My aunt Kate is one of those people who could never turn away a stray animal. Dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, you name it and she has brought it home. She is one of the many extended family members who had a hand in raising me. There was a time when Kate was probably my favorite person in the world. Her sympathies toward animals played a large role in this bias. Kate taught me to ride horses and always had room for one more furred creature, one more set of paw prints.
During the summer and at every other opportunity, I would accompany Kate to the horse barn out on Welcome Rd. on the west side of Coweta County. Wood-N-Horse stables, where Kate worked part-time was the domain of Nancy Gosch, a nationally renown instructor and horse breeder for equestrian three-day event competitions. It was also home to a wide assortment of dogs and cats, which somehow had a way of turning up at the barn.
I don’t recall the exact details, but somehow along the way I came upon a little black mutt of a puppy. Some degree of cross between a black lab and a hound of some kind. She had ears and legs too long for a lab but her sweet temperament and sleek, black coat belied this heritage. She also had a little white tip of hair at the end of her tail and another little patch of hair on her chest and lightly threaded through her muzzle. She even had the webbed feet of a Labrador. I tried to impress this upon my Uncle Bill, sure that it would score points with him, a bird dog man. “What does that mean?”, he asked. “Is she part duck”?
I called her Ellie, short for Elvira, the name of a corny song by the Oak Ridge Boys , which was all over the radio at the time. Ellie and I became fast friends. We roamed the green woods and pastures of the lingering summer. We rolled and wrestled in the floor, her long legs and lumbering paws clumsily flailing, her fat tummy full and satisfied, and her sharp puppy teeth gnawing my finger. She burrowed down in the covers and fell asleep next to me in bed every night.
As the new school year approached, it came time for me to leave my feral existence with aunt Kate and the horse barn and return home to my parents. The inevitable question of whether or not I could take Ellie home with me was pressing down upon us. My parents, predictably, were not thrilled by this new arrangement but they relented. Ellie would join the family and was introduced to her new playmates–Skippy, our little brown dachshund, who had been with us since I was one year old and Buffy, my mother’s shaggy cocker spaniel.
When school started back my time with Ellie was curtailed to afternoons and weekends. While I was busy all day learning multiplication tables, the capitals of the 50 states, and excelling at kickball during recess, Ellie was playing with Skippy and Buffy in the sandy dirt pen under the shade of an old Schley pecan tree in our backyard. I couldn’t wait to get back home to her every afternoon. Dogs have a way of lingering on a child’s mind.
One afternoon I bounded into the backyard and flipped up the horseshoe-shaped latch of the pen’s gate. Skippy and Buffy rose from the cool wallows they had dug into the sandy soil and ran toward me with tails and tongues wagging, bodies wiggling. “Where’s Ellie?”, I asked. I called for her but she didn’t come. I looked throughout the pen but Ellie was gone.
I called at the edges of the yard, searched under the azaleas, thinking maybe she was hiding there, but she was nowhere to be found. A panic hit me. I ran back inside and told my mother, “Ellie’s gone.” She came outside to help me call and look. “She’ll turn up”, my mother said. “If she doesn’t come back soon, we’ll go look for her.” Ellie didn’t return. We piled into the old Thunderbird and circled the neighborhood, down the back alleys, along side streets. Looking and calling. Not a trace.
There’s something about the relationship between a boy and his dog that’s hard to put a finger on. The child psychologists say pet ownership among kids is linked to higher self-esteem, better cognitive development, and good social skills. But, there’s more to it than that. Something deeper. I was an only child when I had Ellie. None of my friends lived nearby. She was my friend, companion, and playmate. I confided and invested deeply into our relationship. She rewarded me with the treasure of her soft, bright eyes, a canine smile, and a slobbery tongue. Her soft muzzle and wet nose against my cheek. There’s something beautiful and simple, but weighty in all that. A child takes security and confidence in the valuable relationship between child and parent but, in all honesty, most take that relationship for granted. Not so with a dog. A favored pet is often the first relationship a child really feels. As Edgar Albert Guest wrote, “They make a glorious pair.”
Our search went on for a couple days to no avail. I would walk the dirt alley behind our house after school each afternoon, calling her name through the trickle of salty tears seeping from my eyes. Calling,….. calling.
One night, exhausted with worry and unable to sleep, I stared up at the support boards holding up the bunk above my bed. My mouth formed words through the quiet sobs with which I pleaded with God. Although I attended church with my mother, we asked God’s blessing upon our meals, and said nightly prayers, this was the first time I actually spoke to God out of raw feelings, “with groanings that cannot be uttered”. The first time I had a real conversation with God. The kind of conversation you have when you have nowhere left to turn and no way to make sense of anything. When you stop trying to understand and just surrender.
