They let you know.
Everybody says the same thing. They let you know when they’re ready.
Ours has let us know, but not because he’s crawled into a corner and refused to come out, or because he’s stopped eating or because he’s moaning in pain. Gator still ‘wolfs’ down his food and pretends like he hasn’t eaten so he can get a few extra treats. He wags his tail when we come in the room and he follows us around like a fluffy white shadow, craving fellowship every minute he is awake. And when he sleeps during the day, it is at our feet in the office where we work, under the dining room table where we dine, or on the rug beneath the couch where we read. Wherever we stop moving for a microsecond, he plops down and hangs with us until we are ready to move again. You’d have to be heartless to miss that those signs seem to scream — I’M NOT READY!
Yet, other signs abound. Nobody gets to 101.5 in dog years and still romps like a pup. He’s suffering the oh-so-worth-it consequences of a joyously used-up body. Gator has run the trails at Markham Park beside the big dog Spencer while he mountain-biked. He’s trained for marathons and done morning runs at 0’dark thirty with me. He’s done the “three mile” course around Weston hundreds of times as we processed life together as a family. He’s climbed mountains at Riverbend, hiked trails in North Carolina, crashed ocean waves in Atlantic Beach, forged lakes and rivers, and he’s consumed as much pool water as he’s floated in at the only home he’s ever known – 365 Alexandra Circle. He’s chased ducks and squirrels and birds and deer. He has a steel plate in his knee [blown out ACL – probably too much running] and has survived the loss of his spleen and part of his liver to cancer [two years ago]. He’s even been to Disney World, church, little league games and one major league baseball game [Go Marlins Bark-in-the-Park Program]. There is simply no question about it. This dog is sliding into home all used up yelling woo-hoo, wasn’t that amazing! I’d keep doin’ it if this damn ole furry suit would cooperate. He’s leaving it all on the field, not in the confines of the kennel or the false safety of the covered porch. He has lived fully and joyously and his spirit, in many ways, still seems willing, but his body is weak.
As I write this he’s breathing shallowly and fast and trying to recover from the short walk outside to say farewell to the neighbors. His back legs give out regularly, so we pick him up and he goes as far he can manage and then we prop him up again. He smiles the way labs do. The way Gator does. And he keeps going a few more yards and then sits like a toddler with short stubbies that don’t fully support or cooperate with the will in his body to walk. Sometimes Spencer carries him home when his gams [my mom’s word for legs] won’t carry him any further. Gator weighs 90+ pounds, so it makes me cry every time he does it. Watching Spencer’s legs become Gator’s long enough to get him home – it’s profoundly beautiful. Gator just pants and smiles. He’s a really grateful dog. He always has been.
Gator Silverglate, the son of pure breeds Kenyon’s White Pearl and Bubba’s Best Choice, was born on December 14, 1999 in Minnesota. He is a yellow lab that never turned yellow. Like his mother, he is white as an angel with a shade of pearl. We have never been able to go very far in public without someone or another stopping and asking, “What kind of dog is that? He’s beautiful.” Gator arrived in the Silverglate home in the year 2000 just prior to Cameron’s fifth birthday. An only child, Cam had been begging for a brother for quite some time. Unable to physically bear one without fur, we did what people do when they are deciding whether to do the dog thing. We applied logic to every conceivable concern we had in our award winning ‘let’s be responsible adults’ role…
1. It will cost a boat load of money. Vet bills. Dog Food. Training. Boarding. Insurance. Surgery. Tennis Balls. Babies [our word for stuffed animals which dogs like Gator rip apart in nano-seconds but owners keep buying at $14.99 a pop because of the utter joy it gives their ward]. No, financially it didn’t make any sense.
2. It will limit our freedom. We can’t just leave for extended hours at a time. The dog will tie us to the house. If we are out having fun, we’ll have to rush home to feed and walk the dog. If we want to go away and it isn’t a place the dog can go, we’ll have to board him or have someone stay here. No, practically it didn’t make any sense.
3. It will affect our house. Dogs shed. They slobber. They chew. They leak. They need their anal glands expressed when they get infected [it’s gross, but true]. They throw up when they don’t feel well. No, hygienically and cosmetically, it didn’t make any sense.
4. It will affect our family and friends. Spencer’s brother is allergic to dogs. He can’t stay at our house any more. We have friends who are allergic to dogs. They can’t come to our house any more. Relationally, it didn’t make any sense. At least not in those relationships.
5. They rip your heart out when they die. We had seen Old Yeller. Marley and Me. Lassie. Who wants to go through that pain? No, it didn’t make sense emotionally.
