It all started with a wish.
Or, to be more precise, a wishbone.
Back in late November, after all of the leftover turkey had been consumed, I looked on the window sill and spotted the dried out, v-shaped bone from our Thanksgiving bird. So, I called the kids into the kitchen before bed. As I held it up, they looked on with caution.
“What’s that?!” Audrey asked.
“It’s a wishbone.” I said. “I saved it when we cut up the turkey, and now it’s all dried up. The tradition is…”
“Disgusting!” Jake responded, before I could go any further.
But, once they learned that this obscure rite held the promise of fulfilled wishes, they got past their revulsion pretty quickly. I handed the bone to the two of them. They sat next to each other on kitchen bar stools, wrapped their respective pinkies around each end, and on the count of three…
Each kid dropped their piece on the counter. Four heads leaned in to see the outcome.
Our eyes gazed upon the freakish mirror image. Never before in the history of the semi-barbaric-yet-somehow-enjoyable tradition of splitting bird clavicles has there ever been such a miraculous outcome. The little knobby piece on top looked like it had been split in two by a precision laser cutter. The pieces were identical. Must be ordained by God! I thought. Or perhaps some chemist pumping poultry full of growth hormone.
But either way…
“Looks like you both get your wish!” we said. “But don’t tell anyone what it is!”
So they went to bed with their secret dreams locked in their tiny little heads.
It’s been five years since we had a dog in the house. Bailey was a wonderful pooch, but once she hit the ripe old age of 15, she started to get cranky. The kids would lay on her, pull her ears, and hit her in the face with stuffed animals. She often responded like you might expect a 105-year-old woman who is too old to care what anyone thinks of her. Growling, running away, and scaring them by spitting her false teeth out of her mouth. She lived a good life, but her golden years were more bronze-ish.
Even so, the kids have romanticized what life would be like if they had a dog of their own. They have asked several times per week for the past couple of years, and finally wore us down.
When we started searching for dogs to adopt, I thought it would be an easy task. After all, the pet adoption websites have literally hundreds of available dogs with a 25-mile radius.
Then Gabby provided a list of her criteria.
When I saw the list, I wasn’t sure whether I should feel honored or offended. Has she always had such a prolific litany of “must have’s” in her chosen companion? Or did she only start making such lists 17 years ago after the first time I left the new toilet paper roll on top of the dispenser?
I decided not to probe any deeper.
We spent months looking for a medium-sized, 2-5 year-old, housebroken, super friendly, light colored, fluffy, round-faced, gregarious-but-not-aggressive, floppy-eared dog who is good with strangers, kids, men, women, dogs and cats. While there were a few who were able to jump through these proverbial hoops, the final test was that the dog had to like us as much as we liked the dog. I’m not sure who added this “equal-measure-of-affection clause” to the list, but I assume it could only be my own subconscious reaction to several unrequited romances in junior high.
Not surprisingly, it was difficult to find a perfect fit for our family. We looked at hundreds of dogs online, and personally met dozens who were promising. None measured up.
In early December, I was walking out of the Williamson County Animal Shelter after another failed search when a spotted a volunteer taking a beautiful, friendly puppy back to the kennels. I said, “That’s a cute puppy!” To which he replied,
“He’s not a puppy. He’s two years old.”
It didn’t take us long to fall in love with the little guy. He was a stray, found south of town at the corner of Columbia Pike and Spring Hill Circle. And he met all of our criteria.
When we introduced him to our kids, we expected squeals of delight. Instead, they were skeptical.
“Wait. So you’re saying he’s our dog?”
They didn’t believe us. After so many years of denying their request, it seemed like an impossibility. But it must have been ordained by God. Audrey looked down and exclaimed, “Look! He has a wishbone on his nose! And when we broke the wishbone, I wished for a dog!”
Jake gasped, “I wished for a dog, too!”
We named him Smooch after a silly nickname Audrey gave to her blanket – Smooch-a-coo. And indeed, Smooch turned out to be the perfect dog. In the first three days we owned him, he didn’t bark at anyone or anything, he greeted everyone with joy, he never complained, never made a mess, and just loved to be around us. I could walk him outside without a leash, and he would never leave my side. He seemed particularly attached to me, which made me feel special somehow.
But on day 3, Smooch got sick. Very sick. He stopped eating or drinking. He stopped moving altogether. He developed a high fever that wouldn’t go away, even with the strongest antibiotics. As many of you know, the Smooch saga lasted weeks. He saw four different vets at the clinic, who consulted with 5-7 specialists. They took blood work, stool samples, x-rays, and other tests. He had ultrasounds and medications. Our kitchen looked like a hospital ICU. He endured us poking him with a needle twice a day to give him fluids, checking his temperature with a rectal thermometer every few hours, and force-feeding him for weeks. All without so much as a whimper. He was the most Jesus-like dog I’ve ever met. Pure servant to our family, full of grace and love. All of us poured our hearts into Smooch, and were rewarded with a deep, unconditional love.
We questioned whether it was right to put the dog though all of this. Gabby and I had vowed never to spend more than $500 to save an animal, since so many people are suffering and we could us those funds to help save an actual human’s life. But this dog was a gift for our children. And did we want to give our kids a “life lesson” for Christmas?
So we invested time and treasure into this dog. The vet even gave us some free services. But all of this work and $2500 worth of treatments and testing wasn’t enough to save the little guy.
Smooch died on December 29th, while we were away on a short family trip. We were devastated. The kids cried themselves to sleep. All of us were depressed. We came home to an empty, quiet house. To celebrate his short life, the kids wrote letters to Smooch and we buried them in a memorial in the back yard. Audrey’s note, enough to rip the heart from the hardest of men, ended by saying,
“We don’t ever want another dog. We just want you to come back. Have fun playing with Granny in Heaven!”
And so it goes. When we buried those notes, we buried any hope of a happy ending for Smooch. Indeed, it looks like we got our kids a “life lesson” for Christmas after all.
But what was the lesson?
First, God is found in community. Even though Smooch was just a little dog, he brought out big love in our friends and family. The outpouring of support was almost embarrassing, given the real problems in the world. “Don’t worry about us,” we would say. “Pray for Aleppo! Or world peace for cryin’ out loud!” But our community would have none of that. They let us know through word and deed that they cared about us. It was humbling and gratifying. Grace undeserved, but offered nonetheless.
Just like God.
And second, this tiny tragedy taught us how to be community for others. While it is often easy to celebrate joy with others, sharing grief is much harder. It requires genuine empathy. And you never know quite what to say.
But now, on the other side of loss, (however small compared to losing a mother, a father, a sibling or, Heaven forbid, a child) we’re reminded that biggest gift you can offer your community is this: . to meet people where they are. To step into a place of sadness and concern with those you love. To be present with one another. Without advice or judgment.
And when we do this, words matter less and less. In joy and in sorrow, we are reminded of the words of James:
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1: 17 NIV
Click here for Part 2
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