Thursday, October 19, 2006
The Meaning of Loss, the Sacrifice of Love
Those big eyes stared out of that little face at me from the webpage on petfinder.org. I had seen this dog when looking for the first one we had adopted, but found elsewhere. Now, about six months later, I saw this little guy and the fact that he was still there tugged at my heartstrings. I knew this was my dog.
So my boyfriend, "R" and I drove down to Hastings with our other dog to see if this little guy was indeed the companion to our first.
I'll never forget his downcast eyes, averted gaze, and dull coat. I'll never forget how he wagged just the tip of his tail--as though he was afraid any other move would give cause for a need to seek cover. I'll never forget how he had to be lifted into my boyfriend's truck because he refused to jump. This was one scared little doberman mix...and I was already having second thoughts about his adoption.
On the ride home, I sat in the back seat so that I could keep both dogs seperated during the ride...and avoid any unnecessary mishaps. The first dog, also a doberman mix, was offended at being relegated to the rear, but soon laid down and left our new charge to get used to his new life. I just sat, holding his leash, and let him walk around, looking out the windows. I made no sudden moves. We'd been warned not to move quickly, speak loudly, or grab at his muzzle. Clearly, there were some aggression issues involved. So I let him get to know me, and I only let him know my preferences by gentle tugs on the leash, small sounds, and quiet pats.
He stood on my leg to see outside, and when I glanced over at him, he licked the tip of my nose and looked deeply into my eyes. It was all over. He was mine. And he curled up next to me tightly, which was to become his favored position. I had an official canine shadow.
We took him home and immediately I began working with him. He needed training, and I was working to try to prevent seperation anxiety. This dog had been in the shelter for well over a year...and he was only 1 1/2 years old! Poor little guy! But my preparations did not work. He had seperation anxiety like you wouldn't believe, destroyed things you wouldn't believe, and was so upset at the prospect of being left that he simply could not be trained.
We also learned that he was a potential fear-biter. My boyfriend, during the early days, terrified the dog via some move even he didn't recognize as being threatening in any way, but we were careful not to react, not to move quickly, but rather, to simply help him understand that no one was going to hurt him. There were only 2 or 3 total episodes of this type of aggression in a few weeks...and then they ended. But they served to give him his name: Saber. For his long canines and fighting spirit. This was a dog who was not willing to give up.
So we took him to a behaviorist, (a specialized type of veterinarian) who prescribed Clomiprimine, a type of anti-anxiety drug. This allowed him to calm down enough for the training to work, and slowly we weaned him off. We had to address dog aggression at the same time, and we watched him around kids, or kept him away entirely for fear that he would do something unpredictable.
Slowly, though, he got better. We learned his limitations and how to work within them, and he learned that he really had a home, and a "pack". He learned how to play. During the first two weeks we had him, he did not play...he didn't know how to play, apparently, and our other dog tried mightily and persistently to engage him. Finally, he figured it out and it never got tiring for us or others to observe them running around the yard, being dogs together.
Saber also became my running buddy, and even came with me roller blading a couple times. I always valued those excursions, just me and my little guy, my dog, my shadow. Whem my boyfriend was sent to Iraq for many months, I housesat for him (we did not live together), and there was never a doubt, when I dropped off to sleep, that both of my dogs would alert me to trouble. They hemmed me in on both sides as I slept and to this day, I think of that as a form of God's protection in canine form, small guardians as a token representation of our hidden angelic guardians.
Well, all stories come to an end, and my boyfriend and I broke up. We were not enemies, but I didn't own a house so I couldn't take the dogs with me. Yet I came over and watched them when R was at work as he was on 48 hour shifts. I was going to purchase a townhome and intended for the dogs to come with me. Granted, R had paid for them, but I had trained them, I had been the one to bond with them when R was in Afghanistan and Iraq...and I was the alpha dog of the "pack" which consisted of both human and animal.
Shortly before I closed on my house, I dropped by to bring a dog pack for transferring toys and things between houses. On that day, I remember that the dogs no longer saw me as "Alpha". R was Alpha. I was just a long-lost member of the pack held in high regard. And I remember R's eyes, looking up at me from his position on the floor with one of the dogs, almost pleading, although I'm sure he doesn't really remember the incident. I realized that I had lost the leadership position by my absence...and that they weren't mine anymore. I realized that the house I was buying didn't have a fenced yard...and I realized it would be hard on the dogs and me to move them back and forth for 2 week stints.
I realized that I was acting like a divorced parent, and that the dogs weren't children...they were dogs.
It broke my heart, but before I left his house that day, I had made the decision to give them up. To let him have the dogs. Yeah, I'd put the work into them, I loved them, and they provided much comfort to me in a difficult time in my life. But it was over.
The next day I called R and told him he could have them, I relinquished my claim on the dogs and ordered him to take good care of them...they would always be my dogs. He promised to do his best.