6. And, and, and…
Well, we are lawyers, so we won’t bore you with the rest of the list. We filled pages and hours with the rational cons of this decision while Cameron, the five year old, looked at us like we were heartless nuts. “Can’t you see this dog people? He’s amazing. How can we live without this dog?”
To some extent, that made balancing the pros irrelevant. “Pleeezzzeeee Mommy and Daddy. Pleeezzeee. I promise I’ll…” That’s pretty hard to resist when you have a kid like Cameron. And to the extent the begging could be resisted [purely theoretical for us], the pros to getting a dog seemed obvious, or so we thought at the time. And so, as history will tell, we did exactly what logical people sometimes do. We threw logic out the window. We did what parents of little five year old boys often do. We listened to his heart. And we did what humans probably don’t do often enough. We let one of God’s most beautiful creatures look beyond our eyes to our souls and communicate to us in a way only pets can… “God made me just for you. Just for YOUR family. I am a Silverglate and you don’t even know how much yet.” Certain we were in way over our heads, we said yes to Gator and brought him home to ‘the Circle.’
The day he arrived, the Circle People [our clever name for our hood] surrounded Gator and our whole family and welcomed the newest member. They brought the dogs and the kids and leashes and treats and tennis balls. And we all sat on the stoop of our house and… well, we began. We began an incredible journey that unfathomably will end today. My neighbor Arlette who moved last year drove from Aventura this morning just so she could complete the bookends of the journey with us. Through slobbery tears I asked her: “Do you remember what you said to me the day we got Gator? You said, ‘Gator has no idea what a mitzvah he is walking into. Do you know what a mitzvah is Kat?’” We stood on the street while Gator panted and experienced that mixture of laughter and grief that strangely heals. I’ll never forget your irrational act of love today Arlette. You were God’s arms this morning.
Gaby, the only dog lover I know that outranks my mother in radical love of all things canine, called for permission to come weep with us. She was already warmed up. She had been on the phone with Arlette. I love you Gaby. You were God’s shoulder today. I’ll wash the shirt. Don’t worry. I promise. Mima, the guardian of all Circle dogs and dog sitter to the ordinary folks, bent over Gator and wept last Friday. Did I mention that we were going to do this last Friday and chickened out? As she wept she said [to Gator], “Thank you for being my friend. You have been such a great friend. Thank you for loving me so well.” I had to walk away. I can’t even type this without salty tears wetting my arid grief. Mima, you’ve been God’s assistant since the day we started this journey. What a servant’s heart you have. You were a friend of God’s on Friday. We love you. Dee, the new owner of Arlette’s house, left flowers and wine on the stoop with a beautiful card after weeping with me last Friday before the chickens started clucking so loudly in our ears that we folded like a house of cards. Thank you Dee. I can tell we are going to be fast friends. The Etkins did what the Etkins do so well. They acted like Gator. Offering a quiet steady willing presence that in and of itself gives comfort and peace. You were God’s blanket today. We are so grateful.
My mom… don’t get me started on my mom. I don’t have enough keystrokes for my mom. She gets it because she has gladly slept on the floor countless times because Gator was hogging the bed. You’re crazy wonderful mom. My sisters, no words. Small group sisters and brothers, friends, co-workers would have physically climbed through cyberspace to hug us if that was possible. Gator has touched many lives, has been the subject of high school presidential posters, speeches, sermons, he’s even appeared in a book. But mostly, he’s touched us.
From kinder to college, he followed Cameron Blake Silverglate around. He followed him from roller blades to hiking boots. From drum lessons to baseball practice. From mommy and me to the SAT’s. Gator Silverglate was there every day when Cam left for school and he was wagging his tail every day when Cameron came home. Today, he was smiling and panting as Cameron said his good bye on a Skype line from the Capitol building in DC. You’re a great brother Cam. The best. I wish we could hug you. Ache. Pant. Weep. Breathe.
As I write this, the vet is on her way to our house. Gator is lying on my office floor where he has been while I’ve edited every picture, written every article, every blog post, every chapter, every sermon, every letter. I want to write this while he is here. At least as much as I can. I don’t know how to do it any other way. Gator has been a part of my images and words for 14.5 years. Who has the patience for that? He has taken me for walks when I’ve been frustrated or bored. He’s taken me out to play when I’ve been too serious. He’s greeted my guests. Kissed me good night. Woken me faithfully at the crack of dawn to pee. Reminded me to eat. Shared my deepest pain and my highest joys.
They let you know.
Everybody says the same thing. They let you know when they are ready.
But… that doesn’t quite answer the question that’s been burning in my soul since Friday. Who let’s the guardian of these innocent creatures know when we are ready to dispense mercy like God? Who does that?
