October 17, 2017

Consider The Dogs

Mama DogI’ve had a few dogs over the years, but there are three that stand out in my mind:  Mama Dog, Marshall, and Archie.

Mama Dog came into our yard to starve to death when my husband and I were living in Liberia.  I saw her skeletal form collapsed on the edge of our property with despair and even rage.  One more tragedy I can do nothing about, I thought; one more harrowing evidence of human cruelty and the hostility of fallen nature.  I wanted her to go away and die somewhere else.

She didn’t.  The next day she was still there, her head slightly raised when I came out the door.  Again in a kind of fury – against the dog for making me feel this way and against myself for getting involved – I tossed some old bread toward her and went back inside.  The next day she was marginally closer to the door; I didn’t have to throw the food as far this time while saying, “I do NOT want a dog, you understand.  Eat up and then take yourself off.”

Within a week she was on the back porch, much restored and seeming not just resigned to but delighted by my presence.  She had probably never been deliberately fed before.  The Liberians of our town didn’t do anything with dogs except for “chunk” rocks at them when they got too near.  Most of the animals were wild, surly mutts, but this dog had no resentment.  She seemed determined to live on our porch, so we gave her a name – Mama Dog, because she had obviously had puppies recently.

Around this time I bought a can labeled “Vienna Sausages.”  They were too nasty to eat, so I took a couple out to the porch for Mama Dog.  She had never been given sausages before, even such bland ones as these.  She looked at me in disbelief when I held one out to her – I couldn’t possibly mean for her to eat it!  Since she wouldn’t take it, I laid it across her front paws.  Even then she sat there long enough for us to go inside, get the camera, and take a picture of her staring in wonder at the glory of sausages.  Eventually, once she was convinced she was allowed to, she ate them.

Mama Dog lived with us for a year.  Every day she walked with me to the curriculum center where I worked and flopped down on the porch to wait.  In the evening she followed me into my teacher training class and curled up under the desk.  Everyone in town knew where I was by seeing if the dog was outside or not.  She tried once to come inside the house but never asked again after I said no.  She barked at strangers, but if she had ever seen someone admitted to our house, she let him pass.  She put on weight and filled out, but she was never pretty, with her bat ears, pointy nose, and inelegant caramel coloring.  However, she was pretty enough for the local Lotharios, and soon we had puppies in a box on the porch.   She was a good mother to them, although it seemed to pain her not to come with me to work.

When the puppies were old enough to take care of themselves, a distemper epidemic swept through town.  There were dead dogs in the gutters of most streets.  Mama Dog got sick and died within 36 hours.  In her last hours she lay on the porch, her home, stretched out on her side and gasping in agony.  I could do nothing but impotently mourn and rage.  I bent over her and touched her head; her last act was to wag her tail at me.

DSC08460Marshall came almost twenty years later.  He was a sheltie, rescued after five years of being chained outside with only occasional food or water.  He was too afraid to sit down in our presence for months.  He never liked going outside much.  Sudden movements or sounds made him cower.  But he loved us.  Once he came to believe that a day might hold something good, he would greet us at the bottom of the stairs any time one of us descended.  It didn’t matter if people had come down the stairs twenty times in the last hour, it was still an occasion of rejoicing for Marshall.  His people had gone away and now they were back!  The remainder of his life was sprinkled with delighted exclamation points.  He had people!  And food!  And a couch that he was sometimes allowed to sit on!  It was almost too much for him to bear sometimes; he would start barking as loudly as he could and have to be given a gentle squirt of the spray bottle.

Marshal was a musical genius.  When our daughter played violin – when she even began to tune – Marshall would come running from wherever he was and stand stiff with anticipation.  As she began her scales, he joined her in warming up.  Aaarooo!  Up and down the octaves – he took his art very seriously.  Sometimes he would rumble, other times soar into falsetto.  He achieved Baroque ornamentation on some notes – rooroorooroo – and had a particularly effective vibrato in his upper register.  We could see by his expression that he was lost in the music, although every now and then, when our laughter got too raucous, he would lose concentration and look over at us.  My daughter took to practicing violin upstairs in her room, but he could still hear that first string being tuned and would sing with her from the bottom of the stairs.  He was polite about all our other instruments, but none of them moved him like the violin.

Marshall died this spring on Holy Saturday.  He had been weak and failing for some time.  His attitude was never one of complaint but of apology that he couldn’t wait at the bottom of the stairs or sing for us any longer.  He too in his dying was more concerned with his love for us than his own pain.

