Holy Guano! The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog by Dave Barry
Becky said, "We're going to keep Walter, right?"
And Mom and Dad both said, "Yes, of course we are."
Then Mom turned around and looked at Becky really serious and said, "Honey, I have to tell you something."
Mom said, "Honey, Frank is gone."
And Becky said, "I know."
Dad stopped the car. He and Mom both said, "You do?"
And Becky said, "Frank is with Jesus." Becky was looking out the window, and said, "There he is."
So we all looked. She was pointing at the St. John's manger scene.... And next to one of the cows, kind of leaning against it, also looking at Jesus, was Frank.
It's 1960, and the annual Christmas pageant rehearsals are in full swing at St. John's. Six-year old Becky is an angel, and as one of the junior high boys, Doug is required to be a shepherd, an opportunity which he and his friends regard as an outstanding opportunity to play pranks on their overly dedicated director, Mrs. Elkins.
But the high drama in the household is the decline of their huge and faithful dog, Frank, now a teen-aged canine senior citizen, sadly on his last legs. When on Christmas Eve, Doug and his dad find the superannuated Frank deceased and frozen stiff in the backyard, they are in a quandary. The ground is too frozen to dig a quick grave, and with the pageant performance looming ahead in the next hour, they feel they must keep Frank's departure a secret from Becky until her angel portrayal is past.
Dad and Doug set off for the local animal shelter in the station wagon with the still frozen dog in the back, hoping that the staff will agree to take Frank off their hands as a Christmas favor. Instead, a large Frank look-alike dog, Walter, explodes out the door and jumps into Frank's favorite seat in their car, so like the old youthful Frank that Dad readily agrees to adopt him. Unfortunately, the shelter man is not amenable to taking in any pets, especially dead ones, and the two set off for the church with two dogs, one lively, one not so much, in the car. A flat tire ensues, and Doug, afraid to face the wrath of Mrs. Elkins if he's late for his cue to enter, shortcuts across the starlit fields on foot, in shepherd garb and carrying his staff, toward the church, accompanied by the excited Walter.
Although Doug barely makes his entrance on time, all does not go well with the pageant, with the ebullient dog literally bringing the house down. A portion of the ceiling collapses under the weight of the hastily stashed Walter and about a ton of decades of bat poop in the belfry. Luckily, the performers all get clear of the collapse on their own, except for the lovely Judy Flanders in her role of Mary, who is serendipitously saved by the quick action of her ardent admirer, Doug.
But there remains the problem of Frank. Dad, late because of the flat repair, has no time to dispose of Frank with the proper reverence, which explains how he becomes one of the figures around the manger in the nativity scene outside the church.
And Becky said, "When will Jesus and Frank go to Heaven?"
Mom said, "Very soon, honey."
And Becky said, "Will the cows go, too?"
And Mom said yes.
Becky said good. She was quiet for a second and Dad started to move the car again. And then Becky waved and said, "Good-bye, Frank."
And then we all said good-bye to Frank.
And then we drove away. So that was Christmas Eve.
Browsing my local library, I picked up a copy of Dave Barry's The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog, thinking one of Barry's hilarious spoofs would lighten the post-Christmas-preparation-let-down-blues. I don't know if I can say it did that, because his ending gave me a simultaneous laugh-out-loud guffaw and a lump in my throat. But then Barry's magic is ever to show us how funny and yet poignant real life can be at one and the same time. Peppered with funky period snapshots and product ads, this book would make a great family read-aloud for people of all ages, one that puts the ghosts of Christmas past and the shades of passed pets right where they belong forever in our hearts. As one reviewer put it, this story strikes "just the right balance between sentiment and insouciance...."