Love Begets

On November 22 of last year, I lost my voice. I’m not talking laryngitis; I mean my words. They scattered from me like a covey of quail, and I knew, standing there amid the ragged stubble of a waning year, that there was nothing I could do to call them back, nothing but lean into the cold wind of sorrow and wait. Words, like all winged things, have a life of their own; believing in their return often feels like believing in the hope of spring when the whole world is laid barren and birdless by the ravages of winter.

But on November 22, I was too tired and sad to care if they ever came back. That was the day that my dog Caspian died, and some fundamental innocence in me died with him. The past two years have just about broken my heart, not by the ruin of a single blow, but by the slow-growing burden of accumulated sorrow, of grief upon grief that has seemed relentless at times. But when Caspian was diagnosed with cancer last spring, the very day we were supposed to leave on a long-awaited jaunt to the sea in our ’62 Airstream, it was too much to bear. I couldn’t bear it, in fact: when I heard the diagnosis coming out of the specialist’s mouth and saw the tears gathering in my husband’s eyes, a great, black cavern seemed to open inside of me and I felt myself falling into a bottomless place haunted by all my worst fears. The vet droned on unintelligibly about how there was nothing that could be done and what to expect in the coming days, but my soul was crying out in silence: Jesus, catch me! (He did, by the way. Strong arms shot out of that darkness and held me so tightly I could almost feel them about my physical body. I am here, that grip told me, in words beyond words.)

“How long?” Philip said in a voice that sounded nothing like Philip’s.

The vet was cautious. “Weeks to months,” he said. “But it’s an advanced case, and moving fast.”

We walked out into the sunshine of an April afternoon with Caspian tugging blissfully on the leash, ecstatic to be released after a night’s stay at the best veterinary hospital in the state. As soon as we were in the car, Philip and I stared at one another, frightened by the anguish in each other’s eyes.

“Let’s take him,” I choked. “Let’s go home and pack that Airstream if it takes all night and let’s get on the road by dawn. Let’s run away from all this sadness and give Caspian the trip to the beach of his life.”

And that is precisely what we did. If there’s ever been a heart on this earth that loved that Airstream or our island destination more than Philip and me, it was Caspian. In the ten years of tramping about in our Silver Girl, Caspian had only been left behind once—and he was so devastated we vowed never to do it again. Caspian wasn’t taking any chances, though. He always knew when we were even talking about packing up for another adventure, and would park himself by the door of the trailer, refusing to budge until the moment of departure, wherein, assured of a seat in the car with his nose on the console, he could finally relax. Sick as he was, this time was no exception. I actually had to feed him his breakfast in the Explorer the morning we left as he’d loaded himself up before I had hardly opened the kitchen door.

Philip kept calling it our “Shadowlands” trip, and, indeed, there was a keenness to those sunlit days that only sorrow can lend, a sharp brilliance against which both pain and pleasure stood out in dazzling clarity. For Caspian, still feeling well enough to enjoy everything, it was a dream come true: he got to eat whatever he wanted and do whatever he pleased. He got to spend whole days at Philip’s side as he worked (the Airstream doubles as “remote office” by day) and long, late afternoons on the beach with us or strolling the fishing pier in the cool of the evening. He had half of whatever I was eating at any given time, and he even got a sip of ale at the oyster bar on the wharf. Indeed, if we were living in the shadowlands, Caspian was frisking the foothills of heaven.

