“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.
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.
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.