Some months later I had purchased my house and had another dog from the Humane Society this time. R brought our dogs, Saber and the other, over and I "dog-sat". The lack of my alpha status was not lost on me although I was happy to see my old canine friends again.
That was the last time I saw my dogs. I still have the German Shepherd I adopted when I purchased my townhome, and I also have a greyhound now, but photos of my other two, my first pets, are still wandering around the house and have never left my heart.
On Tuesday of this week I had a very unsettled feeling all day long. Something had been "off" all day, and it completely destroyed my apetite, whatever it was. I was hungry, but I couldn't eat and chalked it all up to stress.
Then I got home and saw that R. had called. I knew it could be nothing but bad news. I don't think I've spoken to him in over a year as he's married now, you see...to someone else, so we have no reason to maintain contact. So I knew the news was bad, and he broke the news well; yet I could hear the tears in his choked voice coming to me over my voicemail.
Saber died that afternoon, and we don't know why. R was calling me because he figured that I would want to know.
I called him back as soon as I got the message and didn't even identify myself before asking how it happened. R didn't need me to ID myself...we had been together for over 3 1/2 years, and somehow, shared grief suspends time.
He was literally in tears as he told the story; at times he could barely speak. R. related how Saber had been sick that day, had not been himself, and finally R. called the vet, very concerned and brought him in. He had to leave him there but recieved a call shortly after; Saber had died. The vet didn't even get a blood sample. He'd never seen a dog crash so quickly.
R. told me about the dogs, how they're doing now. R. is married, has been for awhile, and they have a 7 month old daughter. Our little Saber, our little ball of aggression and fear, our little problem dog, whom we feared to allow around children became their daughter's personal guard. Saber would not leave her side, simply took to her as a duck takes to water and would not be moved. I'd be lying if I said I was not proud of the little guy. He found his place in the world, and that place was at the side of a child; a new life.
Now Saber has been called back to the Lord, and I regret that the little girl he had protected will never remember her canine sentinel.
Was it poisoning? Heart failure? Is the other dog, Phoenix, in danger of getting into something? Both R and the vet agreed they wanted, nay...NEEDED to know what happened, so Saber is now at the University of Minnesota, either having undergone or still waiting to undergo a necropsy.
I haven't heard anything yet.
My last two nights have been very busy so I have not had a chance to address this. I had to quickly get control of myself Tuesday evening before I went to my commmittments, I was depressed all day Wednesday, unable to get my mind around the idea that Saber is no more, and so tonight, I stopped off to talk to Jesus about it.
When a human dies, we pray for their souls. As Catholics, we do not believe that animals have IMMORTAL souls...so what do I do? How do I grieve a dog? Where is all this in God's plan? What am I doing crying over a dog that isn't even mine anymore?
A few years ago I read a book called, "The God of Small Things", by Arundhati Roy. She had a gift with words, and described the feeling of grief in perfectly poignant words...it leaves a hole in the universe. So now, I have to adopt that term in reference to this loss, for now I have a Saber-shaped hole in my universe. He simply IS NO MORE.
When I gave up my dogs, I grieved greatly. I knew I was doing the right thing, and I think that made it hurt even more. I had to voluntarily break an attachment, an attachment which was in and of itself, good. Yet I grieved and then went on with my life, conforted by two things:
1. My dogs were alive and were being cared for and I had no doubt that R. would continue to give them a good life; and
2. I was now free to rescue two more dogs. And I wouldn't have to share them or give them up unless God said otherwise.
3. I went on to rescue two more dogs, so my conscience is clear, my committment being fulfilled. And I have made it clear to God that I recognize these as HIS dogs, for which I have stewardship. He can have them if He wants the, although I would admittely be heartbroken if He chooses to take them back.
Now, here I am, years later. I have my own two dogs, and then R calls and the past comes back. I realize that I never got a chance to say goodbye to my little guy. His picture still graces my wall, and his cocked head and bright eyes will never leave the photo album God placed in my heart.
But I don't know where to go from here. I thought the attachment had been broken, but here I find that I still love the little guy, and I'm still crying over a dog. Just a dog.
Yet even the Bible says that God knows each and every hair on our heads; he knows when a humble sparrow falls from the sky. He dresses the lilies of the fields...so He must have known my Saber. And He must have been the one to call Saber back to the dust from which he was created.
So tonight I went to Adoration, planning to talk to God about something else, but somehow, when I got in front of Jesus, I could only ask Him to help me know what to do with this grief I feel, and what meaning it has in my life. Saber was just a dog, wasn't he? Why and how does his life and death matter so much? He lived only 6 years or so....6 years. The blink of an eye, not even a grain of sand in the eternity which swallows us all...but for God's grace.
And Jesus helped me understand. It is a timeless tale of love, of sacrifice, of understanding. It is a tale told by Divinity, and rarely understood by Fools such as myself. And this is why God uses pets to help us understand.