137And now we have Archie.  He is another sheltie from the same rescue organization; he joined us in September.  He was terrified of everything when we first got him.  We had to leave his leash on even in the house so we could corner him when we needed to.  But he desperately wanted to be loved, and now he will curl up with us on the furniture and heave a sigh of relief and satisfaction that he is somewhere safe with someone safe.  He is under the computer desk as I’m typing this; when I get up he will follow me closely everywhere I go.

“Dog” has been a term of insult in almost every culture.  There have certainly been dogs I didn’t like.  I’ve been threatened, bitten, and harassed by dogs.  Dogs have fleas and unpleasant habits.  I understand all of that.  But Mama Dog, Marshall, and Archie, better than any treatise or sermon, have illuminated for me the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Faith to believe that, after a lifetime of abuse, something might be different, someone might be different; faith that past experience doesn’t always limit future possibilities.  They have had faith in me, a person who is often annoyed, impatient, and resistant to sentiment, and their faith has made me act more like the person they think I am.

Hope – surely hope is the defining characteristic of a happy dog.  Every waking moment is spent in enthusiastic anticipation:  Food?Food?Food?Food?  Pat? Pat? WalkwalkwalkWALK?  Only physical death quenches their hope for happiness, and even then, at the brink of death, they can be distracted from that great travail by one more hope – Pat?

And love.  What have I, sinner that I am, done to deserve the love of such beautiful creatures?  Love characterized by ongoing, unquestioning forgiveness, with no resentment, that delights simply in my presence.  Love that forgets itself and only sees its object.

I pray that I could grow to become more like my dogs.

Comments

  1. This is beautiful, Damaris. And now I miss the dogs I’ve known.

  2. Beautiful post, Damaris!

  3. “They have had faith in me, a person who is often annoyed, impatient, and resistant to sentiment, and their faith has made me act more like the person they think I am.”

    And perhaps their faith also helps us to be more like the persons God is still making in us.

  4. Beautifully written, as usual, Damaris.

    It made me think about how the poor are treated as well. We were blessed this year to “adopt” a family for Christmas – single mom,teen & pre-teen. Our church gave us a recommended list of food items to buy. I had no idea what kind of milk or juice to buy so I called them. We finally decided just to shop together. Mom had the same temerity your dogs had – “Can I really put this into the basket?” The pre-teen wanted apple cider, but Mom said not to take advantage. When Mom wasn’t looking I told her to get the cider and give it to me. I put it into the basket and told her “Now you can just say I put it into the cart.

    Our Christmas gift came early. It was watching an amazed teen drink 3 glasses of juice in amazement that she had such luck.

    Very humbling. Probably like you and your dogs, we definitely got a lot more out of it than they.

  5. We had a yellow labrador that was my sidekick for many years. She moved all around the states with us, as my father was in the military. When she died, we buried her at sea. There is still a dog-shaped hole in my heart.

  6. Darn, you make me tear up with this post..

  7. Christiane says:

    I couldn’t even get past Mama Dog without tears: the kind that melt from a core of sadness for all the suffering out there. Thank you for sharing this, DAMARIS.
    The beauty of the animals’ love and patient endurance offers us a window on the Source that gifts these animals with the gentle love to which we are witnesses.

    Perhaps on this Holy Night which is ‘like no other night’, a quote from Tolkien may have special meaning:

    “Far above the mountains in the west, the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hoped returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

    ? J.R.R. Tolkien

    May the glory that surrounded the Christ Child ‘when the night was half-spent’ be remembered for all time because our Christian hope is most securely anchored where the Source of ALL love is.

    “In His Hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:10)

  8. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    And now I’m crying.

    Our dog, a border collie-lab cross, isan interesting fellow. He never wants to feel left out – when we gather round, he wants his place in the circle. We have to give him a present too – when I start handing out presents on Christmas eve, as is our tradition, he gets exitded, looking for his. So we wrap his too, and when it is his turn, call him over and unwrap it for him. The excitement rivals that of any 5 year-old. And the joy and contentment over wharever he gets is a profound lesson in thankfulness.

