Four dogs have owned me.
As a dog-loving guy, that’s not many.
And yet each has taught me about life, death, scary words, relationships, and the ways of God.
(All four have been girls. I wonder what that reveals about me?)
Ginger was first. I was a tyke, age-wise still in single digits. I probably whined for weeks (or months), begging for a dog. We made a family decision to have one and the next major hurdle involved naming our furry future. I wanted Ginger and—though memory is unreliable—I believe my older sister suggested something else. We voted, and somehow in that then family of four, Mom swung the election in my direction.
A Chihuahua/terrier mix, Ginger was cute like the proverbial button. Alas, here’s the hard lesson of childhood, of enthusiasm meeting reality: I did a poor job of caring for her. I’d forget to feed her and Mom or Dad had to remind me. Picking up the smelly “objects” deposited in the backyard was often accomplished . . . tomorrow (aka, the day of the week that never dawns). I was good at playing with Ginger, not so good with the short list of other chores.
Ginger became sick. One day, with me unaware, Dad took her to the vet’s. She never returned home. With us for only a short time, Ginger was diagnosed with several awful canine problems. None were my fault, though it felt that way.
“Had to put her to sleep,” Dad said.
Sleep? I learned about euphemisms, about scary words being avoided.
How often does our first bitter taste of death, of mortality, come in a furry, brown-eyed package?
+ + +
I named Kaweah after a river in the Sierra Nevada.
Would I have gotten her if I’d known that a couple of years later I’d be divorced?
Kaweah was an Alaskan Malamute, purebred and gorgeous. During seminary, friends owned several Malamutes and, well, okay, I fell in love with their sturdy male and affectionate female. And lo, puppies arrived! One became mine. In the early stages of training, I easily picture my then wife’s and mine’s kitchen floor layered with newspapers. Nothing like print-based potty-training.
Malamutes shed, and owning one meant intimacy with vacuum cleaners. Bred to haul freight across the northern snow and ice, Malamutes can work—or play—all day long. I spent time training Kaweah, though she was stubborn and clever. Maybe I should have spent more time on seminary studies? Maybe I should have spent more time on my marriage?
Who knows, looking back, where it all went wrong?
While Kaweah was regularly fed, trained, and received ample playtime (the troubling memory of neglecting Ginger likely influencing me), my marriage was collapsing. We married too young (mostly we figured we were supposed to get hitched). We were lousy communicators. Our selfish interests outnumbered our shared goals. And, yes, other relationships elbowed into our weaknesses. It was her fault; it was my fault.
How long ago that time was. Oh, how many mistakes I made. When we separated, my path (to southern California and finishing my seminary degree) had no room for an 80-pound dog. I got the car with the payments. She got the dog.
Now, a lifetime later, one obvious regret lingers from that divorce. I should’ve taken the dog.
I have no known pictures of Kaweah. Just wounds.
+ + +
According to family lore, a great mystery unfolded in the first weeks of the first year of the new century. In January 2000, our beloved yellow tabby cat Olivier died. Jeanie, my second (best and most beautiful) wife is a “cat person.” She’s always had cats. We will always have cats. Olivier was the world’s best cat, in our lives before Jeanie and I married. He traveled to Wisconsin and Oregon with us, forever a scoundrel, forever a companion. He fetched. He could settle onto a lap for hours.
And then, in that January of the new century, ancient of age for a cat, Olivier died.
Immediately, Olivier was reincarnated into Hannah. Do I believe, as a wandering Christian, in reincarnation? Of course not! But hey, aren’t there exceptions!?
With Olivier’s death, I was morose. Somewhere, in the grief, in the weepy discussions after a beloved pet dies, Jeanie and I pondered dogs. Okay, I started whining about getting a dog. However, what breed would best adapt to life with cats? We researched. Not a Malamute. Eventually another breed emerged, equally attached to vacuuming: golden retrievers.
