A Soldier’s Angel – Part 2

(If you missed Part 1, here’s the link: Part 1)

Twenty eight year old William Patrick Cosgrove had been one of six handpicked for sniper training in the 4th brigade combat team, then qualified into the elite hundred for the entire 82nd Airborne Division. He had been twice decorated for heroism before that fateful September day in 2012. He was leading the team as they patrolled an area known to be heavily rigged with IEDs. With them was a beagle that never left his side.

“She ran into camp from over the hill, and made a bee-line directly to Will, and jumped up and down, barking and whining, as if she’d been looking for him and was so happy to find him. It was the damnedest thing,” recalled a friend of Cosgrove. “Then she’d never leave his side, and he named her ‘Angel’ – we assumed because he thought she was his guardian angel. In fact, Will placed the angel medallion from his necklace on her collar.  Only later did we learn the real reason, or at least the ‘rest’ of the story.”

Angel had clearly been trained in explosives detection. She’d warned them countless times of traps, and would literally go berserk at the hint of acetone peroxide. She was drawn to him and they bonded immediately, likely saving him and many team-members, dozens of times.

But that day there was no acetone peroxide , and no one suspected the cart full of sticks had so much dynamite underneath.  But they recognized the words shouted as the teenager pulling the cart waved to the approaching soldiers.

*****

Specialist Cosgrove’s wife Katie had just returned from T-ball practice with her sons Billy and Brian, and she scrambled to get the big dinner fixed before people started arriving. Her daughter Lindsey turned 6 today and the in-laws would join them after they picked her up from gymnastics. It had been such a hectic week.

Katie had grown so close to Will’s parents who had been such a big help, with him off on his second tour. They ran errands, helped cook, watched the kids, and had even taken their dog to the vet last year for a check-up and shots.

That had been such a horrible day for everyone.  Since William Sr. had also been military, his base privileges included vet services, so he had taken Angel over to Ft. Bragg.  Katie was so well trained, she was almost never on leash.  After the exam, William Sr. opened the door, and as he fumbled with his cane, she bolted out as if she had seen a ghost.  The dog took off running and never even looked back.  They all assumed she had seen a uniform in the distance and ran off towards who she thought was Will.

Katie knew William would be devastated to find his dog gone, but after 6 months, they’d just about given up hope.  Angel looked like every other pitbull and although nobody said it, everyone knew she’d been euthanized in some shelter between Goldston and Ft. Bragg.  As bad as they all felt, William Sr. was simply devastated.

God, how she missed that dog – Katie used to talk to her as if she was Will. Something about her was Will, the way she looked up at her, the way she was always there when Katie or one of the kids needed a hug, she just seemed to sense their emotions.

As Katie looked down at the empty corner where she always lay, she smiled and said wistfully, “You’re the worst dog ever!” But then she felt guilty, even though he used to always say that. Because she wasn’t, she was the best dog ever. Maternal misgivings about having a pit-bull around the kids were quickly forgotten, and everyone in the family considered her their best friend. William was going to be be so upset. As she turned the frying chicken, Katie drifted off to the day they adopted her.

Their oldest child had just turned 9 when William decided a dog would fit into their family. He had always had dogs as a child and so wanted the kids to grow up with them. Katie hated the thought – jumping up and scratching everyone’s legs, shedding on the floor, and demanding to be walked, and so she resisted as long as she could. The family had planned a wonderful weekend at the beach, and drove the two hours from Goldston to the Outer Banks the Friday before his first tour to Afghanistan. William had the whole thing planned, they were staying at a condo his high school friend offered, and he knew exactly where the Humane Society was, just outside Raleigh. She rolled her eyes as he pulled into the parking lot, with really no objection. She had been expecting it for such a long time.

But Katie had been expecting a Beagle puppy, not an adult Pit Bull. As the gate to the kennel run opened, the dog actually jumped into Lindsey’s tiny lap, whining and crying as if they were long-lost friends. The boys agreed, the decision had been made. No-one  was surprised when William announced her name, ‘Angel.’ ”  He pulled out his necklace and kissed the two medallions, a crucifix and an angel.  I’ll be gone a while, its just perfect; She’ll be your ‘guardian,’ your protector.”

*****

The knock at the door startled her. Katie assumed it was the in-laws and Lindsey. Suddenly she realized that she hadn’t wrapped Lindsey’s present.

“Come on in!” she shouted from the kitchen, stashing the unwrapped gift under the counter, but not wanting to leave the frying pan on the stove. At the second knock, she dashed towards the door, but froze at the sight through the living room window. Katie fell to her knees at the sight of the two dress uniforms standing on her front porch.

“No! No!” she screamed on the floor of the foyer.

As the chaplain heard this, he considered opening the door, and then saw Groves parents pull into the driveway. Tears trekked down the face of William Senior realizing immediately the news these men must bear. The woman in the passenger seat wept uncontrollably as the confused child in the back seat kept asking her what was wrong.

*****

I suppose we’ll never know how or why Angel made the 700 mile, 2 year journey from Ft. Bragg.  Or the pain surrounding her filed off canine teeth.  Or how or why His divine Providence directs so much of our lives.  But I’m quite certain that He does.  The bittersweet joy at their reunion would be surreal.  But these “gifts left behind” give us great comfort.  When I say, “Thank God” for something, I really mean it.

And some things we do know.  But we all know why William Patrick Cosgrove Sr. was in his car and drove all night to Orlando.  When my clients met us here early that morning with Angel, we unraveled the whole story together.  When Will’s father shared the part about the medallion, two faces drained of color as the boy reached from his pocket.  “This was around her neck when we picked her up off the street,” he said as he opened his hand.

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ed. note:  The names in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.  Also, when Angel and William Sr. arrived back in NC, although Katie was stunned by the co-incidences and symbolism, she said the medallion Angel wears (still) is not the same one her husband wore around his neck.

Perhaps they looked different, but I’m not convinced.

Much Love.

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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.

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

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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.

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