  9. I live alone, ill, and my dog is great company and a huge gift.

    Reminds me of the service dogs now being used for vets with PTSD: http://www.pennlive.com/pets/index.ssf/2013/12/new_breed_of_service_dog_helps.html

    • My dogs too have been with me through illness Patrice, they changed all the time I had to spend in bed into a big cuddle party. They are my constant companions & my constant delight.
      Damaris this was a great read, I’m often perplexed by Christians who have no place for animals in their lives, we learn so much from their simple love.

  10. Yes, beautiful. I really miss Sam, the dog I had.

  11. It’s almost three years since Terra, our family dog, died. I wrote about her on this Internet Monk post.

    This year, our “granddog” will be part of our Christmas celebration. Little Roxie is a year old now and we love her, but my, is she rambunctious. Pray for our Christmas tree and decorations, please.

  12. Damaris, I, too, must wipe a tear as I write. Thank you for this piece. Your two rescue dogs sound a lot like my Maisie. We adopted her having no idea how emotionally special needs she really was. I’ve come to think of her as a rescued dog, even though she wasn’t — at least not technically. She can be a lot of trouble at times. But she’s my only roommate and she loves me unconditionally and I love her dearly. Thanks again, and merry Christmas!

  13. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says:

    We briefly had a beagle when I was a boy, but I never had one as an adult… until now. My fiance has a border collie, Gracie, that’s coming to the marriage. It’s been neat to get to know Gracie, especially because she’s such a fun mix of being well-trained but unapologetically spoiled! And so very, very happy when the people are around.

  14. Wonderfully written. I just watched (for the first time) Robert Bresson’s 60’s French classic “Au Hasard Balthazar”, a movie filled with Christ symbolism focused around the mistreatment of an innocent donkey. When the final scene left me sobbing, my year-old Chi-weenie dog came up to lick me, and for a moment there I couldn’t help feel a connection between the innocence of my dog, the innocence of Balthazar the donkey, the innocence of Jesus Christ, and my own worthlessness as a human sinner. There was more, too, that I couldn’t exactly put my finger on, but I think you’ve articulated it here. Our wonderful dogs represent:

    -Faith
    -Hope
    -Love

  15. That was beautiful, Damaris. My family “adopted” a dog two years ago when my daughter moved back in with us and brought her dog home with her. This is the first dog I’ve had in over 30 years, and now I can’t imagine life w/o her.

    When I get home she is the first one to greet me with her tail wagging so violently that her whole body contorts from side to side. She does not know that I am a sinner; she just knows that it’s me and that I am home. They say that “ignorance is bliss,” and that certainly works out to my advantage with her.

    I cannot explain it as eloquently as you do, so I will quit while I am ahead. I would only add–and I am probably theologically incorrect in saying this–that she is like a “means of grace” for me, for no other creature loves me as demonstrably as she does.

    • “She is like a “means of grace” for me.” Absolutely. God is not ashamed to express his grace in humble things.

      • Thank you for affirming that, Damaris. I suppose it’s OK to not have to quote a book, chapter and verse every time we wish to validate something. And this, too, is something my dog is teaching me.

  16. “The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”

    “Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”

    – Martin Luther

  17. David Cornwell says:

    Damaris, thanks for this beautiful story about such wonderful creatures. A gift of God to us. I told our dog just this morning that she was confused, that she didn’t need to be omnipresent, that this is reserved for God, not Dog. She ignored me.

  18. Thank you for this beautiful piece of writing. I agree heartily with what so many have said. I have to believe that what so many of us experience with our dogs is a sign that creation is not quite utterly fallen; there are still echoes of the Garden, sometimes more than echoes, and this is one of them.

  19. I have never been, nor am I now, a “dog person”. Not because I don’t like them, they can be delightful to be around, intelligent and full of personality. My problem is that they are “people’, so to speak, and require interaction and care in the same way that children do.

    So, imagine my dismay when my daughter’s boyfriend gave her a little chihuahua for her birthday without asking us if it was OK. “Alright” I thought, “Its a really small dog (4 pounds) and my daughter is capable of caring for it…” But that wasn’t the end of the matter. A year later she calls me one day and says “Dad, would you be mad if I bought another dog? I’m at the pet store and he’s so cute! The people here say that he’s been here 3 months and they’ll have to send him to a shelter if no one adopts him soon.” I replied “Well, no, I won’t be MAD, but I won’t be happy about it either”.