On the beach he was always off lead—for the first time in his life. Suddenly all the leashes and life-jackets and relentless safety of the past twelve years seemed silly. Worse than silly: in this light they looked like life-killers; joy-stealers. I had feared losing Caspian since the night we brought him home; I remember sitting on the kitchen floor clutching that squirming bundle of six week-old fluff to my heart and bursting into tears. It terrified me how much I loved him. And it terrified me that there was a world out there so suddenly swarming with Dangerous Things that could hurt him or take him from me. There were cars, and stagnant pools tainted with evil viruses, and ticks and vaccine reactions. And there was cancer, the thing I feared most of all. Now that it had come, I could not fail to see that my gentle Lord had softened this sentence of death with a radiant milieu of mercies. The very fact that we were all here together for a few fleeting weeks in a place that held some of the dearest memories of our lives was an unmistakable kindness. And Caspian’s illness did not mar the trip as much as it illumined it, revealing each moment for the fire-hearted gem that it was. I watched him trot free along the shore with the inquisitive abandon of a puppy and I wanted to run with him, throwing off the fears that fettered my joys to earth, free as the wind and the swooping gulls and the curls of foam tossed up on the murmuring tide—free as my dying dog, whose happiness anchored me in the moment even as my soul took wing with this glimpse of undying things. It reminded me of that scene at the end of The Last Battle when everyone was running together with such gathering gladness into Aslan’s Country, the real Narnia. We caught Caspian’s joy, Philip and I, racing with him along a deserted beach in the saffron radiance of a dying day, and the incandescence of it will be with us for life.

I wrote in my journal: So here is what I want to remember and never forget: Anxiety is the devil. Fear is a taste of hell because it cuts us off from the ever-offered rest of God’s love. And fear cannot do one damn thing to avert the thing feared. Sorrow, on the other hand, is a kind friend, and when it comes, grace comes, too, and all the tender mercies of God. All fear is the fear of loss and death; all love comes with a price tag of pain; all true sorrow has its counterpoint of joy. And it’s real. We’re living it in the most vivid way. And if we’re running along the beach laughing at one moment and weeping over the grief that is coming the next, well then, this is life abundant, the full package. And the joy is more real than the grief because the joy is forever and the pain is for but the passing shadow of this life.

Beyond all expectation, Caspian lived to travel with us once more to our island refuge in mid-September, though by that time he was completely blind. The dignity with which he accepted this sad new development was one of the most touching things I have ever seen. The vet explained to me that dogs don’t regard “suffering” as a concept the way we humans do; they are generally very philosophical about hardship, accepting what comes their way with deeply instinctual adaptability. I witnessed that first-hand when Caspian lost his sight: after a day or so of deep confusion, he shook off the gloom and started feeling his way around the house with his nose, reacquainting himself with thresholds and walls and furniture. He nosed his way up our steep staircase, gingerly at first, and then with astonishing confidence. He even wanted to go to the barn with us in the evenings as he’d always done, though it must have been frightening to have the goats and sheep and chickens all swarming about and not be able to see them.

The island was no different: Caspian didn’t have to see to know exactly where he was and to be excited about it (or to run up to strangers, barking an ecstatic greeting, only to run right past them). And though the disease had certainly progressed, neither Philip nor I had the least doubt that our brave little dog was happy—glad just to be with us, salt-kissed and sun-warmed in a kindly breeze under a generous sky. Whenever we were on the beach, I would bury my face in that gorgeous spotted ruff of his (I always said it looked like the ermine collar on a princely robe) just because I could. Our days with him were dwindling, and we all knew it. On the last afternoon, I stayed behind on the beach while Philip took Caspian back to the Airstream, and as I watched their retreating figures, my eyes burned with tears. It was the end of an era. The loss of a particular innocence loomed: Philip and I both had lost dogs in our lives—but we had never lost our dog. Caspian was so much a part of us, we hardly knew “us” without him. We weren’t just “dog people,” ardently as we love the canine species as a whole. We were Caspian people.

So, the day came in late November when Philip and I had to prove our love to this faithful companion of ours by making the decision that every lover of dogs prays they will never have to face. Yet even that black day was made tender by mercies: the sudden, unmistakable downturn that left us no doubts; the fact that we were both with him; the gentle expiration with his head on Philip’s lap. Our kind-hearted vet hugged me hard when it was all over. “I’ve rarely seen a dog loved as much as Caspian,” he told me gently. But that’s no credit to us. Caspian was the kind of dog that little children wrote letters to and perfect strangers were smitten by. He had a weakness for whole sticks of butter stolen from the countertop and a human-like cock of his head when he was trying to make out one of the several hundred words in his mental inventory. My best friends wept when they heard Caspian was sick, and when he died, one dear soul spent a couple of weeks trying to bring herself to break the news to her nine year-old daughter.

