Could her husband, still grieving a beloved family pet, open his heart to a new dog?
Posted in , Nov 11, 2019
In the months leading up to Christmas, my husband mentioned wanting a dog once. Just once. It was a moment of weakness, something he would later say never happened at all. But I definitely remember it.
We were in the kitchen, and a photo of our beloved white Labrador, Reggie, flashed on the computer screen. “I miss him,” Donald said, tears filling his eyes. “Reggie was the most loyal dog, such a friend.” Then my husband looked at me. “Maybe we should get another dog.”
Reggie was the puppy our kids had grown up with. We brought him home to Cottonwood, Arizona, when Kelsey was seven and Tyler was four, and a few Christmases later, he made the move with us to Vancouver, Washington. He was in the middle of all we did, all of life.
Year after year after year.
Reggie saw us through the birth of Austin in 1997, and the adoption of Sean, Josh and EJ from Haiti in 2001. We had acreage in the Pacific Northwest, and our five boys lived outside in all seasons. I’d look out the kitchen window and see their happy faces as they ran across the open field behind our house, Reggie always right there in the middle.
But puppies don’t stay young forever, and neither do little boys. One by one, our kids grew up and moved off to college. Only our youngest, Austin, remained at home.
And Reggie, of course, stayed. His favorite person was my husband. We’d take Reggie to our house on Lake Merwin. When that dog wasn’t out on the boat with us, he’d sit at the end of the dock and wait. Didn’t matter how long we were out on the water, Reggie would be there, paws at the edge of the worn wood, scanning the horizon, waiting.
In 2011, when Reggie was 14, we felt the Lord pulling us to Nashville, Tennessee. I’d be closer to my publisher and better positioned for the speaking events that make up my spring and fall calendars. After 25 years as a public school teacher and basketball coach, Donald was ready to retire from teaching and focus on coaching. A move would also put us closer to the college where most of our boys had landed, and just miles from Kelsey’s soon-to-be home, as she was set to marry Christian recording artist Kyle Kupecky.
“What about Reggie?” I asked Donald in the month leading up to the move.
“I’m still working through that one.” Donald stooped down to pet Reggie’s ears. “I may have to drive him there.” He grinned at our dog. “You’ll love Nashville, right, old boy?” A week later, Reggie had a stroke. With a lot of love and prayer, in a few days he managed to walk around. Slowly. More deliberately. Then—days before the move—Reggie had a second stroke. He couldn’t move, couldn’t eat. And like that, the time had come to say goodbye.
Donald lifted dear Reggie into the back of our Suburban. We gathered at the tailgate to say goodbye. Reggie’s eyes seemed to say he was ready. He’d miss us but couldn’t go on like that.
Donald took him to the vet—one last car ride together. Then came home alone. “Never,” Donald said. “I will never get another dog as long as I live.” I pulled him into my arms. Tears came for both of us. When he could talk, he said, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
The move went without a hitch. We brought our kitty, Gus Gus, and settled into our new house without our white Lab. From the first day, we loved everything about Nashville, but as the year played out, we deeply missed Reggie.
Then, sometime in October 2012, Donald mentioned the unmentionable. Just that one time, but he’d said it. “…Maybe we should get another dog.”
Now I don’t sit on an idea for long. I’m a dreamer and a doer, so it wasn’t an hour later that I was on the internet looking for white Labrador puppies. And sure enough, I found Bullis Lake Labradors, with a litter of pups due to go home on Christmas Eve.
I could hardly put down the deposit fast enough. Through the weeks that followed, the Christmas puppy was my secret. When it came time to pick which puppy from the litter I wanted, I asked the breeder.
“The yellow collar male would be my pick,” he told me. “He’s friendly and curious, not too meek, not too aggressive. And he’s the cutest pup I’ve seen in a long time.”
“He’s ours then,” I told the man. And the yellow collar male it was!
As Christmas neared, I had the occasional twinge of doubt. What if Donald really didn’t want a puppy? Who would train this new dog if he steadfastly refused to participate?
The day before Christmas Eve, I told my family, “Everyone has to be here tomorrow, on Christmas Eve, just after lunchtime. It’s important.”
