“Life takes us by surprise and orders us to move towards the unknown,” wrote Paulo Coelho, author of By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, “even when we don’t want to and we think we don’t need to.”
My dog, Ellie, turned 12 one month ago. She was a little grayer around her muzzle and moved a little slower when I took her on our daily walks, but her eyes were bright and her tail wagged when I reached for her leash every morning. She was getting older, but I didn’t recognize she was dying. I told my mother she was feeling better after a visit to the veterinarian – and I added, “I’m not ready to lose her yet.”
Unfortunately, Ellie could not wait for me to be ready to tell her good-bye. I woke up one morning and found her gasping and coughing blood in the kitchen. We returned to the veterinarian’s office one last time and I made a decision to end her physical misery. Her suffering outweighed my need to hold on to her.
I could not imagine what it would be like to continue our walking ritual without her. I forced myself to continue to walk without her, but I could not do it without her leash in my hand.
Twelve years ago, I received a phone call from a friend who said there was someone who needed to see me. I assumed he meant that someone needed to talk. I spent many years listening to the stories of others when I was a youth minister. I built a fire in the fireplace, turned on soft music, and brewed a pot of coffee. When he pulled up in my driveway, I discovered that the girl he brought to my home was not a young woman – but a dog.
My leg was in a cast as a result of a car accident. I recently lost my beagle. I did not want another dog. I called my friend, Caryn, and explained my dilemma. I insisted I could not walk the dog nor did I feel emotionally ready to welcome one into my home.
“You don’t have to make a decision tonight,” she replied. “Whatever you do, if you are not sure whether or not you want to keep her, do not name her.”
Fifteen minutes later, her name was Ellie.
In 2008, I went back to school to earn a doctoral degree in educational leadership to pursue new opportunities – and to get a fenced-in backyard for Ellie where she could run without a leash, chase rabbits, and lay in the sun on the patio.
I buried her in the backyard she loved. I posted Ellie’s picture on Facebook and expressed my wholehearted gratitude for the precious years I was given to share with her. I missed her.
Within a few hours, Polly responded: “I have one you would fall in love with. She is spayed and trained and looking for a good home.”
Polly was my best friend when we were 10 years old. We lived a few houses away from one another in the same St. Louis neighborhood. There was always room for one more guest at Polly’s family table. Her father repaired my first bicycle – an old and broken Schwinn I found in an alley. Her mother taught us how to knit and make jelly doughnuts. Polly lovingly included her intellectually-disabled sister in our play and, through her example, I learned powerful lessons about acceptance and inclusion. Polly and her family moved away from our neighborhood and I never heard from her again …
… until I received an invitation from her on Facebook. Throughout the last year, Polly lost her husband and her mother. She moved in with her ill father to care for him. Polly’s life is a reflection of living fully, loving deeply, and letting go with passionate gratitude.
Polly sent pictures of a Catahoula Cur named Sox. The beautiful dog was a stray that wandered to her home in southern Missouri and, as Polly laughed, “acted like she belonged there.”
Polly explained Sox often scampered passed the door when her grandchildren came to visit. On one dangerous occasion, Sox ran out of the house and was hit by a car. Sox needed a backyard. And I needed a dog.
I drove from my suburban home in Kansas to the Ozark Mountains. I passed through Clinton where I began my teaching career. Married. Lived on a farm. Divorced. I passed through Warrensburg where I found a new home in a college community and worked as a youth minister. Memories of living, loving, and letting go with gratitude.
Polly was waiting for me on her front porch. I smiled when I saw her; our friendship began on her front porch in St. Louis. History gently repeats itself. We quickly rekindled our friendship. And I met a wiggly, loving dog named Sox.
I was unsure whether or not I was ready to welcome a new dog into my home, but Polly … and Ellie … and Sox were fully prepared to teach me valuable lessons about relationships:
* There is always room at the table for one more guest.
* Loss invites opportunities to share our stories.
* Loving creates opportunities to build new relationships.
I laugh when I watch Sox tiptoe across the morning dew that glistens on the grass in my backyard (Polly said, “Sox doesn’t like to get her feet wet.”). And, as I water the vegetables and herbs in the garden, I stop by Ellie’s grave in the backyard and say “good morning” to her. Ellie found a home beyond the backyard she loved and will be with me forever. She taught me how to live fully, love deeply, and let go with passionate gratitude. Like my friend, Polly.
Thank you, Ellie. Thank you, Polly. Welcome home, Sox!
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