When we came home that afternoon to a thunderously quiet house, we sat in the silence and counted off the things that Caspian had taught us in his living and dying: enthusiastic inhabitance of the present moment; unfettered enjoyment of life; courage in suffering. Philip said gently that maybe someday I would be able to write about it. But in the weeks after Caspian died, I could hardly speak in coherent sentences, much less write them. My journal from that time looks like psychological chicken scratch. The one clear, strong comfort was our shared conviction that Caspian is. If there’s a bone of theological contention that leaves me cold, it’s the argument of whether animals will be in heaven. No mere sentimental crutch, my doctrinal position on the matter is simple if not a little incredulous: Why the heck not? It’s one of those questions upon which Scripture is notoriously silent, but I see absolutely no reason to interpret silence in this case as “no.” All I know of the character of God speaks to the contrary: if there’s one thing in the infinite universe this quaking heart of mine doesn’t fear, it’s the possibility of imagining God better than He is.

“I wonder if the spirits of all the pussy folk and doggy folk I’ve loved will meet me with purrs and yaps of pleasure at the pearly gates,” L. M. Montgomery’s whimsical heroine Pat Gardiner ponders. But dear “Grandpa George” MacDonald takes a firmer stance: “I know of no reason why I should not look for the animals to rise again…If the Father will raise his children, why should he not also raise those whom he has taught his little ones to love? Love is the one bond of the universe, the heart of God, the life of his children: if animals can be loved, they are loveable; if they can love, they are yet more plainly loveable: love is eternal; how then should its object perish?”

We knew we’d been marked as dog lovers for life; Caspian had settled that question irrevocably. But in the first deadness of grief we declared we never wanted another dog.

Then we said maybe, in a hundred years or so.

Then we said it would have to be an Australian shepherd, just like Caspian.

And then, before either of us dreamed we were ready, a five-pound ball of downy blue merle pranced into our sadness and lit it all the colors of the rainbow. Suddenly, our mourning for one dog was not mutually exclusive with the sweet anticipation of another. The woman we got her from (a saint among dog breeders!) was so gentle with my fears of circumventing the grief process: she told me that when one of her dogs goes to a home where a beloved companion has recently been lost she believes they have a special calling to care for wounded hearts. I can vouch for that: when Philip and I met our wee lass for the first time, we handed our hearts over without question. This pup had a vocation on her pretty little head—it was as obvious as that seagull-shaped “V” on the bridge of her perfect little nose.

We named her Bonnie Blue (her mother’s name is Katie Scarlett, of course), and in the weeks since she’s come to live with us, a strong new joy has been swelling in my heart like the unblighted bulbs of early spring. Colors appear where once there was only the hard earth of sadness; hope flocks home, birdlike, one dove at a time. My words are coming back, as well, in this sudden thaw, and old ambition gleams out between patches of melting snow. All this from the advent of a puppy who’s not quite housebroken and nips holes in my favorite skirts and eats out of the litter box? Absolutely. That’s what love does—it kindles and warms and wakens. Love is a creative force: it always begets in some way or another. And this particular love is resurrecting gladness in my heart, reminding me that winter must give way at last to warmth and sunshine, in nature and in life. Who says dogs can’t be grace-bearers? We sat in the pasture the other day, Bonnie and I, and watched the sandhill cranes swirling overhead on a persistently northward course. “That means spring is coming, Bonnie-girl,” I told her, as she cocked her head at their far-off cries. “And you won’t believe how beautiful it’s going to be.”

