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Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

“I never really liked little dogs, but now that my wife is gone, ‘Sandy’ is all I have left of her.  My God, she loved this dog.  I don’t think I could go on if anything happened to her,” the old man told me as he clutched the Pomeranian. Sandy was getting on in years and had severe periodontal disease and now an abscessed tooth from years of having refused routine prophylaxis. Seventeen years or not, the old dog was suffering and we really needed to so some dental work, the risks of anesthesia were now irrelevant. But Sandy was not just this man’s pet, she was how he was gasping to keep alive this only remaining part of his spouse.

A Jack Russell Terrier named “Buddy” squirmed and bounced on the exam table, a complete lunatic. These little dogs (what we like to call Jack Russell Terrorists) are out of control on a good day, and this one was truly a “special needs” case. This dog hadn’t heard the word “no” in months, and was coddled and talked to in ways that defied logic, unless you know the story. Buddy had been best friends with the 16-year-old daughter of this couple – one of the teens killed last year in a horrific auto accident that made state headlines.

Cullen and his best friend Tim ran up the stairs with all the excitement and giddiness that would accompany a new puppy.  They had slipped out of Tallahassee after classes, passed us in Melbourne and spent the morning sitting on the ground in South Florida, with a litter of Siberian Husky puppies running, licking, and jumping all over them.  He would leave in Miami half of what he had saved that semester, from tutoring classmates in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and return with so much excitement he was ready to burst.  “Svedka” was an absolutely stunning pure white Husky with eerily transcendent crystal blue eyes that would pierce into me.  I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and had never seen a white husky before (although now they seem to be everywhere), and I was taken back at this beautiful creature.  She immediately squatted to urinate when he put her down, no surprise to me after a 4 hour car-ride, but Cullen was surprised and embarrassed, as he was so proud and thought everything about her was “perfect.”

Having had no prior knowledge of his stealthy plan, I was astonished and confused.  I do remember the YouTube video of the Husky howling “I love you” that Cullen had thought was so cool, playing it over and over in amazement and asserting that he was going to get one and teach it to talk too!  But my prodigy would be graduating at age 19, and leaving on a Chinese Master’s degree fellowship in just a few months.  “Have you lost your mind?  Why would you get a puppy right before you leave for two years in China?!!  Are you crazy or just irresponsible?” (One more thing I said over the years that I wish I could take back)

He just looked at me and smiled, telling me to calm down, that he had all the details worked out.  Tim would take care of Svedka while he was gone!  That seemed pretty logical to a 19-year-old.

Cullen Sved Puppy Sved Puppy Crop

Amy Hollingsworth authored a book entitled, “Gifts of Passage,” where she describes “gifts our loved ones leave behind.”  She artfully weaves Where the Red Fern Grows, the “Myth of the Red Thread,” lots of C.S. Lewis, and experiences from hospice care nurses into this masterpiece that finds the reader constantly nodding their head in affirmation.  This had been one of a dozen or more books I had been given when I was in the depths of grief after my darkest day.  The baby boy that I had prayed for and been given on my (our) birthday, nineteen years ago, would leave for China, and be killed in the strangest of accidents.

One can not comprehend the anguish of losing a child, nor be of any consolation.  Witnessing the sobbing of several old men when they shared with me the loss of their own child makes it clear that the grief, like the love, endures decades, and forever.

I have, however, come a long way.  I can type these words without weeping, although a later re-reading, as I proofread, will tend to prove painful.  We’ve struggled with lots of things to make sense of, or at least accept our loss.  I went to one Compassionate Friends grief support group for parents.  It was so depressing with many parents still hysterical with that drunk driver, or that f’ing cancer, or simply at God, and ironic that now so many were now drunks and addicts themselves, climbing inside the bottle or vial of Zoloft to be numb.  But I did not want any of this stuff.  An open, bleeding wound where my heart used to be would probably remain forever, but surely there was some form of healing to be had.  And so we worked on it, and “working through” grief is truly work.

Sharing stories and feelings with the rest of the family, mentoring with friends and priests, lots of conversations with our Lord, and my infamous 500 mile Camino de Santiago have all helped immensely.  I have become an avid reader, having read more in the last year than my preceding 50 years combined.  My days always start with a page or two of scripture to think about during the day, and usually end with a few chapters of my “book of the week.”

I’ve now read this Hollingsworth book three times, and always tear and laugh at the same places.  There is a legend in Asian culture of “the read thread” that connects and pulls certain people destined to be together or to impact each other in some way, providing  love, a lesson, or support.  Wending its way, crossing time and culture, spanning age and death, this red thread connects me to those whose stories would matter to me, would teach me.  Each gift has unraveled like a mystery, so that I have learned not only about the gift, but about the process I am going through to discern my own.  With each of these stories, the red thread tightens, pulling me closer to the meaning of his “Gift of Passage.”

