Some people just aren’t ‘animal people.’ They can’t help it, really. They just haven’t ever connected with a dog, cat, or some other creature in that deeply beautiful and inexplicable way that changes everything about how a person sees the world.
And then there are the rest of us.
Too many times over the last couple months I’ve watched friends wish a forever goodnight to a beloved dog or cat, and every time I hear of an animal passing, I go back to the days of losing the ones who were most precious to me.
There was Sassafras – the Puli I grew up with – a Hungarian sheepdog who looked like a Rastafarian. She endured hours of ‘dress up’ as I styled her in my old baby clothes.
Crash – our 107 lb. Yellow Lab – who was afraid of linoleum, occasionally howled when he heard sirens, and adored flowers so much that if I came home with a bouquet, I had to let him smell it right away or he’d tackle me trying.
And Shiloh – our Golden Retriever – a big, red, fluffy guy who befriended all the neighbors and was so diligent about “checking” on our infant daughter I had to close the door to her room, or he’d wake her up by pushing his nose through the slats of her crib.
It’s this last dog I think of with regret.
Regret. Commingled with our cravings for peace and comfort, it’s often the unspoken part of loss.
Sometimes it’s big. Sometimes it’s not. But one way or another, it can creep in.
We got Shiloh – a 9-week-old puppy – on December 22, 2003, when our oldest son was not quite one year. I house-trained him in the dead of winter by strapping my son into his high chair, giving him a handful of Cheerios, and running Shiloh outdoors. He learned inside from out but was never trained in obedience. My husband and I fully admit – our timing in getting this dog was not among the best of our decisions.
Our daughter arrived two years later, and I was perpetually preoccupied with the work of mothering young children. Shiloh just didn’t receive the one-on-one time and love he so richly deserved. We lost him to an irreversible heart ailment at 8 years old; it was far too soon.
I went to the vet on Valentine’s Day in 2012 to be with him at the end, and the doctor gave us a few minutes alone to say goodbye.
I looked into his eyes and was overcome, so I sat on the tile floor, and with my arms wrapped around his huge red neck, I poured out my pain-filled heart.
There was so much to say. So much I still wanted to do. And couldn’t redo. And all I was left with was precious little time.
I told him I loved him.
I thanked him for his constant devotion to me and our family…for the joy he had brought to our lives.
I followed my soul’s prompts…and I asked him for forgiveness.
I said I was sorry. I listed many things I did that I regretted, and all the things I didn’t do that I regretted even more.
And this dog knew.
Why am I sure?
I saw it in his eyes.
There is one thing domesticated animals do better than their people: they love unconditionally.
And he did.
Just then, he leaned into me – physically and in spirit. He rested his head on my shoulder and licked my tears.
If every life moment is a glimpse of the divine, what was I seeing just then?
These critical life lessons:
Do not look back and wish for something else. We must live and love right where we are. To do otherwise is futile.
Forgiveness is a matter of turning the heart in the right direction: owning up to wrongs and then relinquishing them. Often, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves.
If facets of God can be seen here on earth – present in the unconditional love and forgiveness of an animal who trusts us and accepts us as we are – then in the same way, we can rest in the knowledge that if we approach Him with contrite hearts, admit our mistakes and ask for mercy, it will be granted to us.
And what of the animals? Where do our friends go?
I appreciate the words of Pope Francis:
“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” – Laudato Si
It warms my soul to consider this…to savor the fact that the God of my experience and understanding so loves the whole world, and God wants me to experience perpetual joy and love to such a degree, that He will use any means necessary to show me this Truth….
Even a dog – here on earth, and someday, forever with me in heaven.