I’ll spare the details of how absurd Philip and I have made ourselves with puppy-love the past six weeks. But I will say that we’ve remembered Caspian more tenderly than ever since Bonnie has come into our lives. Though each dog’s personality is unquestionably unique, it’s been sweet to see the similarities in the breed that have made us such devoted “Aussie people.” With the remembering, however, comes the ghost of old fears, the temptation to snatch and grab and worry. Menaces rise on every side so that I want to clutch Bonnie in my arms and sit down on the kitchen floor and cry. How easily I fret my joy away over improbable things! And yet, it’s love itself that arrests my panicked heart, soothing me back down into the quiet of Caspian’s best and most unforgettable gift to us: Fearlessness.

Love wildly! Love exuberantly! his doggie soul proclaimed in a thousand ways.

But—for Heaven’s sake—love without fear.


16 Responses to “Love Begets”

  1. April says:

    Oh, Lanier…I think this is the most beautiful tribute to the life of your sweet Caspian…and I’m sitting here at work just crying over it. I thnk you’ve perfectly captured the heart of every person who has loved and lost a sweet, furry creature. Thank you for saying it much better than I have ever been able to.

  2. Dianne L says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Your words convey this sorrow and joy so perfectly. I’m so thankful you have Bonnie now.

  3. I am trying to type with tears in my eyes. I remember coming home from Dr. Lisa’s with my beloved elderly kitty Storm wrapped in an old vintage quilt. “Lay her on the floor for her sister to see,” Dr. Lisa had told us. “She must know and understand her sister has passed on.”

    Then less than two years later, our precious Sasha… the elderly kitty sister of Storm, born in the same litter… made her last visit to Dr. Lisa. This time we had gone through it before. This time we knew it was coming. Not like Storm whose sudden illness overwhelmed us.

    They still can make me laugh as I watch the dogwood bloom each spring, wondering if “the girls” mind their final resting place being beside a d.o.g.w.o.o.d. tree. ;)

    I didn’t want any other furry friend, ever. But friends from church brought Victoria into our lives. I knew when the kitty carrier opened and that Maine Coon face and fur walked into my house that it was love at first sight. Again.

    I love that both Billy Graham and Randy Alcorn (in his book Heaven) believe our pets are with us if we so desire once again. Much affection to you, Lanier.

  4. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM says:

    What a cute pup! Always, always, love your writing. I am going to look for a Frances Hodgson Burnett book in your book shop. AND your puppy has my name. You can sing to her like my grandfather did when I answered the phone in my childhood and mind you , I am one of 8 so what chance was that that I would answer the phone: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. Grace bearers are all around us. Thank you always for the reminder of beauty and grace.

  5. BONNIE BUCKINGHAM says:

    I am looking for Queen Silver- Bell by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Have you read it?

  6. lynnea says:

    Your words touch the depths of my heart…just when I feel like it is stone and can no longer truly feel.
    I thank Almighty God for it. With love from a sister in Christ~

  7. Esther says:

    I started crying at the sentence, “I’ve rarely seen a dog loved as much as Caspian.” This post is beautiful, Lanier. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  8. Sarah Durham says:

    I hadn’t heard about Caspian!!! Lanier, I’m so very sorry! I love what you said in your journal entry. So true. So true.

    And look at those beautiful grey eyes Bonnie has! …one of the colors of the sea. ;)

  9. Lara says:

    Oh Lanier–I’ve read it 3 times now! And each time, I keep saying, “Oh, me, too! Me, too!” Thank you for sharing this–and for putting what I’ve felt, too, into such lovely words. I couldn’t get another boxer after Frodo, and the scenery is a bit different here in CA, but everything else…me, too….

  10. Martina says:

    Oh Lanier, I am so sorry for your loss.
    But you did the right thing: spent a wonderful summer together, showed him all your love every minute of the day, shared your food – what more could you do? So somehow, it was a blessing to have so much time to say goodbye and to be very aware of those last weeks.
    I admire how Philip and you took this sad journey together. And I admire your strength to write about it (so beautifully!) and your courage to share here.
    I am sure writing helped also to understand everything, didn’t it? Caspian will now be living forever in this outstanding essay.
    And I am absolutely convinced our beloved furry ones will wait for us in heaven!
    (And – so much to comment – thanks for your mature and soothing words about fear. I copied them in my diary.)

