My earliest memory is of a dog. I’ve shared what details I can recall, though there aren’t many, with my parents and based on where we lived, I must have been around two or three. All I remember was a dark bedroom with the closet light on and a small fluffy puppy whining on the floor. His name was Bear and all I know was that he didn’t stay with us long because of something I can’t remember.
Maybe he was never meant to be ours. I imagine it likely that we found him tossed aside somewhere and housed him as an interim solution. I don’t know, and my parents don’t know either, considering this took place thirty years ago.
The next memory takes place in a hardware store, where a kindly man in a uniform handed me a teddy bear wearing a hardware-store-branded t-shirt. He said he was trading me for the puppy. A bear for a bear. And that was that. It stung my little tender heart but didn’t break it entirely.
See, we already had a dog. He was already an old man when the puppy, Bear, came and went, probably nearly ten years old. He was the kind of dog people write books about, the epic kind. His name was Pooch and the first decade of my childhood is marked by his presence. He was a mutt with a scar right on top of his head. My parents got him when they were first married, and he lived right up until a fateful afternoon when I was in the fourth grade. We came home from school that day and my dad waved my mom on, “Keep driving,” he’d shouted. It was too late. I’d already seen the limp figure on the carport concrete. Losing Pooch did more than sting, it shattered my heart to bits. It was my very first encounter with grief.
I have a theory that people are either dog lovers or they are not, as simply as one might have brown hair or be allergic to peanuts. I was born a dog lover. For years after Pooch died, when I was having a particularly hard day of childhood, I would go sit on the mound in the backyard that was his grave.
Long after the grass had grown over it and surely the body and bones beneath the earth had broken down to dust, there I would sit and tell my first friend about my disappointments and trials.
If you are a dog lover and you’ve ever had a truly great dog, you understand me. A dog like that carves out a nook in the heart of those who love him. Just like they might dig a hole in the yard, they burrow down into our deepest places and when they are gone, they leave a gaping wound, an altogether empty space. For two decades after Pooch died, I longed for a dog.
I came close a time or two. There was a dog named Sam that I loved dearly but lost in a break-up. After all, he’d been a gift to my ex and was rightfully his. There was Dakota, a faithful livestock guardian that was my shadow in the garden. He’d see me go through the garden gate and in a moment, he’d scale the fences between us. But he was a guardian after all. He slept with the goats and though I loved him, he didn’t lay on the floor by my bed and jump in the car for a run to the store. He did his job until his lack of respect for fences cost him his life. It was a hard loss, but nothing like Pooch.
Somewhere along the line, I made myself a promise. When my youngest child turned three, I would get a puppy. I would put the time and effort into him, and I would have the epic dog I’d spent two-thirds of my life wishing for.
It was December when I found him. I was visiting my friend Kathy in Louisiana. We were painting cabinets in her new house, singing along with the radio but otherwise not talking, when I broke out of my thoughts saying, “I know it’s silly, but I really, really want a dog.”
She looked at me slightly perplexed. “Why would that be silly?”
I thought about it for a long moment and said, “I’ve been waiting for this dog for a really long time. I don’t want just any dog. I want the best dog ever.”
She shook her head. “That’s not silly,” she said. And we kept painting.
A little while later, Kathy asked me if I’d asked God for my dog. I love God, and I talk to Him about a lot of things, but the truth is, I had not asked Him for my dog. So, we did, right there in the empty house paintbrushes with paint brushes in hand. I asked God to give me another shepherd dog that would be my shadow in the garden, that would be for my kids what Pooch was for me, and that would fulfill that deep and unfulfilled desire for a canine companion.
That night, a post popped up on my Facebook feed from a lady I didn’t know in a group I wasn’t a part of. She had a litter of shepherd rescue puppies, born on Thanksgiving, and she was looking for homes. I went to the group’s page and realized it spanned a five-state area. The chances of those puppies being near me were slim to none, but I messaged her just to see.
She lived ten miles from my house. I went to her house the following week, planning on claiming the red-haired female or the largest male. But as soon as I saw the pile of wriggling two-week-old babies, one stood out above the rest. He was the only one that had dewclaws, just like Pooch had. He was the smallest in the litter, just like Pooch had been. As soon as I picked him up, that still small voice in my heart said, “That’s him. That’s Bear.”
I visited him over and over as he grew. The lady, a dog lover herself working with rescues and caringfor her disabled son, never seemed to mind. Then one day, when he was nine weeks old, I brought him home.
I knew from the very first day he was special. He made eye contact constantly. I hooked a leash to his collar and for the first six months of having him, he followed me everywhere.
Bear is just two now. He is my constant shadow. When I weep in worship at the piano, he pushes his head into my lap in solidarity. When I cry out in surprise at finding a snake in the garden, he breaks between me and the perceived threat. When I wake up in the night and pad my way to the bathroom, he stands sentry in wait. He is my best buddy, and I literally thank God for him every single day.
Sometimes the realization dawns on me that he will not be with me forever, but I push it aside. No sense thinking about that now. After all, the great cost of love is sorrow, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.
As for now, I’m enjoying my God-given dog. My best furry friend, who is surely digging a hole in my heart that will be excruciating to feel later. He’s worth it though. After all, I am a dog lover, and a dog lover just needs to have her dog.
To watch Jessica’s garden tours, visit her YouTube channel, Roots and Refuge.
This essay was originally published in Do South Magazine, a beautiful publication out of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Visit their website here for more of my contributions.