At only ten years old, I didn’t have any real understanding of what the proper protocol was for talking with God. In my adolescent mind, I felt the need to bargain with God out of desperation to get what I felt I needed. As if I had anything with which to bargain. How little I understood.
I begged God to help me find Ellie. In the course of this pleading, out of the seeming impossibility of my request, I felt it necessary to promise God that if he helped me find her, I would one day become a preacher. I felt that was the most I could offer.
The next day when I got home from school I went looking for Ellie again. As I walked down the dirt alley calling her name as I had done every day for what seemed like forever, I happened to look over into the shrubbery in the backyard of the neighbor behind our house. And there she was. Lying in the sand beneath the shaded hedge of some red tip begonias. Not moving. I fell down beside her, overcome with emotion. Ellie raised her head and licked my hand. I hugged her and told her I’d be right back and ran home to get my mother.
Ellie was lethargic and dehydrated. She barely moved. We loaded her into the old, long Thunderbird and took her to the veterinarian. I was certain she’d be ok. After all, God had answered my prayer, hadn’t he? I had found my dog.
The news came from the cold, drab cinder-block veterinarian’s office. Ellie had tested positive for Parvo. It was a relatively new virus that had popped up in the late 1970’s and at the time, it was a death sentence. We were told we’d have to put Ellie down.
I don’t remember much about what happened after that. I don’t remember going to the vet to have the shot administered or where we buried her. Maybe my parents did all that, thinking it would be better to spare me the experience. I guess that part doesn’t really matter now.
Ellie comes back to my thoughts from time to time. Our paths crossed so briefly and it took me years to work out in my mind the meaning of that whole experience. It was a time I believe marked the beginning of the end of my childhood in a way. Young people are often encumbered with the myth of their own immortality. It is a myth that persists until we are awakened to its fallacy by the sight of death up close in a loved one. We know in the back of our minds that death is supposed to be lurking out there somewhere but we don’t actually believe in it when everything about the way we experience the world is so full of life.
Maturity teaches that mortality is a gift. The brevity of biological life is what makes it special. We’re taught that for each life there’s birth and there’s death and there’s the something in between that we call life. Whether we get 100 years or 20 years, it is all a short time in the grand scheme.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that life is more than just that time between birth and death. Each life is something that moves forward, moves things on down the line. Its fed by many other lives—people, experiences, pets, the living world around us, which are all fed by others. What I call my life is a part of countless ancestors and interactions I will never know about just as my life and experiences will one day, hopefully, be part of many distant descendants. All this life intersecting however briefly or from however distant in time and place all sort of merges together. Life, strange thing that it is, keeps right on flowing in its way, right on going beyond the short interval of biological life. Every manifestation of life touches every other whether we know it or not. At some level, beyond our capacity to envision, its all one thing. But really, what does that mean? What are we to take from that?
The heart of what I am trying to say is this: Life and indeed, God, are more complex than anything we might imagine. Consider the way they both use the most painful moments to teach us the greatest lessons. There are those who doubt that God exists. I am not among them. I have seen prayers answered and things which seemed impossible come to pass. Finding Ellie was not the only time I’ve experienced this but it was the first.
You may be thinking “What are you talking about, God didn’t answer your prayer. Ellie died.” Yes, she did. But if you recall, I never asked that Ellie and I live happily ever after. I only asked that she be found. And she was. Some will scoff and say, “So you found your dog. That doesn’t prove anything.” Well, maybe not to you. But it was proven to that little boy who prayed that dark night in his bunk bed and I still believe it to be so.
Prayers aren’t some sort of magic. They are a communication. A way of participating and interacting in a conversation. The replies we get are not often simple or even what we expect. Real answers, like the one from whom they originate, are complex. Or perhaps I should say the reasons behind those answers are complex. They are revealing as answers should be. The best answers, like lessons, reveal something to us about ourselves and the one who answers.
In the 40 years since Ellie came along, I’ve thought a lot about the nature of God. How foolish we are to try to fit God, or even life, into the small view we have of existence. Though we see it all around us and are indeed a part of it, as science journalist Carl Zimmer points out in his book Life’s Edge, there really is no one definition of life because the more we learn about it the harder it is to define. All definitions seem too simplistic to explain it. So it is with God. In each of our lives there is room for wonder.
Promises, whether made to God or man, are no light matter and I still struggle with what to make of that early pledge I made. I think God cared for that dog. Just as He cares for the sparrows. Just as He does for all life. And if He cares in that way, surely the good Lord will not hold a ten year-old boy to a grieving promise he made out of pure heartache for his first real loss. Life tells me there’s a lot more to God than that.