One son had last-minute shopping; another had a party with friends.
I thought fast. “It’s a surprise. Someone very important is coming by the house, and we all have to be here.”
And so we were. On Christmas Eve, at exactly one o’clock, there was a knock at the front door. My husband was zipping about changing lightbulbs. Everyone except him ran to the foyer and held their breath while I opened the door.
There in the arms of the breeder was the most handsome, perfect little white Labrador puppy I’d ever seen. One of our sons actually started to cry. “For us?” His eyes lit up. “You really got us a new puppy?”
My heart overflowed with joy. With the Christmas tree in the background and the kids squealing and fawning over the tiny pup, the picture we made was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. This was going to be the best December twenty-fifth ever.
But just then Donald rounded the corner. “What’s all the excitement ab—”
He stopped short and stared at the puppy. Then his eyes welled up and he turned and walked away. My heart dropped. Seriously? Is he really not even going to come see the little guy?
Austin, 15 at the time, immediately stepped up. “I’ll take care of him, Mom. He can be my dog.”
And so, an hour later, it was Austin outside with our puppy, introducing him to the backyard and tossing a new Christmas ball his way. I noticed Donald watching from the upper back deck.
The two of us hadn’t yet talked about the surprise, but an hour later I saw him helping Austin with our new Lab. See, my husband’s uncle is a dog trainer, and Donald had gleaned all there was to know about raising a puppy.
By the end of Christmas Eve, Donald wasn’t giddy about the development, but he was passing on his dog-training knowledge. I stood outside, watching them. “Let him come to you.” My husband’s voice was kind, patient. After all, he’d been a teacher for 25 years. “The puppy needs to know you’re in charge. You’re not going to chase him.” Late that night, after we set the kids’ gifts around the tree, my husband pulled me into his arms. “I meant what I said.” Donald wasn’t angry, just bewildered. “I didn’t want another dog. Reggie is the last dog for me.” For a few seconds, he seemed to think about his words. “Was the last dog.” He sighed. “Really, honey?”
“But you said…maybe we should get another dog.” I searched his eyes.
A smile tugged at his lips. “It was hypothetical, honey. That’s all.” He kissed me. “I’m sorry for not being more excited. I just don’t know if I can love another dog the way I loved Reggie.”
I understood that. “Give it time,” I said and hugged him. “God gives us hearts big enough to love again and again. I believe that.”
The kids named the puppy Toby, and that first night he slept in our room. Early on Christmas morning, Donald was taking him out back for a potty break when calamity struck.
Little Toby missed a step and fell straight into our ice-cold pool!
Donald was immediately in the water after him, and a minute later he walked back into our room, cradling Toby to his chest. The concern in my husband’s eyes looked a lot like love. “He needs warmth,” Donald said. He crawled back into bed with our little Lab pup and held him to his chest. He looked at me, clearly worried. “Cover us with blankets. Please.”
By the time the kids were waking up an hour later, two things had happened. Toby was warm and happy, curled at the foot of the Christmas tree.
And Donald had a new love.
In the seasons and years since our first Christmas with Toby, that Lab puppy has taken up permanent residence in our hearts. He is ever happy, hyper and hopeful. Every morning, he wakes us up with a toy in his mouth, and when we take our daily three-mile walk, Toby acts as if it’s his first time out. Every single day.
Our boys are older yet. They come and go, but Austin, now 22, still gets down on the floor to play with Toby or take a nap with him. As for me, Toby is my friend. I don’t write a novel without Toby sitting on my feet, keeping me in my chair. He looks up every now and then as if to say, “Stay focused! Get that book written!” But no doubt about it, Toby belongs to Donald.
When we go on a trip, Toby sits on the front porch, paws at the edge of the step…watching, waiting for us to come home. Well, not me so much. But Donald. Always Donald. That Labrador puppy was the Christmas gift my husband didn’t know he wanted.
And sometimes those are the best gifts of all. Remember that first Christmas, a couple thousand years ago? We didn’t know we needed that little baby in the manger. But we did. We still do. Because the truth is, sometimes the greatest gifts are the ones we didn’t see coming.
Just ask Donald.
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