We, as human beings, are made for attachments; we are social, we create societies, and we live in and contribute to communities. This is how we are wired and it happens through attachments. Where there is attachment, there is love, as love is the primary form of attachment, proceeding from God himself. We as human beings are called to love, and we extend that love not only to other people, but to pets as other living beings.
Yet there is a catch; suffering is a part of love; if you have not suffered for what you love, it is either because the suffering has not yet begun, or it is not love. There is such a thing as attachment without love. But where love flourishes, one can guarantee that suffering is a large part of it, and the love far outweighs the required sacrifices.
We adopted Saber, and first suffered with him through his (and our) trials because it was the right, responsible thing to do. As stewards of creation, we offered this little bit of God's gift to the world a chance to breathe the air before giving up on him...and he proved to be worth the effort. That dog taught me a lot through those trials, both good and bad about myself and about the world. There was love there, and there was suffering.
Saber and the other dog were gifts from God, directly from Him, and as I had posted just last week, God asks us to be willing to give Him everything. I wasn't much of a Catholic at the time, and I didn't understand the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, but I knew I had to make a choice; do the right thing and give Saber and Phoenix up, or be selfish and make everyone's lives miserable, including my own.
I chose the difficult route, and quite honestly, I think I matured that day. Yeah, I cried, I was depressed, and I grieved....but I never took it back. I'm sure the Holy Spirit directed my actions that day and I still thank God for that for I grew spiritually through this pain.
Years later now...I thought the attachment was gone. I have two other dogs. They have never replaced the first two, but I no longer grieve. Life has gone on and I have not regretted my decision although I mourn from time to time.
Then R calls and tells me that Saber has died...leaving a Saber-shaped hole in the world. Leaving me to realize that attachment, that love, was still there and I had only buried it out of necessity.
The pain is fresh, the wound has been ripped open, and I have begun to wonder if I never really gave him to God in the first place?
But Jesus helped me understand this as well. There is repetition here; first the conscious choice to suffer for a greater good, a willingness to give back to God what was always His to begin with. Then God calls His creation home, and again, I have to revisit attachment; and again, I have to realize that Saber belonged to God, and to God he has returned, in whatever form God has willed.
And it hurts to do this. It hurts to love, because love REQUIRES and DEMANDS sacrifice. And as much as it hurts right now, I would not have done this differently; I would still have adoptd and worked with Saber, I would still have given him up when the time came...and I would not give up this Saber-shaped ache in my soul for all the world, for it has helped me to understand, just for a moment, the suffering of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
You wonder how a DOG, of all things, could teach me this?
Because Jesus voluntarily died for us, suffered for us. Yet we go on...we come back in some way, or live virtuously for awhile...and then we turn on him, stab Him again, and suffer spiritual death by choosing mortal sin. That hurts Jesus in a major way, yet He would not choose differently for He prefers his suffering to our loss. He loves us so much He is willing to suffer great pain, to sacrifice....because the love bewteen us and Jesus is so much more powerful than the pain. Because God is love...because if we do not understand pain, suffering, and sacrifice, then we will NEVER understand love.
Because Saber died this week, I have suffered. But because grief arises out of love, I now have a better understanding of love, and a greater understanding of the mercy of Jesus. How many times have I caused Jesus such pain, multiplied so many times over? And yet, Jesus has never turned away from me...Jesus has always told me that it was worth it.
Jesus will never reject us because life beats us up, because we choose the wrong path, or because we die to Him instead of our sin. He suffers the pangs of grief...and waits because he knows that it is not over yet.
It does not matter that Saber does not have an immortal soul. He belongs to God, has always belonged to God, and for a couple years, he was my charge, and for most of his life, he taught me something about love, a lesson I needed to learn.
I will always miss Saber--I will never forget those special times with my "little guy", or his big, bright eyes looking up at mine devotedly. Some people don't understand the bond between a pet and their owner...and I would argue that those same people might be missing out on one of God's great lessons. In all humility, I thank God for using a simple, lowly dog to teach me how desperately we need to suffer in order to understand God's love for us.
And I thank God for reminding me that no matter how beat up we are, or how beat up another sould might be, or how difficult, there is always a chance of redemption and every life is precious; every life deserves a chance for God does not put souls on this planet for nothing.
God, I was attached to Saber, and I will aways miss him. Thank you for giving me charge of him even for awhile, thank you for turning his very humble life around and placing him, in turn, into the companionship of an infant girl. He was never mine, God, but just the same, I offer Saber back to you, I offer you every bit of training it took, the money, the time, and the aggravation, and I offer you his life, and I give him back to you in a much better condition than he was in when he arrived into my care.
Lord, may all that we touch, all that we do, always have such results, all through the benefit of your direction and grace, and may we always be able to learn how to love more deeply and understand more clearly through suffering, no matter how insignificant.