This may well be what we Christians call “God’s Providence.”  Our days, our very lives are directed by our free, often stupid, choices.  However, His hand presents us with continuous new choices and second chances to live righteously – despite, or perhaps especially because He knows well in advance the outcomes, and how our time here will end.  His loving hand guides us to opportunities and choices where we can overflow His love, or not.

Hollingsworth tells of these gifts left behind – the most obvious ones are the conscious, intentional gifts of those who know they are dying.  Sometimes in a will or a list of “worldly goods,” or may be simply a conversation or heartfelt confession.  They plan out thoughtful comfort, meant to convey a loving message, something they want to be remembered by.  But the surprising gifts are those where an acute or catastrophic accident occur, where no one has had warning.  Such times the gifts aren’t so obvious but they become evident as the journey continues.  The “seeds have been planted” to help us cope, or even understand.  Like The Red Fern, there’s no way to know where seeds are planted until the red fern begins to push its way out of the soil.

Cullen had left many such gifts: Stories from his friends of his acts of love and kindness, memories of the recent times spent with us, the loving compassionate things he had said to complete strangers, the fighting people he had brought together, the itinerary he had planned for us to visit him in China, and the most loving text message he had sent me that very morning.

Svedka was also my gift left behind.  I had been so adamant that his getting a dog was such a stupid, irresponsible decision.  So after moving him out of his apartment at FSU, we dropped Sved off with Tim’s grandmother, Joyce.  We already had three big dogs who had destroyed the yard and made the house impossible to keep clean.  Our house was too full of dogs already.


Svedka on floorboard under sleeping Cullen, on the way home from FSU


Cullen inscribed a classmate’s notebook, “Cullen was here.” They later added, “For a reason.”

But on May 18th 2012, our home suddenly was very empty.  Much like our hearts, this house was desolate and drained, devoid of happiness and life.  We tried desperately to force some normalcy to feign sanity, especially for Cullen’s siblings.  So we sat on the bleachers, watching Noah enter the dugout with his head down.  Without prompting, each of the South Beach Dodgers went up to my 11-year-old son and hugged him that day.  As he approached the plate for his first “at bat,” he crossed himself and pointed to the heavens.  It was more than I could handle; before I left, I leaned to Shar and said, “I want to get Sved.”  She smiled through her own tears, glad that I had suggested something so rational.

I don’t remember Kayla and I speaking as we left the game and made that long drive.  Nor do I remember Joyce and I speaking.  Not with words anyway.  We wept as we hugged in her driveway; Svedka had already jumped in and was on Kayla’s lap, kissing her.  Now she rides with my old boxer, Nieve and me every day to work, and never complains about the long commute.  Most of the drive she leans against the back of my seat, often leaning her head on my shoulder.

These gifts are not a “consolation prize” for my broken heart, but rather they set in motion an anguish through which the real gift is given.  Like Psyche‘s rage against Cupid in C.S. Lewis’ Until We Have Faces, my real gift is that I have learned how to love, really love the god who separated me from my son.  The real gift is the transformation of the beast into something beautiful, a true understanding of the love of God.

Much Love.

IMG_6493   svedCullen Sved Carsvedsmile1

20 thoughts on “Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

  1. This blog was not what I was expecting but I guess that is a parody of life. I see you made your trip to China which was also a “gift left behind”. Your faith is honorable and impressive. I can’t say, under similar circumstances, that I have been able to maintain mine. By the way I love huskies and have had two–both rescues. May you and your family be blessed and at peace.

  2. Thank you for this. I lost my 12 y/o cat to lymphoma last Thursday. I have no guilt as I truly I’d everything possible for her, including treatment at the most excellent U of F Veterinary Oncology Department. Lymphoma is a formidable opponent.

    I knew I would be horribly sad. What I didn’t know was how profoundly sad I’d be and why. You voiced it so well. I’m so almost inconsolable and raw because Dear Emma was the last piece I had of both my husband and my children being at home. I lost my husband in 2009, and that same year my children graduated from High School and College, moved out and on to their lives. I’m now grieving all of that loss, plus the loss of one of the special cats you get in a lifetime, if you are favored. Even the vets set U of F loved her and remarked what a special girl was my Emma.

    It’s a terrible place to be. I remarked to a friend in all seriousness that if I could have traded years of my own life to restore Emma to health, I’d have been listening. I’m 61; I’ve got some spares.

