Monday, April 29, 2013

McKearney Marie: What I have learned about God through my dogs, and an obituary.

As the mother of Moses laid him in the reeds at the river’s edge, entrusting him wholly to your care because she could no longer keep him safe, so we lay our pet in this place. Keep her safe in your love until we come, and give us Grace to come when you call us, as she came when we called her. Forgive us those times when we did not love your pet as you would have us do, and accept our thanks for your having given her to us for her time on earth. 
~from a funeral service for a dog

Forgive me for being away from the blog the last several days. I have been going through a very difficult time, and I just haven't felt up to taking the time to sit down with my thoughts. Between my grief and the intense pain in my right arm and hand, blogging was just not something I could bring myself to do.

Above is a picture of my beloved prissy little pricness, McKearney Marie, three months before she joined our family. We have loved her so much. She's been a delight with her prissy little prance and her silly polka-dotted feet and antenna ears. This baby girl was a joy to everyone who knew her, and a great comfort to me in a time of grief before.

It was the first weekend of October, and the weather was perfect - not too hot or too cold. Leaves were turning bright colors, and the world was getting ready for winter. My son, our next-door neighbor, and I went for a long hike with my dogs, Mandy, aged 10 and Finny, who would soon be a year old. It was our last hike with Finny. He was poisoned that night, and died two days later. We had a friend help us with everything. We buried him in the backyard, under his favorite digging spot. We gave him a sweet memorial service, and we said our goodbyes. We were heartbroken. More heartbreaking, though, was the discovery that the people who had poisoned my sweet puppy were merely children. They were sent to various detention centers, some for longer than others, all with the hopes that counseling might help them. It was a difficult time for everyone.
Finny, sitting by his dig spot where he would eventually be buried
Finny's Funeral

We were determined though. We had room in our home and our hearts for more than one dog, and we were not going to be broken by the loss of our Finnegan. We were working with a few groups to find the right dog to fill that space. And we were doubly blessed! We buried Finn on Monday night. On Wednesday, we made a thirty minute drive to pick up Kearney, a border collie and corgi cross breed who just won our hearts. She fit right in, and we all adored her.

Two weeks later, we were a bit overwhelmed, but extremely happy to be introduced to Joey, who would become the third member of our doggie family.

Oh, how we loved these dogs!  We have all been doing well, working hard on Joey's fear aggression and nervousness around strange men, Mandy's dumpster diving, and Kearney's need to bark at EVERYTHING that happens outside. They've all made a lot of progress, and we were all getting along swimmingly.

Until Thursday night.

Thursday evening, as we were getting ready to leave for baseball practice, we heard a scuffle in the front yard. I ran out the door to find the beginning of a dog fight. Kearney attacked Mandy, our ten-year-old black lab. The best we can figure, Mandy had found something that Kearney wanted, and Kearney attacked. It had happened before, but always ended quickly as soon as I stepped in.  Not this time.  Mandy tried and tried to get away from the fight, but Kearney was, as my friend put it "battle blind" and kept lunging at her. I tried everything to safely break up the fight - shouting, clapping, separating them with the lid of the toy box, spraying them with water. Kearney kept coming. Finally, I grabbed her scruff, and I got bitten pretty badly. But it gave Mandy time to get away, and once Kearney realized she was biting ME, she backed off immediately. It was too late though.

The vet said it was obvious that Mandy was trying very hard not to hurt Kearney, but she had to protect herself too. She didn't want to hurt Kearney. My poor girls. My poor, poor baby girls. Kearney was badly injured. We honestly didn't think she'd make it for more than a few minutes. But she was a tough little girl. She curled up in the corner next to the porch.  We brought her a blanket to make her comfortable and a water bowl.

Thank God, my Mandy was mostly unharmed. She's got a few abrasions we've been treating, and she was given some antibiotics to be safe, but she is, for the most part, fully recovered.

I had to be taken to the emergency room. The bite went into the tendon of my right forearm, and is very painful, but it will heal. The ER took x-rays, gave me a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) booster, a shot of antibiotics, and cleaned out and dressed the wounds. They offered me a shot of pain medicine, but it would have required a bed and a two-hour stay. I declined, and was discharged from triage with vicodin and augmentin.

Kearney Marie, Christmas morning 2012
When we got home from the hospital, my Kearney had moved onto her favorite seat - the cushioned bench on the front porch. I couldn't move her inside without hurting her more, so I covered her with a warm blanket, and sat with her for an hour. I just held her beautiful little head and told her how much I loved her, and that no one was upset with her. We knew she didn't mean to hurt anybody. She was just being a dog, and sometimes, dogs fight. Unlike people, they don't have free choices. They are servants to their animal nature, and no training will change their nature.

Our vet determined that there was nothing we could do for her. For many reasons, it was time to say our goodbyes to my beautiful princess. First, she was in agony. She was suffering greatly, and it was obvious. The vet hesitated to give her anything for pain because of the risk of more bleeding and because of any effect it might have on her temperament. We did NOT need another dogfight. There was no guarantee that she would recover, and her injuries were pretty bad. Then came the risk of future aggression. She'd gone after Mandy before, but never to this extreme. It had escalated out of control, and there was no telling what or who she might attack next.  We really had no choice but to go ahead and put an end to her suffering.

I spent most of the rest of the day sobbing my eyes out and being thankful that my son had gone to his dad's for the weekend.

I tried to stay focused on the things for which I was thankful, but at the same time, my heart was broken. I ached for my baby girl. And every time my arm or leg would throb in pain, it only made the pain in my heart more potent. Oh, Kearney! What could I have done for you?

In my grief, I called my dear friends in Saint Louis, and they, as always were a great comfort to me. I spoke to Isaac about dogs and salvation, and found we shared a similar view on many points. I wanted to share some things with you all, because they have helped me before and are helping me greatly now.

