An Elegy

On the first day of November in the year 2006, a puppy was born. I was, of course, totally unaware of this event.

He was born, wet and blind and whimpering for milk, beginning a life-long obsession with food. He grew as puppies do, growing into his pure puppy cuteness. I have seen, and taken, many pictures of him, but the one blurry picture of him sitting as a puppy, looking at the camera long before I would ever meet him, has always broken my heart.

I have a fleeting memory of meeting him, a few years later, grown into early doghood, but certainly not the large dog he would become. I was visiting my best friend Ted and his family, and I knew they had gotten a yellow Labrador Retriever. I remember one Saturday morning seeing him in the living room, cozying up to their youngest daughter, her arms around him as she watched cartoons.

We acknowledged each other’s presence, but that was about it. I was not really a member of the pack, and I did not feed him, so I existed on the periphery of his consciousness.

A few years after this, I received a desperate phone call from Saudi Arabia where Ted was living at the time. He needed someone to take care of his dog for a year until he could come home. I already had a sweet black Lab/Golden Retriever mix living with me, so I told Ted it was up to Keisha whether another dog lived with us for a year or not.

He came home for a visit and we drove his dog from Spearfish to Pierre and Cody entered my house for the first time. He and Keisha got along, as long as Cody remembered she was in charge. So, another dog was added to the mix, with his own personality and needs and issues. I learned that Cody loved to swim and Keisha hated it; and I learned that Labs are aggressively gassy.

Cody learned some things too, he learned that Keisha was powerfully connected to me, so he gravitated towards Fr. Kristopher Cowles, and the two of them became fast friends. I learned Cody was a fantastic cuddler. Keisha learned to eat her food, because if she did not, Cody would wait five minutes, never more and never less, and then finish her food, licking the bowl for good measure.

The year ended and Ted moved to Pierre and after a bit he said, “I need to talk to you about Cody.” I stopped him and said, “I’ll kill you if you take my dog.” He smiled, relieved, as was I. That one year stretched into seven.

While I was living in Pierre, for a few brief months out of the year, I would be able to take Cody and Keisha to the river for their daily exercise. Cody would sprint to the water, splash in and then turn towards me and begin jumping and barking. In my mind, he was saying, over and over, “Ball, Ball, Ball.” I would put the tennis ball into the chucker and fling it out into the river and off he would swim, grabbing the ball, swimming back, dropping it and then, “Ball, Ball, Ball.”
The day before I left for Afghanistan, Fr. Kristopher and I went swimming and took turns throwing the ball for Cody, who swam for 45 minutes without touching ground. By the end, he swam as just a nose above the current. I finally had to force him to stop, to his exhausted disappointment.

Daily runs, daily meals, treats to make him happy, long rubs and a little cuddling time; it became a daily routine for him and I. Lately, a little over 12 years old, he was not able to climb the stairs to my room in the rectory, so he slept on the couch downstairs. He would climb up next to me, I would pet him and wish him a good night, and towards the end, thank him for another day.

He would stretch, yawn, rest his head on my lap and give that sigh, which he did every night I had him, the perfect expression that he had a good day.

There is not enough space for me to share the multiple times he frustrated me to the point of madness, the number of times he made me laugh at his sheer goofiness, the number of times he melted my heart with a look, or the time he made me cry when I finally had to say goodbye to him forever.

I miss him; so does Keisha, who is back to eating slower and leaving food in her bowl. I like to think she does it in the hope that the goofy yellow one will come back and finish it again.

Years ago, I read a little challenge, a small little saying which read, “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” I think the Lord would agree; perhaps that is why he gave us these companions in the first place, as we domesticated them, they gentled us.

As his presence becomes memory for me now, I hope to remember the lessons he taught me; find joy in the simple things, take a good nap, don’t obsess over the mistakes I make, receive treats with a grateful heart, show affection to those who care for me, love generously, and every night remember it was a good day.

He was a good boy, and he made me a better man.