There's a line in the movie The Holiday that I really like. Jack Black's character is beginning to fall for Kate Winslet's character. Black's character is a Hollywood composer, and he writes Kate's character a song. As he plays it for her, he says, with a smile, "I used only the good notes." Today I'm writing something that I've dreaded for years. I'm writing about the life and loss of my best friend. I'm not smiling as I write. I'm crying. But, I'm going to use only the good words. Because, if anyone deserves only good- it's Gatsby.
Gatsby got sick last Tuesday. He stumbled just walking through the kitchen and nearly fell over. When I checked his gums they were gray. I called Andy, who had just left for work. He took Gats to the animal hospital where they took x-rays and did bloodwork. His heart beat was irregular, but everything else looked good. He was put on fluids and a lidocaine drip for the day. I spent the day sick with worry. At fourteen and a half, I know that each day is a gift. But the vet called in the mid-afternoon, saying that Gats seemed to be doing better, and I gleefully picked him up that afternoon. When I first saw Gats, he was not his usual, "Get me outta here!" self. He seemed tired. He looked old. We got him home, and comfortable on his sofa. I sat with him, and loved on him all evening. Andy took care of everything so that I didn't really have to get up at all. Gats can't let me leave the room. He has to follow me. So, it was best for me to just sit still with him there. Deep in my mind, I thought that the end might be soon.
But, as Gatsby did so many times in his life, the next day, he rallied. After some eggs and sausage and a little haircut, he was his spunky little self. We spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in a hyper-grateful state. We took in every moment we had to snuggle him, to tell him we loved him, to cherish the feel of his fur on our toes as he lay down under the kitchen table. We received it all with ever-expanding joy, just like we always have.
Gatsby's life was a cascade of blessings. Anyone who really knew him already understands this, and to anyone who didn't- who thinks of him as just a dog- there's no use in trying to explain. He wasn't really a dog. He was a ministering spirit. An agent of grace. As I age, I learn more about more about the mysteries of the God I serve. I've recently become attached to the imagery of God's hands slipping on earthly gloves. That the way that He exposes his love to those of us occupying this lonely planet is through the things He creates to walk with us here on it. Surely there is truth in this. Isn't that exactly what He did with His own Son? He put on human skin and walked among us. Then He left for a while. He left His love behind, though. That's really all we've got here. And I think, because He is always creating, and always giving grace, that sometimes, as He continues to work amongst these lost souls, he puts His fingers into dog fur, and touches us with softness that humans cannot ever attain. That was the essence of Gatsby- the softest touch of God's grace.
Gatsby was everything good. He was brave and fiercely loyal. A protector and a friend. Through the years people have told me that Gatsby was my "first child," and I always have received that as a compliment, but it isn't actually true. My relationship with Gatsby was much less about me taking care of him than it was about him taking care of me. I suppose that we took care of each other for those fourteen years. But I still think that he gave me much more than I ever gave to him.
He was meant to be my roommate. I was going to be a sophomore in college at N.C. State, and was moving into my first apartment in the fall, my first time living alone. I was angry and rebellious of heart in those days- the spiritual low point of my life. I was actively running away from God and rejecting His ways. My mom took me up to Raleigh to get me registered and, on the way home, we picked up a News and Observer and found a listing for Cocker Spaniel puppies somewhere outside of Goldsboro. We drove to the kennel on our way back to Fayetteville. When I first saw him, he was running around nipping at his litter-mates, a little black and white blur. He rode in my lap on the way home, and, just as we pulled onto Water Oaks Drive, I knew something in my heart had started to change- it was the first breach in the wall of anger that I'd built up. I confess that I've read the story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho with skepticism before- how could a loud noise actually bring down a city's walls? I suppose the same way that a sleeping puppy can tear away at self-centered, hard heartedness.
He went everywhere with me while I was in college. I could barely stand to leave him. When the weather was nice, I'd let him ride in my Jeep to campus. I rolled the windows down just enough, and he would just sleep in the Jeep for hours while I crammed sciencey things into my brain. He hated my giant textbooks, and would sometimes lie on top of them when they were strewn all across my bed so that I would pay attention to him instead of molecules and reactions. We took hundreds of walks, sometimes meeting up with my friend Katie to stroll and chat around Lake Johnson, often taking off down I-40 to Umstead State Park, where he could run the trails off-leash. When we moved to a different apartment in Cary, we lived at the back of the complex. Our porch was on a downhill slope that was covered in grass at the top and red clay at the bottom. I would sometimes leave him out back for hours on end, the sliding glass door open so that I could hear his demanding barks when he would toss the ball through the slats of the porch railings. He spent those years with a reddish orange tint to his fur. No matter how many times I washed him, that clay wouldn't really come out. Neither of us cared.
