In the middle of the night I was awakened by an unfamiliar sound. I walked down the hall and suddenly heard Bali, my fifteen year-old golden retriever, trying to follow me. But something was very wrong. She was slipping and falling, hitting into the wall, whimpering. I turned on the hall light. Her head was wildly tilted and she was now splayed out, panting, on the slick, wooden floor, struggling to, but unable to get up. I have always said, when the time came that I knew she was suffering, I would let her go Home.
Several hours later my daughter was carrying Bali to the car. As I drove us to the vet, she looked stunned, lying in Carly’s lap. We were both nearly certain we were going to be driving back from the vet without Bali.
I don’t cry much. But that morning, preparing for the ride, I couldn’t stop sobbing. At one point Stacey took me aside and said maybe I should try to pull it together a bit so Bali wouldn’t be more alarmed. But I truly couldn’t pull it together. My best friend was leaving me, too soon.
Some are confused when I say she is my best friend. I remember this conversation with my wife;
Stacey: “John, I think you love Bali more than me.”
Me: “Well…in fairness, look, at her snout.”
This beautiful team took us in without an appointment. In moments Bali was being wonderfully loved on. The doctor got down low to the ground to pet Bali as we sat on the floor. She told us it could have been a stroke, or that her body had simply given up. She also mentioned sometimes older dogs can get what she described as, “old dog vestibular disease.” She didn’t offer much hope, but finished by saying, “I don’t think she’s suffering. She’s just confused and frightened. If this were my dog, I think I’d try giving her some anti-inflammatory pills and give it a few days.”
Now, several days later, it is too early to know much. It’s possible I will be taking her in again to be put down later in the week. But I have to say; my puppy is showing hints of improvement. It may only be the percentage of recovery some stroke victims experience. But it is possible we actually may be watching our dog slowly recovering from Vertigo. Regardless, Bali, does not have long here. She is really old. 110+ dog years old. She has warts on her snout and age marks and bumps all over her. She is no longer this young, smiling girl who ran down Frisbees and pranced in circles, barking for me to get up and take her for a walk. Today, I took a walk without her, and felt so lonely. What was I doing wasting time walking if I was not holding a leash that held her? Trying to stay in shape? Why, if not to walk her?
Anyway, I find myself with some observations. They don’t reach to the level of insight. Only impulse. This is all probably mostly for my comfort. Thank you for riding along.
*I realize I pray for many things without really thinking much of anything will happen. But I can’t stop talking to God about Bali. And I’m totally expectant that He will respond to me. God knows this about me and is not offended. He is probably using this very time to convince me of how He is able to work through my prayers.
*I have even more affection for her right now than I had for her during her best, most fun-evoking days. If this is true with me, how God must especially cherish me in the midst of my weakest, when I have little to offer.
*I’m discovering most of what I have to give to Bali is my committed presence. To let her know, in the middle of what must be so utterly confusing and frightening, that she is not alone. It is a gift I apparently can have for others. And a gift God is always offering me.
*We are giving her ice cream, whipped cream and peanut butter any time we think of it. I imagine, push come to shove, God is never worrying about carefully rationing out lavish gifts to me. He is not concerned what I would do with too much cheesecake.
*Heroes are revealed only in times of need. My daughter Carly loves Bali with a sacred tenderness and affection. She always has. But from the moment Bali went down, Carly has been a rock. She just took over and kindly has met Bali’s exact needs. I just stare at the two of them loving each other. Bali, gives me a look that says, “I know you care about me. And I really want to thank you for that. But I’d appreciate it if you let her make the decisions and figure out what will be best for me right now.”
*God allowed me to experience losing my dog. I actually was convinced we were taking her to be put down. I grieved her loss and felt all that she had given me. And now, if only for days more, I get her back. It is a supernatural, ethereal, surreal experience of God’s grace and a glimpse of eternity. I can’t stop petting her. I can’t stop talking to her. I am undone. I wonder if the art of living with each other is seeing our immortality in a way that causes us to cherish each other in this present moment, pushing back the lie that we will always be here together.
*Immersed in another’s suffering, I will not argue with you about who is right, wrong, or whatever. I’m a genuinely less self-obsessed, peevish human these last several days. You would enjoy me much more right now. I will endure your wrong political views or your leaving the stove on. I don’t care. I’m protecting another.
*Bravery, in a human or an animal is one of the finest scenes we get to experience on this planet. All God’s creatures have an inborn, innate capacity for bravery. Even in this moment, amid all that must be so shattering to her, what she wants most is to comfort us. What wonder is this?
*Dave Burchett has written an excellent book on what his dog taught him. The book is called “Stay.” Dave is a funny, bright, insightful, kind and grace-filled man. He is a great friend of Trueface. He’s also an excellent writer. Get this book. You will thank me and think I know stuff.
*I notice others in our neighborhood have trusted me just because I was always with her when they saw me. “How bad could the guy be? He’s out walking that beautiful dog!” Everyone waves at me like I’m a celebrity. Now, walking around without her, those same people seem suddenly not certain if they should call “Block Watch” and report me. It reminds me of how much I’ve lived off the spendable currency of those who have chosen to love me and declare me valuable all these years. Thank you.
*Some have told me that I like my dog so much because she doesn’t talk back or challenge me. I’m sure there is truth to that. But I think they miss it. I delight in my dog largely because I don’t know many humans who will allow me in as close and are able to express their affection and delight as much as she does. Humans are drawn to such affirmation. More and more, I want to be that in human form for others.
*Bali is willing to risk pain to be in her safest place. She has always slept on our bed, between Stacey and I. From there she faces towards the door, so she can protect us from bad guys and space aliens. It is her most meaningful place in the universe. Last evening at bedtime, she stared at our bed, as though she might try to climb back up. She no longer can. But Carly carried her onto the bed. And she went limp in absolute peace. She made that facial expression of deep, deep contentment. Even though it hurt her to lie on her side, she did and let Carly hold her for the longest time. She struggled a lot against being taken back down. This must be why hospice folk try to arrange for us to be in our bed, in our room in our last days. We give a great gift to offer the place of safety to another.
*Love, when you get to receive it or express it, is the highest order of experience on this planet. And Bali has allowed me both. The one thing I am asked to do, with this new heart, the one thing I am now most able to do, is to love. Its who I am at the very core of my being, since the day I put my faith in Jesus Christ. But I’m discovering that believing I am a new creature takes a beating every day on this planet. I hurt those I want to love well. I confuse and exasperate those closest to me. I am a new creature, but voices deep within, still, after all these years yell at me that I am not a changed creature; righteous and holy.
Dogs are faithful to good owners and bad owners. Bali’s delight of me is not proof I am a new creature in Christ. But isn’t it astounding? Just now, she stumbled her way into this room where I am writing this post. She didn’t want to be without me. And so, I am assured again that I am wanted, needed, enjoyed and valued. By a dog, whose only discernable sin is that she occasionally eats cat poop. And so I am convinced that God sent her for this sometimes insecure, fragile, uncertain man, so I might experience greater confidence of believing who Christ says I am; new, beloved, enough, accepted, alive, free…Because Bali is teaching me to receive love and to give love.
Now, to go try it out with humans.
Thank you friends.
John, one of the members of this ever-expanding tribe of grace.