May, meet Deacon

The part of Very Married that is the most personally meaningful to me is probably not what you'd expect. It's not anything that comes up in interviews. It's not one of the mildly scandalous admissions, nor one of the controversial convictions. It isn't the lovely kayak metaphor in the epilogue, or even the story of our wedding day.

It's the part about Deacon.

Not long ago, our church hosted a marriage enrichment retreat. The leaders guided the participants through a series of conversations in which couples identified turning points, values, and future intentions. We surprised ourselves by spending a significant amount of time talking about our first dog, Deacon.  
We adopted Deacon within weeks of moving from student housing to our parsonage near the beach; the pit mix accompanied me to the office during my early days as a pastor. He was a great dog: docile, loyal, playful. We took him on long walks twice a day, usually together. He was diagnosed with lymphoma and died just a little more than a year after we adopted him. Deacon’s leash was a lifeline, and the loss undid me. I was still so new to pastoral ministry. We were still so lousy at loving one another. We tried and failed to adopt another dog, but there was no replacing Deacon. A decade later, we recalled that dog as absolutely critical to our marriage. We wept all over again, remembering his brief life with awe and thanksgiving.
In September, we adopted a border collie/lab mix named May.

This was maybe a slightly nutty thing to do; we live in a small house and have two cats. But we all wanted a dog so very badly. And when we met May, we knew. I got a bit weepy because her gentle nature reminded me so much of Deacon.

Rather than upping the chaos level in our household, May made us calmer. Even the cats seemed more chill around her. She luxuriated in affection, nudging us with her nose for more if we dared pause petting her. She liked to hold hands, too. That sounds so ridiculously anthropomorphic, but I'm not making it up. She would put her paw in my hand and let out these wonderful sighs of canine contentment.

It was a stressful fall, what with the book launch and the practically apocalyptic election. And sweet May took good care of us through it all.

We took good care of her, too. She came to us with several infections, including Lyme Disease and recently-treated heartworm. Ben gave her medicine hidden in cheese every night. We took her on walks - though short ones, given her low energy level. We got a fence installed in the backyard and she quickly developed a bunny-chasing hobby. We brought her to the bus stop nearly every day, and even though she never really acted much like a border collie, her herding dog tendencies were manifest in her obvious love for watching over the gathered group.

Another excerpt from that same chapter:
Moments like these, I want to do what cannot be done: freeze the frame, stop the clock. I long to cling to the hem of joy’s garment. Of course, nothing takes me out of a glorious “now” more effectively than worrying about when it will end. BrenĂ© Brown calls this phenomenon “foreboding joy”—the fear of losing the very thing that gives you pleasure.  
Louis C. K. has a bit called “Countdown to Sorrow” that is, more or less, a comedian’s take on foreboding joy. “Everything that makes you happy is going to end,” he says, and provides proof for his theory: puppies. Bringing home a puppy might seem like cause for gladness, but what you’re really saying is this: “Hey look, everyone, we’re all going to cry soon!” He says it for laughs, but it’s more sad than funny. And it’s true. You might get a decade, give or take a few years, before you’re crouched and bawling on a tile floor while a veterinarian quietly injects a fatal dose of morphine into the hind leg of the dog-that-used-to-be-a-puppy on your lap. But must we consider the end, even at the beginning? Must our future grief eclipse our present gift, the inevitability of sorrow eclipse the moment of joy?
I wish I would have knocked on wood when I wrote that. (Maybe even hard enough to punch a hole in the door.) I wish that just when May recovered from the Lyme and the heartworm she hadn't started shaking and stopped eating. I wish we hadn't gone through that awful experience all over again, with the vet and the tile floor and the flood of profound grief. This time, made so much more complicated by the grief of two very brokenhearted little girls.

We found out about the massive tumor yesterday. Before the girls came home from school I took Deacon's picture off of the wall and showed it to May. I thought she should hear about him, especially since she managed to out-Deacon Deacon. Even sweeter. Even shorter-lived. Every bit as loved.

I can't regret May. I desperately wish it hadn't gone this way, but I cannot regret that dog.

The words that comforted me when Deacon died - words that I have shared with countless others - were these, from Linford Detweiler: "There are some who would argue that a dog's life is insignificant. But God so often chooses to use insignificant things in significant ways. In the grand scheme, we're all insignificant until love shows up."

Love showed up again, abundant beautiful mutual love. May we always be defined by such love. Even when it hurts.

Excerpts reprinted with permission from Very Married. © 2016 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, VA 22802. All rights reserved.

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