Happy boy with his happy dogs
The relationship we have with our dogs is a mirror of the relationship God has with us. The more I think about this, the more I realize how very true and beautiful it is. When we lay Finnegan to rest in the backyard, part of our prayer was "Help us always to come when You call as our dog always came when we called." How poignant are those words?

We train our dogs to be obedient to us. The goal is that they are 100% obedient to our commands, but we know that when they are not given commands, their doggie nature will take over, and we love them all the same. We are different, in that we are capable of overcoming our "doggie" nature, and making the free choice to be obedient always, but if we admit it, we aren't always obedient. But the Master is still there with a pat on the head, a rub of the belly, and an overflowing bowl of mercy for us when we paw at the door, so to speak.
The ever-faithful Mandy, who is entirely devoted to us.

When our dogs are not obedient, we correct them, because we are training them in large part for their own safety.  Sure it's CUTE when we have a dog who is an agility or rally champion, but at the heart of it, we train tricks so that we can train recall, "leave it," "drop it," and the like. Once the dog has good recall and will give me her undivided attention when asked for it (I say "focus," and expect eye contact until my dog is released to "go play"), I know I can keep her safe from most situations. Was it extremely precious that my Kearney would literally dance for her supper? Of course it was. But more importantly, Joey can focus on me when he is terrified and wants to jump at a stranger, and Mandy will come every time she is called NO MATTER WHAT. She even tried desperately to get away from a dogfight because she heard the sound of my voice. How true is that of our Master and us? Obedience to God is not expected so He can show us in some great, cosmic trick-dog championship. He requires our obedience for our own good.

In the Holy Scripture, we read (St. Matthew 11:29) "Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls."  To our dogs, I would say, here, baby, let me put this collar, and tag, and leash on you. You are my beloved pet now, and I will be gentle with you. I expect you to behave, but I have kibble, blankets, a warm place by the fire, and unlimited belly-rubs for the rest of your life. Sure, I have expectations, and you will be corrected when you pee on the floor or dig in the trashcan, but I am quick to forgive, scratch you behind your ears, and take you for your walkies. It's not so different, I think. My dogs understand it pretty well.

Chow smile over his first belly rub!
Just as we learn the rules that God has for us, our dogs quickly (with some consistency) learn our expectations for them. They KNOW when they have done something wrong. And they CONFESS it. Now, they don't go to a priest, say their prayers, and ask for forgiveness. No, they tuck their tails in, duck their heads, and show me what they've done. Even after the seven years of serious abuse my labrador suffered before she came to me, she isn't afraid that I will punish her harshly. She knows I will be quick to forgive her, but she shows me that she acknowledges that she did wrong.  If only I could follow her example all the time! Because my God, like her mistress, is quick to forgive when I acknowledge my sin. When I go to Confession, I know my sins are forgiven. Does it mean I'll never dig in the trash again, so to speak? Well, I am NOT a dog, so the answer is "hopefully, but probably not." No, like a dog, I will keep trying, failing, and asking for forgiveness, until someone puts in a cabinet door to keep me out of the figurative trash. As a human, that responsibility may well fall on me. As a pet owner, I can put up a door for my dog. As a person, I have to change my habits, my thought patterns, my behaviors. Either way, there is much to be learned about Confession, repentance, and forgiveness here.

I have even learned a lot about parenting through training my dogs. Yes. Parenting.  See, my dogs respond best to praise and rewards. There was NOTHING Kearney would not do for a belly rub. Mandy would walk through fire for pepperoni. Joey? He likes a good combination of affection and food, and he's learning well. They don't need harsh punishments, especially when they don't know what they've done wrong. They need consistency and positive reinforcement. They need a firm "No! Leave it!" when they're getting into something wrong, and then they need to hear "good girl!" and get a treat when they leave the bad thing behind. Yeah. Sound like any six-year-olds you know? Because it sounds a lot like mine. 

We really can learn a lot about our relationship with God if we think about our expectations for our dogs. The more I think about WHY I expect the things that I do, the more I begin to understand what God expects from me. My dogs are faithful, loyal, protective, slow to judge, quick to forgive, willing to admit their wrong actions, always wanting love and mercy and a good old fashioned belly rub. Is it really that simple? Well, no, but I don't suppose it's much harder than that either. 

But on to the big question my son asked: Is Kearney in heaven?

I don't think anyone can answer that for sure, but here's what I can say:
It seems to be that the Orthodox position is that dogs have souls, perhaps not the same sort of souls we have, since mankind is special, but they certainly have souls. 

Metropolitan Kalistos (Ware) seems to believe that there will be pets in heaven. In his The Orthodox Church, he says "Christ took flesh - something from the material order - and so has made possible the redemption and metamorphosis of all creation - not merely the immaterial, but the physical" (emphasis his!). All creation? Well, certainly my dogs were created by God! He also says that " the earth "was created by God, currupted through the fall, but redeemed with us in Christ..." (emphasis mine).

So, while there seems to be no official Orthodox position, I have known several Orthodox clergy who would contend that our pets will are included when all creation is redeemed.

It makes sense to me, since God teaches us so much through them, and gives us so much comfort through them. 

So I continue to believe that Kearney and Finny, Nemo, Fibi, Snoopy, and Charlie will not just cease to be. If nothing else, it gives me some comfort in my grief to trust them entirely to God's care, as he trusted them temporarily to mine. Forgive me, Lord, for the times I was not the best master I could be for your creations! Have mercy on me, a lowly and humble sinner! 

The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have is in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. ... He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of this world. ... When all other friends desert, he remains. 

— George G. Vest, US Senate, 1884