Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Purpose of the Puppy Search

"Then time stopped for a second as I realized she was about to cry. Was she having sudden remorse for giving away the dog? I looked closer and felt my soul being drawn toward a familiar place. She was fighting back the tears of recent loss and unresolved grief."

It began as a clearly random encounter in a local pet store one Sunday after church. Lee, my teenage son, and I were turning into the parking lot of a popular restaurant. I noticed white tents occupying a portion of the parking lot and banners proclaiming a pet sale sponsored by the Humane Society. I immediately said to Lee, “We need to get another dog.”

He looked at me as if I’d had a sudden loss of consciousness. We already have too much going on to spend time with our dog waiting to be fed at home. I’d had this thought before, and had even searched online for a breed that might mix well with Kylee, our mostly-basset hound. She seems lonely to me, and the fact that we are so busy gave us only limited time to spend with her. This was the very reason I had thought about finding a companion for my canine.

Today was different though because I wasn’t just thinking that it might be nice to have another pet, but I just knew we were meant to find our new dog in this very parking lot. After lunch, I still thought that there was a dog under those white tents who belonged at my house. Lee and I drove a full circle around the tented dog sale, slowly enough for me to see that there were several metal kennels and lots of people being walked around by a variety of dogs. I parked the car, telling myself that it would just take a minute to scurry through the kennel maze and prove to Lee that we were supposed to find a dog here.

There were lots of big dogs, a few medium-size dogs, but no puppies that could be trained by my Kylee in the ways of our family. I asked several of the volunteers which one of these dogs would mix well with a basset hound. Amazingly, they all were likely candidates according to the Humane Society volunteers. But I knew none of these dogs were going home with me.

As I began to doubt my conviction, a volunteer pointed out that some new dogs had just arrived fresh from the shelter. Perhaps one of these dogs would be more to my liking. Although they were all quite likable, I knew that I still had not met the right dog. Then one of the volunteers suggested that I go inside the pet store, and then I realized why the tents had been erected in this particular parking lot.

She said, “We have puppies inside that belong to the shelter, but it’s too hot out here for them.” A puppy was just what I had in mind, so Lee and I headed inside to the makeshift area that had been set up for the Society dogs. It was conveniently, although not subtly, placed in front of the pet store display of dogs and cats for full-price sale. There were only two puppies left, brothers from the same litter. I knew why they were left behind while the other pups were already snuggled up in the homes of new families. These poor mutts had absolutely no personality, and they had balled themselves into one furry clump as if to say, “We are inseparable.” The shelter volunteer assigned to watch over them sat in a chair close by to keep the hands of dozens of curious children at bay. These two little pups were exhausted and scared to death of the groping, reaching hands of all the kids who begged to hold them.

They were not my puppies either. I knew they needed to stay together and the idea of two puppies was even more than I could justify to Lee, who was still looking bewildered. Then suddenly I saw him, a beagle puppy in the arms of another middle-aged woman. She had just selected a cat collar to go with a long dog-walking leash. Not only was she holding my dog, she didn’t even know the difference between a dog vs cat collar. I heard myself saying out loud to anyone who would listen, “There he is, just the dog I had in mind.” The startled volunteer countered, “But that dog isn’t for sale. That’s her dog, not one of ours. You can’t have her dog!”

The woman holding the dog didn’t see me because her attention was directed to the store manager. She had a friend with her who was obviously in charge of whatever it was they were doing there. After a brief introduction, the store manager gently explained to the woman that the store could not sell any pets except those sent from the company. The woman assured the manager that she didn’t want to sell the puppy, but wanted to leave it at the pet store to be given to anyone who would have it. The manager tried again to explain how that just wouldn’t work with the store’s policy. The woman with the puppy was disappointed, and her friend argued the point on her behalf. And, all the while, her little beagle puppy was looking at me.

Suddenly the shelter volunteer pointed to me and announced, “She wants that dog!” All eyes turned to me as I nodded and smiled at the puppy. At that moment, the friend in charge walked boldly up to me. “Tell me about your home,” she demanded. I muttered something about a 3-bedroom/2-bath house in town as she surveyed me from head to toe. “Where do you work, what do you do, how old are your kids, and do they like dogs?” all spewed from her lips. The barrage of questions could not interfere with the intense gaze shared between the pup and me.

As the arms of the woman holding the pup reached out to me, she said, “Do you want to hold him?” He weighed only ounces as he sat upon one hand while I stroked his back with the other hand. He rested his head on my shoulder, as he snuggled into my heart. The transition was complete as his now-former owner handed over the dog leash and new cat collar. “I don’t know if this will fit him,” she said, “and I haven’t paid for it yet if you want to choose a different one.” As I passed the cat collar to Lee, I asked him to find a little-bit-larger dog collar. She then explained that she had a portable kennel, a bag of food, a blanket and a few dog toys she would gladly throw into the deal if I would just take him home.

I began to tell her about Kylee and why I wanted a new puppy, and she began telling her story to me. Someone had given her the puppy just last week to console her on the recent death of her mother. There we stood in the middle of the crowded pet store with all those kids, the shelter volunteer, the inquisitive friend, and the store manager watching our exchange. Somehow I managed to pay for the new collar while she loaded down Lee’s arms with the dog care items. The puppy licked my face and made little whining sounds, but took no notice of anyone else.

As we walked into the sunshine, I thought, “Mission accomplished.” I had found the dog that I was sent to rescue, and I couldn’t wait to get him home to meet Kylee. The woman whose name I had not even bothered to ask followed us to the car still explaining why she could not keep the puppy. I was trying to listen as Lee loaded up the back seat, climbed into the passenger seat, and reached out to take the puppy.

Then time stopped for a second as I realized she was about to cry. Was she having sudden remorse for giving away the dog? I looked closer and felt my soul being drawn toward a familiar place. She was fighting back the tears of recent loss and unresolved grief. “My mom just died, and I am 52 years old, and I’ve never lived with anyone else except her.” she said. Tears flooded from her eyes as painful words fell heavily from her lips.

Swallowing hard, I made myself look deep into her eyes. “I am a widow,” I said. “My husband died ten years ago, and I know something about the loss you are feeling right now.” A smile crossed her face as she said, “You do understand, don’t you? The dog won’t bring back my mom, and I just don’t feel like taking care of anything else right now. I don’t even think I can take care of me, but I have to try, don’t I?” 

“Yes,” I said, “you do have to find a way to go on with your life every day. Just take it slowly, doing just what has to be done at first, and then you can take on more things as time goes on.” I reached into my purse for a business card as I said, “This is my phone number, and here is my email address. You can call me anytime you need to talk to someone. And you can come by to check on the puppy anytime.” She wrote her name and number on another card and gave it to me. “Maybe we could go walking some time?” she asked. “Sure, we could,” I said as I thought how many times I had promised myself that I would start walking soon. “I need to get some exercise, and we can walk the puppy while we talk.”

As Lee and I drove home with the curious and suddenly lively little puppy, I realized the afternoon’s mission had nothing to do with finding a new family pet. It was this woman whose soul was seared with grief that I had been sent to find. She needed a word of encouragement from someone who had survived the depths of indescribable pain. We would exchange a couple of phone calls, but we didn’t continue the exchange all the way to the walking park. She was glad to let go of the dog, and in some way this letting go enabled her to move forward with her life.

"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" 
(Galatians 6:2). 

LORD, help me to be aware of people around me who are hurting and need encouragement. Allow me to take the time to be a friend to those who are lonely and hurting. Thank you for the opportunity to share my faith when I meet people who need your love. In Jesus' name, Amen.