He loved hiking, and we went all sorts of places in the North Carolina mountains and Piedmont. Once, he slid down a waterfall in the mountains. I think I screamed as I watched his rapid descent stopped by a rock. It was one of many ridiculous scares I had. Once we were skiing in Colorado and got a call from the vet telling us that he was Ehrlichia positive. I thought he would die while we were on the trip. But he never showed any symptoms his whole life. When I lived in a second floor apartment in the animal hospital I worked at, he once fell through the insulation in my closet to the hallway in the floor below. I didn't even know it had happened until he showed up at my front door. I couldn't figure out how he had gotten there until I went downstairs and saw the hole in the ceiling. Another time, I was about to go mountain biking with a friend. We were leaving the animal hospital apartment, and I happened to glance back at my apartment window, only to see Gatsby walking out on the roof! I'd left the window open, and he'd walked out on the roof to try to find me. This was because he and I used to go out on the roof often, sitting up there watching the traffic below and the nights sky above- dreaming and praying. Then there was the time that he was attacked by a viscous female pit bull on Thanksgiving morning. I was giving the boarded animals their food and medicine that morning at the animal hospital. I let Gatsby accompany me on these rounds, but I knew the dog-aggressive Pit was in a cage near the front, so I left him in the treatment area. But the door separating these two sections of the hospital was a swinging door that didn't latch, and he must have pushed it open to follow me. I didn't know he was behind me when I opened the Pit's cage, but she saw him and lurched. I've never seen anything happen so fast and so slow all at the same time. She went for his neck, but he turned at the last second and she caught him on the haunches. He cried out with a sound that I will never forget and pray to God I never hear again. I tried kicking her. I pulled things off the walls and threw them at her, but nothing worked. I screamed out "Jesus! Help me!" There were no other humans in the hospital. After what seemed like forever, I completely lost my innate self-preservation. I no longer feared being bitten or attacked. I was going to save my dog, or I was going to die trying. I lunged at her face. She still had Gatsby's haunches in her mouth. I punched her in between the eyes again and again, but she still wouldn't let go. Finally, I got my hands around her neck and began to squeeze. Her mouth loosened, Gatsby ran free. I picked her up by the throat. Rage coursed through me. I could see blood and I knew how close we had come. My whole body shook and I wanted to kill her. I could have done it, and I wouldn't have felt any remorse. But I threw her into the women's bathroom and slammed the door shut, instead. Dr. Faircloth came shortly after and sewed up Gatsby's wounds. If the bites had been on his neck...
I had an amazing relationship with Gatsby. I would say that he was my dog, but really only because he felt like he needed to protect me, and because I had him longer. The truth is that Gatsby was always Andy's dog too. God's grace is amazing like that. You'll have some good gift that you think is yours, and then discover that God intended it to bless someone else all along. Gatsby is a pretty friendly fellow. But he's discerning. He would warm up to most people once they threw the ball a couple of times for him. If you threw the ball for him, and he still didn't like you, there is only one explanation- you are a bad person. Anyway, Gatsby liked lots of people, but he only ever really, really, really loved one other person besides me- and that person is Andy. We both remember when this happened, actually. Andy and I had been dating for a couple of weeks and we decided to go on an adventure- the first of many. ;) So, we headed off to a state park and Andy brought along some fishing poles. I brought my Cocker Spaniel. And I'd say that the best thing that Andy caught that day was Gatsby's heart. We have a picture of the two of them on that day. Andy's squatting down on the ground with Gats in between his legs. Somehow, even in the picture, you can see that they are already connected to each other. That connection deepened intensely after we got married. I've written before that Andy and I faced some unexpected challenges after we got married. Things got tougher than either of us could have ever imagined. I used to feel really sorry for myself in those days. I was away from my family and couldn't figure things out. But, in time, I realized that it was really Andy who had it the worst. He was truly alone in those days. Everyone turned on him, letting him know with word or deed, that he was not living up to their expectations. I was a primary perpetrator of this blaming and betraying. Hurt turned to anger inside of me and I changed from the fun-loving, solid girl that he'd committed himself to, into someone frantic, confused, demanding and broken. Gatsby had this uncanny ability to remain loyal to me, and yet- and I am not making this up- call me out. I will never forget one day when I was fussing at Andy. We were both sitting on the sofa. In these times, Gatsby would always position himself beside Andy. They would sit there silently, together. Andy's eyes would be down, but Gatsby would stare at me- not angry or desperate, but pleading with me to stop. But this one day Gatsby went beyond just using his eyes to plead, he actually placed his paw on my leg. It was like a person, or more than a person, even. That paw touched me and I completely shut up. Those were hard, hard times. And throughout them, Gatsby stuck by Andy. He was and always will be, the best family that Andy has ever had. In the hurt that Andy has had to shoulder, he hasn't ever had anyone more loyal and loving than Gatsby. As much as Gatsby loved me, he might have loved Andy just a little bit more... I can't be sure. But maybe. Just maybe. Gatsby's relationship with Andy was different than with me. Because Gats always had to take care of me. I was always needy of him. He always saw himself as my protector- he physically and emotionally took care of me every day of his life. But Gatsby saw Andy differently. He saw Andy as his protector and his friend. When Andy would go to drill weekends, Gatsby would lie on the sofa and stare at the door all of Friday night, waiting for Andy to come through it. He reverted to his protector role for those days, but when Andy got home Sunday afternoon, he would relax again. Dad was home.