In our home, in our hearts, we believe Hannah was conceived on the day Olivier breathed his last. The golden tabby became a golden retriever. (If you want logic, go elsewhere!) By June of 2000, we carried home a 10-weeks old puppy that matured into the perfect dog.
Perfection was not automatic, for puppies are amoral and selfish! Hannah didn’t mind me. She bit. She chewed. She destroyed. Order was absent. Chaos ruled.
“Take her back to the breeder!” I yelped.
Jeanie, the cat person, calmed me down. Wait. Trust. Have patience.
And this, you see, is when I really first understood why a dog is god backwards.
Hannah, who is Hannah forwards and backwards, was one of the essential lessons of my life. And she was also beyond fun. After we survived the anguish of the puppy apocalypse, Hannah achieved perfection.
Well, except for when she ate an apple pie I baked. Or the two library books that were, er, sampled for taste potential. Or grazing on the freeze-dried food I’d prepared for a backpack. Or took every T-shirt out of a drawer left open by one of the cats . . .
Okay, not perfect.
Except that as the sweetest dog in the world, she got along with cats and people and strangers and neighbors. She rode in cars, elevators, buses, boats. Hannah was—and this is also how I view and believe in our ineffable, indescribable God—the one who only knew how to love. To the depth of her bones, Hannah was pure, golden love.
And she would die. In our arms. In a death with dignity at over 14 years of age.
I was crushed. Love ends, and yet never does. Life ends, and yet never does.
+ + +
Along came Kynzi. (In truth, I wanted Hannah reborn. I wanted another reincarnation story.)
As Hannah aged, I forgot that puppies were cute and . . . evil. Kynzi didn’t mind me. She bit. She chewed. She destroyed. Yeah, I wanted to take her back to the breeder.
As before, the patience-preaching cat lady intervened.
Then it got better. Then it got worse.
After we survived the anarchic weeks of puppydom, Kyzni began limping. What we later learned was that 12% of goldens get elbow dysplasia. What we later learned was that elbow dysplasia, an inherited disorder, often appears around six months.
After non-stop vet exams, including the renowned UC Davis Veterinary Hospital, Kynzi obviously needed surgery. The arthroscopic procedure was “easy.” Recovery was not. For eight grinding weeks, she had to be restricted. No running. No jumping. She would be leash-bound, kept inside—except for escorted trips to the backyard to deposit “smelly objects.”
At a most critical season of her early life, Kynzi never left our sides. She is fragile and strong, a typical dog and yet has a rebuilt front left leg. She has, and will always have, daily low-key physical therapy. We rigorously monitor her food, for the high-priced, highly compassionate UC Davis surgeons said her long-term good health meant maintaining a “girlish figure.”
God’s world is endlessly beautiful. It also includes a bounty of unfair experiences.
And so, Special K grows old with me. Our bodies are flawed. Every day reveals limitations. Pain shadows us. Kynzi is as far from perfect as a perfect dog can be.
+ + +
Isn’t it foolish to compare a canine with the divine?
But I am as sure as I can be that every dog, like God, has tried to “train” me. Has reminded me that I’m not the center of the universe. They have each given me joy. A lick. Backyard playtime. A companion along mountain trials. A beach buddy. A cold nose on a warm day. I believe (as a guy believing in selective reincarnation) that the first dog appeared, tail wagging and eager to please, when the first human had forgotten that it’s a wondrous world, overflowing with sights and sounds and smells and great adventure.
Jeanie and I have been at our supportive best while making literal life and death decisions about our pets. When Hannah died, we sat with her on the cold floor of a vet’s office, knee to knee, providing a safe harbor for the most perfect apple-pie-stealing dog ever born. Hannah’s last breath came in our shared lap.
During Kynzi’s recovery, when the playful puppy couldn’t play, we—including God who is nothing but all love, all the time—created the safest of places for healing to happen.
In this glorious, golden gift of ongoing creation, I believe we are called to create a safe place for everyone. To do anything less is to disappoint the Divine.