    So now enters Bentley, the chiweenie, a chi/daschle mix. And yes, he WAS cute and playful, and Isaboo, the chihuahua, eventually accepted him. But my daughter’s impulsive decision was also NOT thought out well. It wasn’t long before it was DAD who was taking the dogs out in the morning because I rise at 5-5:30 AM. And, eventually it was DAD who walked the dogs when he got home from work at 5:30 PM. And, of course, it turned out to be DAD to whom these dogs looked for attention.

    Fast forward two years and daughter has moved out and gotten married to a Marine and LEFT THE DOGS WITH US! Now, they are MY dogs entirely, and the thing which I dreaded most has happened…I have fallen in love with these creatures. In them I see dedication and doggy love (as opposed to Agape love) and devotion. It pulls at my heart when I come home from wok, or rise in the morning, and they are so excited to see me. Even while I am on the computer, or just watching TV or reading, they are right there with me.

    But the REAL reason I have not been a “dog person” is that the level of care and attention also brings with it a darker fear, the fear of loss. The last pet I lost was a cat that showed as much devotion as a cat can, and his death tore my heart out. NOW there are two MORE animals who just may live 15 or more years, and are much MORE engaged in our lives, with the outside chance that they may outlive ME!

    I have come to realize that love brings with it the future of loss, and with the loss, pain. I am totally incapable of ignoring those around me with whom I relate, and cannot help but love them, human AND animal. Am I ready to accept this two edged sword of love? I have no choice but to embrace it.

    • I’m in a very similar situation with a rescue great dane, adopted by a housemate, but over time really my dog. I didn’t want him, but now, losing him seems unbearable.

  20. The dog we adopted in January this past year is a Chiweenie. The cutest, most hilarious dog ever.

  21. How beautiful and moving this was, Damaris. And so sad, especially Mama DSog’s story. They are so grateful for the slightest notice, and then, as you and Oscar and I have learned, their grace finds its way into your heart whether you “want” it to or not. And thanks be to God for it.

  22. Dogs are one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Perhaps humans and dogs are the only real cross species relationship of mutual necessity. We have to have each other in order to qualitatively survive. We complete them; and they complete us.

    Among many things I am thankful for are the handful of dogs I’ve been blessed to love.

  23. Jenny
    Zeus
    Penny
    Samson
    Jack
    Max
    Caleb (especially!)
    Brumus
    Racer

    I miss every one of them. We first become part of them, then they are indelibly part of us. Each of their deaths leaves a hole in my soul.

  24. MelissatheRagamuffin says:

    *snuggles Sugar Pie Puppy Bunch a little closer*

  25. I wanted her to go away and die somewhere else.

    Oh no, that is harsh. I am a big animal lover. I would have run out immediately to see if I could help her.

  26. Randall Slack says:

    The more I know about people, the more I love my dogs.

    Great post. God, in His wisdom, has graciously given us dogs. The most glorious of creatures. Constantly teaching us love, forgiveness, acceptance, devotion. Truly a gift from God.

  27. Travis Sibley, aka BigLove says:

    Thanks for sharing. Our dogs may well be the best evidence of love, unearned, unconditional and unending we can find on this planet…

  28. You sure touched heartstrings here, Damaris!! I just watched our eighteen month old, semi-rescue, adolescent Brittany observe Christmas morning craziness at our house that involved a two year old boy and his eight year old brother…..my grandsons. Jackson joined us in July of this year as my graduation present, after being returned to the breeder by a family who didn’t have time for him. As the old saying goes, “I want to be the sort of person my dog thinks I am.”

    One of the stories that helped me begin to grasp the concept of trusting in the Lord was one I heard years ago (and I have no idea if it is true or an analogy…). An old hermit’s dog disappears into the woods for a few days, and returns home badly hurt, covered with bites and mud and briars, with one ear half torn off. The dog is, of course, incapable of speech, and mutely presents himself to the old hermit for care and healing……trusting beyond words that the hermit will see his injuries, heal him, and do so with love. So, too, can we flop at the feet of the Lord, even when we cannot begin to know what to ask for….

    So, with you all, I remember Dashie, Cinnamon, Bonnie, Christy, Shelby…..and now Jackson. Every time one dies I swear I will never get another…..until I do.

  29. Christiane says:

    when I think of the animals who bring therapy to the injured, to sick children, to the blind, to the hospitalized, to the elderly, to the disabled, to people who have little of this world’s goods, and to those of us who need the kind of love that is given without reservation and judgement,
    I thank God from my heart