    I’ve yet to find the gifts, but this is new. I’m sure they’re there, I just have to find them.

    May God and His Angels give you and yours that Balm of Gilead for the open places.

  3. I can not even imagine the pain of your loss. I have, unfortunately, read and found during my genealogical research many times where a child died far too young, of illness or tragic accident. There usually are no written records of the parents grief. Sometimes I will find the photo of a headstone, saying something simple like “Son” or “Daughter”, sometimes it’s finding the cemetery records and realizing that the people you thought were childless had lost all their children to disease or accident before any of them reached adulthood. It tears at my heart when those things turn up. I have reached orphanhood, both parents now gone several years. I find things that belonged to one or the other of them and it stops me cold in my tracks. I want to talk to them or have a hug, knowing full well that they are no longer there. But I do understand those gifts left behind, I have quite a few. The pain eventually lessens, it never completely goes away, at least, my own has not. I have learned to look for the beautiful things of each day, to be grateful for them and treasure the memories. I will keep you and yours in my prayers.

  4. Unless one has lost a child, (I have), there is no way for another person to understand the depths of grief a parent feels!and may Svedka. Reading your blog, pulled at my heart and my memories. I wish I could have had something as tangible as Svedka to ease a little of the pain.! I am glad she was the legacy left behind even though that was not Cullen’s intention at the time. You never forget, nor should you, but you do learn how to tuck that child into their own special nook in your heart as the grief lessens over time. My prayers are with you and your family.! Cullen is always there, just a thought away and if he has not done so already, ask him to send a sign he is well and will see you when your journey has come to an end. May the ~A~’s hold you and yours softly…and may Svedka bring much love and joy to all!!

  5. Thank You for sharing Svedka with us all, I’m sure those cheek to cheek hugs she shares with you as you drive are highly encouraged by Sweet Cullen, and proof you play a major roll in her feeling greatly loved. Where your heart is , Cullen’s quietly resides. Your words are beautiful and heart warming. You are Blessed with a Beautiful Son , with the power of a smile, could capture a heart forever. Thank You, Dr.Bill.

  6. Such an eloquent write. I just sat here and bawled like a toddler. Grief and love are such odd things – conjoined twins if you will. Very touching.

  7. dogtorbill was here. For a reason. I don’t have kids so I can’t possibly understand that loss. My precious adopted dog Bear passed away in 2012 and the wound is still as fresh as the day it happened. My guilt, I suppose, for leaving him in someone else’s care while we were on vacation, for not giving her proper instructions as to administering his insulin, and not taking him to the vet immediately upon our return. Yes, I know it is not the same. But to me, it WAS losing a child of sorts. I love your posts and am so glad I stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for baring your soul. It helps us too.

  8. My family adopted a Bagel (Basset/Beagle) about 5 years ago out of a kill shelter. My husband was hesitant because he was in grief over the death of our other dog. Husband stood in the doorway of the foster home while I ran in and threw my arms around Meatball when I met him.

    Us 2, our 3 kids, surprise grandbaby, his mother & Meatball all lived together in a noisy house for a time… I was the mom of a full and active home. My husband’s sudden death leaving me a widowed grandma at the age of 47 shocked everyone. Meatball sleeps next to me in my otherwise lonely bed.

    Grandbaby and his mom got their own place, one son went to live in a Sufi commune and daughter leaves for college this summer. Other son will go as soon as he has a place to live. I thought I could count on having the companionship of my young seemingly healthy dog for quite a while but a bad cough sent us to the vet. Serious heart and lung disease of mysterious etiology.

    I know that kids grow up and people die, but I wasn’t ready to lose my entire family in only 2 years.

    The vet and I haven’t given up on him and there are still a few things to try before all hope is lost, but Im trying to prepare myself. Like the dogs in your stories, Meaty is a connection I had to my husband and family…I really hope that he can recover and live long enough to help me adjust to my new life.

    Thank you for having this place where I can share this story in a safe way.

  9. Your posts move me so much. Tammy, I understand deeply what you are saying. After my beloved Annie died at 13 after 7 months of “doggie hospice”, I fostered for 2-3 years. One foster, Kai, I will never forget; I had her for 11 months and she was deeply traumatized when I first got her. There was someone who wanted to adopt her at about 9 months but it didn’t work out. My mother had yet another stroke right around then and died a few days later. Kai was such a comfort to me during that time. I am so grateful to have had her for those last few months, and now she is with her forever family in Kansas (I live near Chicago). I can contact her mom for updates and want to visit next time I pass through Kansas. God certainly moves in amazing ways.

  10. Pingback: A Second Visit to St. James | Not Alone on my Camino

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