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Lessons From My Dog

Lucas bounded into our lives several years ago, an eight-week old puppy with one floppy ear, the fluffiest tail I had ever seen, and a heart filled with wonder.

I first saw him on Petfinder when we concluded that our son was finally old enough to care for a serious pet. His first experience with Sam and Sookie the Goldfish had ended well. Michael had won them at the County Fair and was so excited as he held the water-filled baggies up to regard his new piscatorial friends that he rushed right home, foregoing the rides on the midway so that he could get them into a bowl before the baggies broke. He did well with the fish, and they lasted as long as goldfish tend to last. One morning we found them floating rather than swimming, bade goodbye, then placed them with care under a rose bush in the garden so that they could play their part in the cycle of life. Shortly afterward, I concluded that it was time for a dog.

Lucas spent the first weeks of his life with his mother in a shelter in eastern Virginia, the small part that tucked below Delaware on the Delmarva Peninsula and a good three hour drive from where we lived. But when you know something is right, time and distance have little meaning. I saw his picture and my own heart melted. We were off to Austria for a week, though, so it made no sense to adopt him then. The shelter made no guarantees. In fact they said that they were getting a number of inquiries about the puppy they had named Butterball. Still, I should call when I got back to see if he were still available.

I spent the week in Salzburg conferences, drinking Gluhwein, marveling at the grandeur of the Alps, listening to Mozart, and hoping each day that the small dog in the photo would still need a home when our plane finally landed. We got home late Sunday night, and first thing Monday morning I called the shelter to learn that they had some concerns about the family that had put a claim on Butterball, and had denied their adoption request. Some things, I know, are meant to be.

Butterball yipped in his crate the entire three hour drive back home the following Saturday. I had been amazed at how small and delicate he felt when the shelter director placed him in my hands. He looked up at me quickly, then turned to whimper back toward the director, who just as quickly turned to walk toward her own car. In a gesture his whole existence was overwritten, and he was thrust into what was completely foreign. The drive back was a symphony of anguished puppy sounds, not softened by my own attempts to sing, to coax, and to whisper soothingly from the driver’s seat.

To this day, he remains the best single Christmas gift I ever gave my son. He would not wear the red ribbon I had gotten to tie around his neck, but he bounded around the corner of the living room where Michael waited for some unnamable surprise, excited to be out of his crate and expecting that he was on the verge of some great new adventure. He saw Michael, they jumped together, and a timeless love was born in a breath. Michael renamed him Lucas, and everything that was Butterball – the shelter, the small cage, the security of his mother – was gone forever.

I watched him then, mixing love for my son with love for my dog, worrying about keeping the two of them safe and healthy, wishing with all my heart that their days would be filled with happiness, discovery and laughter. I walked Lucas, fed him, cleaned up his messes, and with Michael played with him daily. We all went on together. God, it was bliss.

As time moved on, I came to look at Luke through different eyes. He’s in his twelfth year now, and I know, sadly, that he’s probably passed three-quarter mark, and possibly more, of what I hope has been a joyous and peaceful sojourn. Even though he’s healthy, his eyes are bright and his sense of play intact, I can feel a clock ticking away these precious days, and so I’ve come to look at Luke more carefully, and more openly than ever before. I dread the day when he’s not here with me.

We walk in the morning, and those are the best times. These are the times when the best lessons are learned. He does not prance and pull as he did when he was younger. He walks more slowly now, sniffing at mailbox posts and patches of grass that have been visited by other dogs. Sometimes he stops and pricks his ears. Nothing there, then a turn of his head to look up at me, almost smiling, before he resumes.

His best friend is a delightful little Pug about his age who lives four doors down. Some mornings he’ll stop in Maile’s yard and wait for her to come out with Diane, then together we’ll complete the morning walk. But if she does not appear, Luke will turn up the sidewalk without complaint.

Lucas does not love what he does not see. He is content in the moment, content with those around him. He sees only what is there, without interpretation or adornment. That is enough.

Whenever someone comes to the door, he explodes in anticipation, yelping with joy until the door is opened and he can welcome whoever walks through, whether a neighbor, a repairman or the guy delivering the pizza. He tells me that there is immense pleasure in simply being together, that every living creature carries a dignity worth celebrating, that we are social beings who cannot do without one another.

Because of this, Lucas is a poor watchdog. If asleep, he would not be likely to stir or make a fuss over an intruder except to wag his tail and bark his happiness that someone new had come to call. But if I open the refrigerator door, Luke usually comes running. He’ll sit there and watch whatever it is I’m pulling out, lick his muzzle and stare. Sometimes it works – I might share a piece of chicken or a tortilla - but most times he gets nothing. Still, he comes each time, and I’ve seen in his gentle eyes hope without expectation. For Lucas, hope is enough.

For a dozen years Lucas has been confidant and comforter. In the darkest times, he senses despair, or loss, or grief, then seeks out the one who is suffering. He’ll do what’s needed, following along until there’s an opportunity to curl up next to the one with the sad eyes. The press of his warm body, the sincerity of his eyes and the gentle lick of a tongue offering unqualified affection has melted away sorrow, despair and angst, always bringing me higher, bringing me back to the moment, back to the realization that all despair carries with it limitless possibilities.

For years I have strived for an elusive mix of simplicity and passion, to strip away everything that is unnecessary or cluttering or distracting, to live simply enough so that I can pursue the things that really matter. Lucas has done this. He does not procrastinate or rationalize or lie. Luke sees that love is life’s most precious flow, that being with those we love is enough, and that it is all we can do to provide for one another.

If I am fortunate, someday I can come close to who and what he is.

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Great story on Lucas. I am sorry he lost his friend Miley.

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