To Shelley Bunting Pickett, in memory of Jessie
It was two weeks before Christmas and the early darkness turned the windows of the shelter’s Admissions department into black mirrors that reflected the sparkling colored lights of the office Christmas tree.
Through the front door came a tall, sandy-haired man in a military-style jacket. He paused inside the entry and seemed to have difficulty speaking at first. I watched him a little anxiously, wondering if he was ill, or mentally limited, or under the influence of some substance.
But then he said, “I have some things to donate. A lot of them. Beds, crates, toys.”
Darla, one of the admissions counselors, gave him a form to fill out while I put on my coat and went to get a cart from the storage room.
When he had finished writing we walked out together, me pushing the cart. As we approached his shiny oversized truck, I asked him, “How do you happen to have so many things to donate?”
“We lost our dogs. The old Bernese a little while ago. The little Shih-tzu just recently.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you.” He opened the door and we hauled out brand new-looking pet beds, towels, carriers, crates, bowls, sacks and cans of food, and a Hefty bag lumpy with stuffed toys. There must have been hundreds of dollars worth of premium dog supplies.
“These are all clean,” he said.
“You don’t want to keep them? For the next dog? They’re really nice.”
“No.” He gave me a tight, sad smile. “We’ll start fresh. When and if the time comes.”
As I arranged the items on the cart I suddenly heard a small sound. I looked up and saw that the man was trying unsuccessfully to suppress sobs, his face contorted with sorrow, tears running down from behind his glasses.
My mind took quick note of the deserted parking lot, the dark forest on three sides, the road that led to the deserted dump and recycling center. My heart won out, however, and I went to him and gave him a hug, which he returned, his shoulders shaking. “It’s so hard,” I said when we separated. “I’ve lost four. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you,” he said in a choked voice. He wiped his eyes and with an obvious effort at self-control said, “Here, let me help you take that in. It’s heavy.”
“No,” I said. “It’s okay. There are people inside who can help me.” I didn’t want him to see me rolling the loaded cart into the building, leaving him with a final image of loss. “These things will make some other animals very happy,” I said. “Thank you.”
“I hope so. You’re welcome.” He walked toward the driver’s side and opened the door, then hesitated. “Maybe I’ll be back sometime, to get a dog.” He attempted a smile.
“We have wonderful dogs. When the time is right we’ll be glad to help you find one.”
He nodded, then climbed into his truck and drove away.
In his poem “The Power of the Dog,” Rudyard Kipling marvels at why we let ourselves love these short-lived creatures when we know how the story will end:
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear…
Some people take losing their animal companion so hard that they can’t contemplate going through it ever again. But others are simply unable to bear life without a dog.
One day last summer a man came into the shelter and tearfully confided to Addie, one of the volunteer adoption counselors, that he had just had to put his dog to sleep the night before and couldn’t stand the silent, empty house, the ache of loss in his heart. Addie introduced him to Morningstar, a beautiful black pit/Lab mix who had been waiting for months for someone to choose her. In fact, we were all beginning to get worried about her, because she was changing from a playful, happy girl to one so depressed that she would not even lift her head from her bed when someone opened her kennel gate to take her for a walk.
But when this sad man met Morningstar, the bond between them was immediate and so strong that some of us speculated that God, or fate, or the universe had been saving her just for him.
Addie posted a picture of the two of them on the shelter’s Facebook page; in it, the man is holding the dog in his lap and the mix of emotions on his face is unfiltered, plain for all to read: lingering sorrow filling his eyes, hope and joy radiating from his unsteady smile. As for Morningstar, she looks perfectly at home, draped across her new person’s legs and enfolded in his arms.
As another Christmas approaches, I think of the grieving man who donated so many wonderful toys and supplies to the shelter dogs, and hope that he has found a new dog to share his life with. Because for many of us, the only consolation after loss is getting another pet to love, no matter the future cost. As Kipling put it:
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.