This column is a kind of confessional. I confess that I am missing my doggie Wrangler, my Blue Heeler Australian Cattle Dog, very, very much. Could it be perhaps too much?
Wrangler and I were introduced at Animal Control nine years ago. From the moment our eyes met, we were bonded. I brought him home unannounced just after Christmas, You could call him a rescue dog, but truth is we rescued each other, him from his homelessness, me from my loneliness.
Over these nine years we did almost everything together. When I wrote he sat by my side, watching, waiting ready when I moved, his ears going up for a walk or a ride. He was fast running for the birds, always hungry, always loyal, always ready for a walk or a ride/ He made me laugh, running sideways with his legs bowed like a cowboy, chasing birds (and cars) like the herding dog he was, or making the leaves and pine needles fly with his paws after doing his thing, or doing his water dance in the hose – next to eating his favorite thing.
I call him my “spiritual director dog” because he taught me to pay attention, with an uncanny ability to fix an unwavering gaze at me, sitting or walking. My neighbor Todd remarked, “I never saw a dog so focused just on one person.” As he paid attention to me he taught me to keep my inner gaze on God, my heart alert to his signals.
On a night last December night those eyes betrayed him, We came home late from dinner, and as the garage door opened Wrangler trotted out from where he had been waiting, his eyes green in the headlights, perhaps confused by night blindness. I slowed down, let him walk to the side, then slowly moved forward until I heard a yelp, felt a slight bump.
“Oh, no,” I said to Jeanie, “I hope that wasn’t Wrangler.” I jumped out, found him caught under the front tire, pulled him loose. He struggled to stand, moved a few feet, lay down, dragging a hip. I ran inside to call an emergency vet hospital, threw on a jacket, ran out to take him.
Wrangler had crawled to the side of the road. Lay silent. Not breathing.
I bent over him, cradled his head. “My boy, my pal. I’m so sorry, I wouldn’t have hurt you for anything. Wrangler, my boy, my pal.”
Nine years ended in less than nine minutes.
And I am still grieving him. My dog of a lifetime.
In this column recently I wrote about Lent as a time of “letting go and reaching out.”
I confess I am having a very hard time letting Wrangler go. The dog of these years is both absent, in his physical presence, and very much with me. I see him everywhere. Find it almost impossible yet to walk the paths where we went together.
With time I know the pain will ease. There will be places where we will scatter his ashes, in our backyard, by the neighborhood creek, by the mountain lake in the mountains Yet I will miss him walking among periwinkles in the spring, dancing in the water in summertime, joining the prayer circle at retreats with young leaders in the fall. The year will go and healing will come.
Is this too much grief – for a dog? When thousands of children are dying in war, or famine?
My friend Jim, a counselor, suggests what I am missing is simply a friend. “He was always there, always available, always trusting, listening. I have known you as a leader who has always been ‘one up.’ I think you are just missing your friend.”
He is right. As an adopted and only child growing up (never having a dog); traveling in my ministry for years, away from my wife and family for weeks; losing a beloved son; taking on the loneliness of leadership, I have experienced what Dorothy Day called the “long loneliness.”
But haven’t we all? Whether in a crowd, or in solitude, when the frantic noise and busyness dies away, when our little pleasures no longer please, when those we love leave us, can’t we all hear that voice of a lonely heart?
And isn’t this what Lent is about? We follow a Lord who went through a forty-day battle with the devil alone in the desert; who prayed in the garden all night by with tears of blood and asked his disciples why they could not have stayed awake with him; who in his final moments cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
And yet by his very sharing of our human condition he reached out to us, taking into himself the loneliness of our suffering, sin, and separation, so that in turn he could offer his friendship and walk with us on our lonely roads.
So the question that faces me this Lent is two-fold: will I let go of my losses? Will I reach out to receive (and to share) what God is offering? How else can we turn our losses into new life?
Writing about loss John O’Donohue said, “It is such a waste to become absent from life.”
I begin to see how God has reached out to me in these days of Lent – through a child – my eight-year old granddaughter. We were sitting together on a Sunday afternoon. She sensed a sadness and asked if I was missing Wrangler. I could only nod. She came close, looked at me with solemn eyes, laid her hand on my face, and said, ”Gagi, Wrangler is waiting for you. He is watching over you. You will see him again. The Bible tells me that.”
I believe she is theologically correct. When God renewed his covenant with humankind after the great flood, he made it with all creatures, not just with humans. And in the new heavens and new earth to come all creatures will be present to praise him. (See Genesis xxx and Revelation xxx).
Meanwhile God reaches out to us through his human enovoys like my granddaughter. She was spiritually and emotionally wise and sensitive, an angel for my soul. She reached out to me … and helped me to reach out too.
And, oh, by the way, there is a new doggie at our house. His name is Buddy, and he was found wandering on the street not far from us. He has come to live with us now, a comfort dog. Do you think that Wrangler (or his Greater Master) might have something to do with this new arrival?