Andy also loved Gatsby for his sense of adventure. We took him all sorts of places in Texas. We kayaked on spring-fed rivers- Gats would perch on the bow of Andy's kayak and jump into the water whenever he felt like it. We drove to the Pacific and the two of them dashed into the freezing water in Santa Monica together. We snuggled by the campfire and curled up together in a tent in Yosemite National Park. We all sat together on the rim of the Grand Canyon. We hiked the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. We bought a little blue kiddie pool for him to cool off in when he played ball in the backyard in the summer time, and he helped us build a hippopotamus out of snow one Christmas, little snowballs forming around the fur of his legs as he bounded through my parent's white backyard.
But as much as he loved adventure, he also loved for all of us to be home together. The last precious memory I have of my boy comes from this past Friday night, just before he took his turn for the worst. Andy, Story and I had been out to dinner, and Story and I got home before Andy. We let the doggies out in the yard with us while we watered some plants. Andy arrived, and Gatsby and Daisy trotted off to greet him as he pulled into the driveway. A moment later, Gatsby came around the corner of the house to find me and Story, where were were finishing up with the watering. His face said, "Dad's home! Come on! Everyone is home!" Hours later, he fell asleep in my arms at the emergency clinic. His heart, always so full, always so strong, needed to rest.
These past few days have been some of the worst of my life. The emptiness that Andy and I feel is incredibly painful. We have two parallel tracks- one that is full of gratitude for God's amazing grace. We have so many wonderful memories with our boy. Some of them have been shared here, but there are so many more. And we know that God was incredibly gracious to us. His sickness last Tuesday allowed us to really cherish our last days with him, even though we weren't aware that they were the last ones. We had been praying that Gats would be able to make the move to North Carolina, but we now see that it would have been impossible to have endured the loss while we were apart from one another. And we love that Gatsby's last day was spent at home with Momma and Story, and that in the evening, Dad came home and we spent a few happy moments like any other Friday night before his heart failed. But the emotional track wrecks us. We keep on crying. There are moments- like Saturday morning when Story picked up one of his tennis balls and looked for her buddy- when we miss him so much we can't do anything but cry and pray together.
Last week, my devotion was about God's kindness. It came from Luke 6, when Jesus tells his disciples to love their enemies, to do kind things for them, to pray for them. And He says that they should do this because God is kind to the wicked. In the past few years, I've learned a lot about how to love others while also drawing boundaries (because this, too, is an expression of love) I'll likely be working on this for the rest of my life. And yet, I know, as we all do, that we are given so many chances every day- to make the choice to be kind. Jesus asked us to choose kindness, because that's what God does. But He says it's not enough to just be kind to the people who like you. He says that anyone can do that (although, some people actually don't follow through on being kind, even to the people who are kind to them). Jesus wants us to be kind to everyone, because God shows kindness, even to the wicked. It's hard to understand this. In our "grace for me, justice for everyone else" mindsets, it's hard to actually follow through, on a heart level that leads to acts of kindness. When I consider the things that have been going on this summer- fear spreading like wildfire, abuses of power, acts of terrorism, murder of the innocent- the madness of it all- I see the difficulty, and yet the dire need for humanity to do what Jesus said to do. Can we? Can I? Can I be kind? It's hard. It really is. I just keep asking Jesus for help. Help comes, sometimes wearing black and white fur. In all of my life, I do not think I'll ever understand God's kindness any better than I did through Gatsby. Because when I was most selfish, most wicked, God gave me the greatest gift that I could ever receive. He gave me fourteen years of grace.
Gatsby, I love you and I miss you. Thank you for being our friend. So loyal, so brave, so fun. Thank you for being ours. You are our family, Buddy. We pray that God, in His creativity and grace, would allow us to see you again. But know that our hearts are forever better because you were ours. We'll never really be worthy of you. But we promise to try to live out the lessons that you taught us about kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and love. Peace be with you, my sweet, sweet friend, just as you always brought peace to us.