“Never again. I never want another dog. It hurts too much to lose them.” I nodded in silent agreement at my husband’s sad words. Seventeen years of doggy love laid to rest near the clothesline where Polly liked to sit left a gaping hole in our hearts. We knew we couldn’t protect ourselves from losing a family member or a friend, but losing a dog, that’s different. Dog ownership is voluntary. We won’t make that mistake again.
We thought time would cure us from doggy love, but it didn’t. We never stopped looking for that black nose poking through the door to greet us. Or the stub of a tail that wagged so hard it moved her whole rear end. Or the brown marble eyes that followed our every movement. I heard her tags jingle for months after she was gone, at odd times when the house was quiet. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of her on someone else’s leash.
Two and a half years later, we were set up. I’ve always heard that viruses come through email attachments. I should have known better than to open it, but there it was—a picture of a fluffy-eared redhead with a white stripe and freckles on his nose. I closed the attachment, but it was too late. I was infected.
“If you keep looking at the picture,” my husband said after I opened it for the tenth time, “you’re gonna fall in love with him.”
“It’s too late,” I wailed. “I already have.”
We adopted Winston on my birthday, 2007, from a rescue lady named Grace. A fitting name, I’ve always thought. Grace. Grace. God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all my fears.
Like an eager suitor, Winston courted me.
Like a tenderhearted schoolgirl, I fell in love.
His playful antics, so different from our dignified first-born girl Cocker, made me laugh aloud. Some days, for no reason at all, he’d race around the yard like Samson’s foxes with their tails on fire. Every afternoon he’d pull my husband’s socks off his feet, then shake them to death like a hunter with its prey. Other days he’d roll on the grass in joyful doggy abandon, tongue lolling in a happy doggy grin.
His zest for life never ceased. Every morning, sometimes before dawn, he’d climb from his nest by our bed and flap his ears so hard his tags rattled. It was his way of announcing to the world that morning had arrived. Racing from the room in search of his favorite toy, he’d pounce upon it with laser-like accuracy. Like the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange, the resulting squeak would mark the beginning of our day.
His wholehearted love for his toys was fun to watch. He’d carry baby alligator, hot dog, and blue ball from room to room. We were never sure what was the criteria for being chosen as Toy of the Day, but he’d place the most-favored toy on the foot of our bed or on the couch, or he’d set it beside him at the door as he awaited our arrival at the end of the day. He bestowed the TOTD distinction on many of his toys, but red ball remained his favorite.
I’m sure I could have loved an ugly dog, but Winston’s beauty captivated me. His soft, silky head and curly ears begged to be stroked. He’d often lie belly up on our bed, inviting us to scratch the snowy white fur of his chest and tummy. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, him or me. There’s something mighty powerful about petting a soft, warm puppy.
And then there was his tail.
Because he was abandoned at the animal shelter as a sickly puppy, he missed the traditional tail docking many Cockers endure. Long and red, with a strand of white at the tip, Winston’s tail was, as Jo March said of her hair in the literary classic, Little Women, his “one true beauty.” It never stopped waving, like a white flag of surrender after a long war.
Winston’s adaptability fit my lifestyle perfectly. If I wanted to go for a walk, Winston was ready to go. Most times we’d walk our traditional route through the neighborhood, but our favorite path was around the lake at Sesqui. Delighted to be on the long leash, Winston would race ahead, sniffing at every tree. The only thing nicer than walking through that pine-scented forest in the springtime was sharing the walk with Winston.
Winston understood that a writer’s life is often sedentary. If I spent the day working at my computer, he was OK with that. He’d gather his toys around him and stretch out on the floor, occasionally opening one eye to check my progress. He was patient and good.
It was a year of transition, that spring of 2007 when Winston inserted himself into my life. My eldest was graduating from homeschool high school and starting college. My youngest was growing more independent every day. Both had outgrown the frequent hugs and kisses I had so generously bestowed upon them in their younger years.
Winston, however, was an eager recipient of my affection. He never wiped his face in disgust after I planted a kiss on him. He willingly accepted every hug I enthusiastically shared. And often, during my early-morning quiet times, he’d cuddle close beside me on the bed and lay his soft head in the crook of my arm. Every now and he'd let loose a sigh of contentment that came from deep within his doggy soul.
On Winston’s last day, he did something he’d only seen in movies—he chased the neighborhood cat up a telephone pole. We’d walked together two days before, but that day was a workday for me. I left him sleeping in the sunny spot at the foot of my bed and headed out.
I knew something was wrong when I came home from lunch. No eager bark greeted me at the door. No happily wagging tail. By dinnertime Winston was too weak to stand. A panicked trip to the emergency vet yielded a diagnosis I never expected to hear—multiple tumors, fluid around his heart, and no hope for recovery. By ten o’clock I had planted one last kiss on the soft fur of his nose and scratched his ears until he fell asleep.
“You’re a good boy,” I said. “Your mommy loves you. You’ve been a good friend.”
Equally heartbroken, my husband repeated the words he’d said thirteen years earlier—“Never again. I never want another dog. It hurts too much to lose them.”
But I know he’ll change his mind. I will too. When the edges of our grief soften and the sweetest parts of doggy ownership begin to scratch at the doors of our hearts, we’ll open them up again.
Against our better judgment.
In the meantime, we’re choosing to be thankful for the good and perfect gift God gave us in Winston.
After all, only God would have thought to wrap love, loyalty, and laughter in red fur and freckles.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).