  11. I went through the slow loss of my father from 2005 to the day he died on October 4, 2012. Close to the end I tried to bring him his favorite music and he remembered the tunes even though he remembered little else. He never forgot who we were, thank God. The paragraph where you describe life lived with the sadness of loss – grief piled upon grief as the time goes by – that is what I felt over those years. I adored my father. Strong, handsome, funny, vulnerable – he was my first love like so many little girls. I also have 4 cats that each light my life in a different way, my favorite being the most affectionate Maine Coone, Squeebles. I know the fear you speak of – I stroke his fur, try to memorize every mark and color, look in his sweet eyes – and fear the inevitable day/days of his failure/death. As we get older and lose more of this world, we gain – if we are attentive – more of the next. I am also a believer that my beloveds – the dogs, cats, birds – all I have loved and lost, and my father – are waiting for me, perhaps sharing the same space I presently do, only in a different dimension. I like to imagine we are close, but don’t know it because of the folds and corners of the universe. Thank you so much for your writing – you are an inspiration, not least because I think you share the troublesome gift being able to feel everything more intensely perhaps than others.

  12. Katy says:

    Dear Lanier-I am so very sorry to hear of Caspian’s passing. I read this beautiful passage in the once and future king a few years ago and ever since have treasured it, knowing that one day I will have to say goodbye to my darling darling Bute. I hope it brings you comfort. Much love

    He knelt down beside him and took his head on his lap. He stroked Beaumont’s head and said, “Hark to Beaumont. Softly, Beaumont, mon amy. Oyez a Beaumont the valiant. Swef, le douce Beaumont, swef, swef.” Beaumont licked his hand but could not wag his tail. The huntsman nodded to Robin, who was standing behind, and held the hound’s eyes with his own. He said, “Good dog, Beaumont the valiant, sleep now, old friend Beaumont, good old dog.” Then Robin’s falchion let Beaumont out of this world, to run free with Orion and roll among the stars.

  13. JJ says:

    My husband often credits Martin Luther for saying “If my dog isn’t worthy of heaven, I don’t stand a chance.”

  14. Oh Lanier, this is lovely. Thank you for sharing your luminous words, and for giving me something to ponder. I felt a little like I was watching Reepicheep paddle into Aslan’s country (I realize I’m mixing my Chronicles here :) You made me love Caspian as well. I’m so glad you’re having the sweetness of healing mixed with remembrance.

  15. For me, it has been my cats. We lost a very special one to cancer some years ago–we had about 2 months to love and care for him before that day when I knew I must give him the final kindness of an easy way out.
    I’ve sometimes been afraid to share the depth of my sorrow, especially in the face of human lives lost too soon.
    Thank you for writing of such a deeply private time–although one that is familiar to so many.

  16. Josie Ray says:

    Just beautiful. I’m deeply sorry for your loss, and so happy for your tiny fluffy comforter. The time I spent with our beloved cat before she passed is one of the most deeply moving memories I have. I love the photo of you with Caspian at the beach.

    Two weeks ago, we stopped the car to speak with a neighbor out walking. When she discovered we were on our way to church, she burst out, “Please say a prayer for my daughter’s dog!” and gave the details. We don’t think that’s odd, and did say the prayer at church.

    Last week I was out kayaking, and though I don’t normally pull up to strange docks, did pull up to a dock where a Border Collie was eagerly watching me. I was about to call, “May I pet your dog?” to the two men also on the dock “messing about in boats,” when the one said, “She loves to ride in boats. If you come near enough, she will jump right in!” You know that I kept a distance talking to her, not fearing that she would upset my craft, but fearing that I wouldn’t give her back if she jumped in. Caspian’s love of shore and airstream reminds me of her friendly eagerness to be at sea.

    Blessings on your memories and on your future. God rest and keep Caspian’s soul.

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