On Friday we made an appointment to have the vet come to our home. We knew Gator was ready. But we weren’t. So, we cancelled and went to another vet to get a crater of pain pills, anti inflammatory meds and other various and sundry items to get him through the days we needed to know that it was the right time for us. As I stood at the cashier paying for the stash, I heard a dog behind me coughing. I figured he was there because he had a bad cold. It sounded like the croup. Like an indistinguishable mixture of bark and cough. I glanced down to see the dog and then looked up at the owner. She was about my age and she had red swollen eyes. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “He has a mass in his throat and there is nothing they can do. I thought it was a cold. He’s 15.” I really didn’t know what to do other than wrap my arms around her and say, “I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.” We wept while the dog coughed and the cashier impatiently tapped her pen waiting for me to sign for the drugs. I didn’t care. Maybe Gator was alive a few more days so I could stand in the lobby of the vet and sling snot with a total stranger.
I told her about Gator and why I was there. Told her we just weren’t ready. She pulled away and she said with the most tender voice you can imagine, “you’ll know. He’ll let you know.” I think she meant Gator but I heard something very different in my Spirit. I heard He with a capital H.
This morning as we lay on the floor with Gator while he breathed shallow breaths, Spencer read from the Scriptures.
And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made… all the creatures that move along the ground… and God saw that it was good.
I gazed down at the white angelic ground crawling ball of fur in front of me and nodded while I rocked. Yes, Lord, it is so very good what you made. This creature. He has been so very very good. Spencer’s voice cracked. He pressed on…
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over… every living creature that moves on the ground… to all the creatures that move on the ground – everything that has the breath of life in it – I give… Gen 1:24-30 [excerpts].
It was the breath of life part that got to me as I listened to Gator’s shallow pattern. Rule over them I heard as my tears saturated his fur. In the image of God I heard. Rule like God would rule over this creature with the breath of life in it? Dispense mercy as God would dispense it? Decide when it is time, just as God decides with us? Be worthy of this creature’s trust even judging the merciful day and hour of his death? Really God? Really? I don’t like that part.
It is the profoundest trust to be given the job of merciful ruler. Dogs come into our lives looking to us as we are meant to look to God. With total and complete trust. With utter dependence. Even unto death. They follow us from room to room wondering what we are doing and why we are doing it. They wonder what we think or why we don’t do things that they might do. They rely on us for food, shelter, immunizations, toys, everything. Not just the provision of it, but the right amounts of it. They cling to us in need. They crave our presence and they want, more than anything, to feel our pleasure. It profoundly fills them with satisfaction when we bend and affirm with simple life giving words, “good boy. What a good boy. Good good boy.” In essence we say what God said before the fall when death and pain entered the world, what I made is good! Very very good. They trust us to rule, not just with mercy and love but with justice. To vindicate them when others hurt them or judge them. To sacrifice for them when they don’t realize they can’t do it on their own. And to rescue them when they are in danger.
Gator lay quietly on the office floor as we read the psalms. He lay quietly as the vet came and sat with us while we wept and sang. He lay quietly as Spencer asked me if I was ready. But when I said yes, Gator lifted his head off the wooden floor, looked us straight in the eyes, sniffed our wet salty faces and then laid his head, one last time, down to rest in total and complete trust. He had trusted us for 14.5 years to rule with mercy and justice. And he was trusting us now to make a decision he could not make.
Even unto death, Gator is teaching us wildly profound lessons. I think God wants us to trust Him like Gator trusted us his whole life. Like Gator trusted us even unto death. He wants us to know, that even unto death, He has our best interests at the forefront of His heart. He knows the time and the hour of our earthly span and He knows what it feels like to love someone so profoundly that you would die for them in a heartbeat because you just can’t stand the thought of being separated from them, even for a second. He knows, because that’s what He did on the cross. He wants us to have peace that exceeds earthly understanding, like this awesome creature had today on the hard wood floor with the soft hearted image bearers dispensing mercy with an ache and a simple prayer – Lord have mercy on us.
He also knows that this kind of peace comes when we know and trust our Provider because we have spent every waking hour in His presence seeking to know Him, longing to hear His voice, panting for His praise, worshiping His great power, thanking Him for his unwarranted provision. When we long for what pleases Him, we follow Him wondering what He thinks and how He loves. When we follow, we come to trust it. And when we finally fall into a pattern of only wanting to move when He moves and stay when He stays, we trust easily, rest peacefully and fear not as we lay our heads down for our last earthy breath.
So Arlette. I think I finally have an answer for you. Yes, I know what Mitzvah means. It means blessing. But I think it is slightly different than what you meant that day. I think we had it backwards. We had no idea what a blessing God was giving us that February Y2K. What a mitzvah. What a blessing. Thank you Lord for Gator Silverglate. What you made was indeed good. Very very good. Into your loving hands, we release him back to you. Amen.