Somehow we had managed to convince our parents that we needed a puppy and that evening, on a Mother's Day, we adopted one of the best members of our family and brought her home. A lab to the core that puppy loved to be loved. First time we saw her she was on a human lap and it remained her favorite place despite her added years and added pounds. More than once you'd find she'd managed to get on the lap of a pool side lounge chair victim and marvel at her skill and tenacity, always more impressed than upset.
She was smart enough to play dumb, lazy enough to play deaf, sneaky enough to undo the lock on the gate and let herself out.
For a dog loving kid she was a dream come true and the CUTEST puppy you could imagine with her over-sized ears and big feet. Being a shy kid who didn't talk much she certainly heard more than most. Even to the point where if she was in my presence I couldn't shut up for how in habit I was of vocalizing my thought process in front of her.
On summer nights with a clear starry sky, I'd sneak out of my bedroom window and meet her in the yard under the blue light of a full moon, dream of fairies, let my imagination run wild and see her, resting comfortably next to me, leaving me content to have just her. Meeting with Jesus began to carry a third person party as she began to be my gateway into His presence. I had always felt it was repetitive to talk at God, only hearing my voice and no face to react to my confessions or pleadings. Since I felt it was pointless to voice what He knew my thoughts already were then I used her audience to say them out loud since she didn't. The first sentences were addressed to her and by the heart of the issue it was God I was comfortably talking to, no longer feeling ridiculous. She was a vessel for Him and an example of unconditional love and it's impossible now to separate her from my growing attachment to God for how much she was apart of it.
She was always there. Through my awkward years, through the hell of high school, through my first time away from home, and the uncomfortable years of change and becoming an adult. Every birthday eve at home was spent by her side. Every hardship and threat of loss sent my weeping fears to the comfort of her constant, fearless peace. Every big decision was processed with her patient long ears.
It was painful to leave her when I left home for months and when I got home I made good on all my promises of making up for it. I took her on car rides and we hiked mountains and played in creeks away from the hot stifling city.
By the time she entered geriatric years my number one fear and dread would be the day that I would lose her. Her mortality was off limits. Simply because I could not imagine life on earth without her. Instead I imagined her with me on every adventure, every change and found myself feeling less lonely. Even in my dreams of Jesus coming back on a white horse and seeing Him for the first time, she's right there with me.
But she was getting old. She was slowing down. She looked so tired.
Someone once asked me, "What will you do if Toby dies?" I said, "Then my heart will die with her."
And it has. 14 years she has been with me. 14 years of habits built with her as my best friend. But now my best friend is gone, and so naturally my heart has followed after her.
I had spoken to her many times about Heaven and all that I was planning and dreaming of and scheming with her. But on a Sunday I gave her a valid message of instruction to go on ahead and see rest before I could.
She no longer had to be a vessel of God's love. She fulfilled her purpose above and beyond and I knew it would be selfish to keep her here and in pain purely for my sake.
Each family member, including pets, were able to say their goodbyes and by the time we got to the vet the second wave of pain was coming over her again. My dad, brother and I never left her side and spent our precious time praying over her, thanking her, thanking God for her, loving her and praising her all through her final seconds on this earth. I got down on my knees, took one last look at her brown eyes and she looked into mine as sleep overcame her, listening to her breathe one last time I gave the okay, much to my horror, to send her on her new adventure. I have never squeezed her so hard than I did after that awful moment. Hugging her that tight used to make me fear I'd hurt her, but I didn't need to hold back anymore. Even in her death she was comforting me. Her soft coat and warm body were still with me. I wept bitterly. I wailed as I have never thought possible. You learn all kinds of things about yourself that you didn't know were lying in wait for such a day.
It's now been over a year since her passing and the process of grief, you learn, is on going, never reserved for just one finite season. But it's taught me to hope, to let go, to believe and to love. It's remarkable that God still uses her as a vessel, even in her absence and memory.
Now I look to embark on the treacherous road of giving my heart away once more. The time has come to hold another canine in my arms and relish the feeling that a living creature belongs to me. I can't wait. I can't wait to have that unconditional love again... the companionship... the adventures... the constant. The friend.
Guilt tries to creep in, wonders if I'm replacing Toby, but I know it's impossible. If I had got my way and she would have been able to live for forever than I would still be bringing this puppy home to meet her. I only regret that he won't be able to meet her. But I'll tell him about her and let him be the confidante I need to listen to me miss her. And I'll let God use him as a new vessel, a vessel that proves there is a season for everything and that moving forward is a brave and adventurous task. And that, as G.K. Chesterton once said, "Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them, as on a root."