog’s ashes on the grounds. I didn’t ask them about Tim specifically, and figured people would just assume I had a really big Boston Terrier. However, the woman who emailed me back assured me that many dogs and people were scattered around the property. She said I could leave ashes in the chapel itself if I liked. When I saw the small adorned boxes lined up against one wall, I decided to leave Tim and BT where they would never be cold. Where they could see dog paws wandering in and out of the chapel, and where the people visiting would be driven by loss love.
I took the box and shoved it under a carved Labrador chair. If you bent down, you can see the glossy hiking picture catching light under the shadow of that chair. It’s next to a stained glass window that says “PEACE” and a CD player where guests can play special songs. For Tim’s sake, I hope nobody plays Abba in that CD player. As for BT, she was always a big fan of Beyonce.
After I placed the box, I walked around the room a few more times, unsure of what to do with myself. I took more pictures of every angle. I helped my friend hang a note to her deceased Greyhound. I pretended to study a picture on the wall away from my friends, but instead covered my hand over my mouth and silently wailed.
When it seemed like there was nothing else we could do in the Chapel but pray for the dead to come back to us, the four of us – my two friends, myself and a dog that was neither a Boston Terrier nor a Springer Spaniel – walked up the hill to the scenic view. At the top there was a pillar topped with a dog angel. Is the the better spot? Is this where I should leave them? I questioned myself but as I shoved my hands deep into the pockets of my quilted coat, I kept thinking about how cold BT would be outside.
We went to the gallery shop, and I brought handfuls of gifts for friends and myself to the cash register half because I love Huneck’s work and half because of how critical it now is for this place to stay open. With my bag of items, we stepped back outside into the cold and I looked around the hills one more time. Then I got in my rental car and left the last physical remains of the person I loved the most behind me in Vermont. I don’t know if I will ever go back.
I didn’t write Tim a note to leave in the Chapel, because the loss love between us is more complicated than what can fit on a small square of colorful paper.