If dogs wore clothing, Rico would have been a tuxedo-clad gentleman. I’m sure he would have played the saxophone in a jazz band.
Rico, a brindle greyhound, came into our lives most unexpectedly. A co-worker rescued him after he retired from racing, but shared her concerns about keeping him in her apartment. My husband and I were living in our first real house after two years of marriage, and our hearts felt full and ready to love something together.
My co-worker brought him to our old, shaky dwelling, built in 1872. As his lean, lanky body slunk through the door, he shook so violently that everything rattled from floorboards to windows. Tail between his legs and head lowered, he was a creature in need of comfort. We fell in love.
The clank of a leash brought out Rico’s alter-ego, and he transformed into a dancing fool. Those tall, daddy-long legs flailed in the air as we laughed in delight. Walking around the neighborhood, people stopped to admire his striated coat, and more than one child asked if he was a tiger.
Rico was elegant and soulful, and also wounded. He lashed out if we accidentally invaded his murky state between sleep and waking. He then felt so obviously sorry and embarrassed, and over-extended to apologize. He must have been abused. We learned his patterns and gave him the space he needed. In his creature-kind of way, he exuded gratitude every waking moment.
When he died, I thought I would never adore another dog again like Rico. We lived without animals for almost a decade, gathering and loving children instead of animals. Then, we realized our house was full except for a dog-sized void. Believing dogs can bring healing to hearts in ways that no other creature can, particularly for our wounded children, we contacted the Colorado Greyhound Adoption program.
Finally the call came. A dog in Denver with the racing name of O’Henry Jolly seemed the perfect fit. I laugh now when I remember how scared I felt when I met him. He was just so huge! Big, muscular, and white, with happy eyes. We soon learned that even loud, hyper-active children could not dissuade him from his cheerful mood. Of course, the fact that he was deaf, which we only realized after living with him for a week or so, certainly contributed to his stability amidst the racket.
He was a blue jeans and t-shirt kind of guy. If he’d been a person, I think he would have played guitar in a country band. Go-with-the-flow, enjoy-it-all was his approach to life.
He would do anything for us except surrender his determination to sleep on the couch. I tried the dog-behavior-book approach of piling balloons on the couch. He just lay on top of them, oblivious if they popped. After six months, I conceded the battle. Once, my parents-in-law stayed the night in our oldest son’s room. Our son migrated to the couch, with Henry’s bed resting on the floor nearby. When my father-in-law emerged in the morning, there sprawled Henry on the couch; and our son curled up on the dog bed.
Over the years, secrets slipped into those tender ears, with one always cocked forward and the other backward. Wordless sorrow sunk into his silky fur. Although deaf, he always heard with his heart and responded with an extended paw. He greeted random schoolchildren like old friends when I picked up my daughter. He loved to play tag in the backyard. I joked that he got into the trash every now and then to throw us off track from his true identity of angel-in-disguise.
Henry was only 7 ½ years old this summer when we learned that his limp was caused by advanced cancer in his hip. He declined rapidly. We lay beside him in the grass through a few tearful nights, remembering all his gifts of friendship. Processing the end we knew would take him soon also stirred memories of people we love, people we had to say good-bye to in the last few years. Henry’s impending loss broke down dams of emotion for teenage sons who wept after loved ones passed away, and then internalized the pain behind thick walls of determination not to cry. “Henry’s last gift,” I called it. The gift of tears and grief shared, of comfort given and received.
Then it was time to say good-bye. Henry was too weak to walk, so all six of us carried him on his bed like a gurney to the car and into the vet’s office. He lay calm and peaceful on the table, moving only his head to make eye contact with each of us and lifting his heavy swollen paw to touch our hands. At one point I moved behind him so that others could touch his head. He strained to look backwards. He wanted all of us in his line of sight.
Now that Henry is gone, I wrestle with my children through the memories of how well he loved us, of the love of people who left but their impact remains, of life and death and eternity. A child asks, “Do dogs go to heaven?” Everything in me wants to say yes. To think that the last time we would stroke Henry’s sweet soft ears was in the vet’s room, and we will never see him again, goes against every longing in my heart. I turn to the Book of Wisdom that I cherish. I find no mention of dogs and heaven. But I consider the mystery of Romans 8:18-21:
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
A son and I ponder the heavy weight of sin that separates not only people from God, but all of creation. The choices of darkness that condemn even a dog, who only loved, to death and decay. We ruminate on the mystery of hope, of a Savior who tore down the dividing wall between bondage and freedom. A God who longs for nothing more than reconciliation with his creation – all of it. Could it be that in the end our sweet Henry will be brought into “the freedom and glory” that we ourselves eagerly anticipate as children of God?
We also contemplate that great exposition of love, 1 Corinthians 13. A dog, as we experienced Henry, is a near perfect channel of love that is patient, kind, keeps no record of wrongs, etc. And the promise at the end of the passage comforts our hearts: “Love never ends.”
Will Henry leap through vibrant green grass to greet us in heaven, whole and healthy, recognizable in his earthly form of white greyhound? Will Rico eagerly stride towards me in regal poise like he did here? I really don’t know. But if love never ends, and since Rico and Henry loved without reservation, then I cannot imagine any other outcome than this: that the little part of God’s heart they so freely channeled to us, must stream into eternity.