This Christmas morning I stood at the window looking out this beautiful sunny day with newly fallen snow and I had tears in my eyes. This weekend we had to put our family dog, Stormie, to sleep. It’s a brutal way for the family to spend Christmas but he was ready and it was time to say goodbye. In many ways, the house has been quieter without him. I’ve wondered if it’s crazy to feel so attached to a dog and to treat him as a part of the family but maybe writing this out will be a kind of therapy.
It seems like a culturally western thing but it’s really amazing how dogs are a special gift from God. You bond with them in such a way that they really are a part of your life and all the traditions you have. In the story of our lives Stormie seemed to be this underlying consistency in the ups and downs of our life narrative. It was as if you could have the worst day in the world and for Stormie, this really was what the world was like – lots of kisses, snuggling, let’s play, and it’s time for a nap.
“Remember the time when Stormie…” was a constant thread in our family conversations. After hard days when the world was spinning off its axis, he greeted you at the door baring his teeth to give you his Aussie “smile”. When we were relocating to the Midwest and pulled into the hotel in Las Vegas, he was so excited to be in the room that he ran around and jumped up and down on both beds. Eventually he chose a bed to sleep on and let Chris share it with him.
When we were heading up to Milwaukee for Justin and Abby’s wedding a few years ago, Stormie bolted out the door and jumped right into the driver’s seat. It was as if he was saying, “I’m part of the family too!” It took us quite awhile to coax him out of the car and I think he was mad at us for being left behind (he would pee on one of the beds to punish us).
Or the time when we took him out to the high desert in California to test his herding instinct. He was put in a pen with three sheep and a border collie. As the sheep nervously bleated with this new “intruder” in their space, Stormie seemed more interested in the collie than he was with the sheep. After running around for awhile, Stormie jumped over the border collie and all of a sudden his herding instinct kicked in as he circled around the sheep. When one broke off, Stormie would go chase it back to the other two then circle around the other way. All I remember hearing is my boys proudly announcing, “That’s our dog!!” We knew he had it in him as he would often “herd” the boys nipping at them from behind leaving holes in their t-shirts.
The last few months it was clear he was getting old but it never occurred to us how quickly his health would decline. His back legs had been giving out probably riddled with arthritic pain making it harder and harder for him to stand. On Saturday he just got tired of struggling to get up and it seemed like he knew it was time. The boys were home so we gathered in the kitchen to talk about it and we all agreed that it would be selfish for us to ignore reality. Stormie left quietly and peacefully with no struggle. It was if his face told us that he had finished what he came to accomplish in our family.
The last gift Stormie has given us (besides all the dog hair around the house) is learning how to grieve well. In all of this I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a family member. A dog is one thing but to lose a family member must be so terribly frightening that it immobilizes a person. When C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer, he wrote in A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” At times I have felt like throwing up and the realization of little things like leaving a light on at night or getting ready to feed him often leave me feeling strangely sad and lonely wondering if there’s enough grace for tomorrow.
I have thought about the theological possibility of dogs existing in heaven. I had a respected philosophy professor in seminary who believed this to be true based on a dog’s soul and the imagery we are given of animals in the new creation. I tend to agree and I’d like to think as well that eternal life with the Triune God will be the fulfillment of our happiest memories in this life with Him at the center. Sometimes all we are left with are memories of what we lose in this life but maybe God gives us even these as gifts to hold on to an eternal hope.