January 18, 2015
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #366: Puppy Love
At a recent visit a few months ago, I got a rare treat to see a dog, live and in … person, I guess. (Not that I normally see dead dogs; I don’t normally see dogs of any kind.) On rare occasions, officers will bring a drug-sniffing dog through our housing unit at night or while we are locked down, but I usually just catch a glimpse of ears and a tail. The dog in the visiting room was different, though he, too, was working. I couldn’t tell at first what for, but he was wearing the black saddle with patches identifying him as a service dog.
I knew I shouldn’t distract him, and unlike California prisons, I can’t get up from my table and walk around, so greeting him was out of the question. But this wasn’t just any dog. This was a Box, and seeing him brought back so many fond memories.
Years ago, while purchasing a cell phone, I met Phil, a kind man who had raised his daughters on his own since his wife died of cancer when the girls were just six and eight years old. Phil, an ex-county sheriff like my great-grandfather had an incredibly bright Boxer, Jake, who kept him company once the girls left for college. Phil and I became close friends, and sine he lived just a few blocks away from where I lived, taking care of my grandma, I’d often stop by to visit the two bachelors. A couple times, I even got to babysit Jake while Phil flew to visit his daughters at college. Grandma loved that dog, a true gentle giant.
Phil could sense that my life was adrift in the post-ministry years, when Michael was married, and we weren’t doing extended concert tours anymore. He got me a job working at the cell phone store with him, bought me a Ford Explorer, and let me move in with him once Michael and Katie moved in to help Grandma. Phil Would sit and give me fatherly advice, advice I’d ignored from my own dad.
Then, one day, in a freak accident, Jake was killed by a speeding motorist. Phil was devastated. I’d moved out as his daughter’s came home from college, and they could tell he wasn’t the same. He didn’t want a new dog. He didn’t need one, he told all of us, but his daughters knew better. I’ll never forget the day when the tiny Boxer puppy with the big read bow made his grand appearance at the cell phone store and won all of our hearts. Phil tried to play it tough, but he was a goner, clearly happy, despite his protests that he didn’t need another dog. Rocco joined the family, and I got to not only watch him grow, but help train him.
Phil would let me take Rocco to the park when I’d play basketball. We would run, side-by-side, play fetch, and wrestle. I trained him to attack on command, too. With my brother, Mark, as the target, I’d have Rocco sit and stay while Mark darted away from us. Fifty yards and then I’d tell Rocco to “Get him!” Closing the distance with remarkable speed, Rocco’s front paws would catch the sprinting legs of his target, resulting in an instant face-plant. Then, with convincing growls, he’d “chew” Mark’s leg until I called him off with just a word. Terrified onlookers were awed and amazed, which is the reason we did it, of course.
Soon, the sin of years gone by caught up to me, and I had to tell Phil and Rocco goodbye. Phil was blind-sided by the news, and I knew I’d let him down. I hugged him and Rocco goodbye as I promised to keep in touch. Every year, I’ve set Phil a Christmas card and Father’s Day card, but he’s never responded.
Looking at the dog visiting, I saw Jake and Rocco. He accompanied his human to the vending machines, and he saw me looking at him. His big brown eyes looked back, so I waved and his tail wagged. After visit, I met the inmate he was visiting, and we became quick friends, discovering lots we have in common. He’d been through Kairos at another prison, and he offered to help run the business classes on the other compound for me. His dad trained Jax to be attentive to his physiological changes and emotions to prevent a future heart attack or stroke, an thus could bring him in as a service dog.
Well, my mom and her good friend, Jana, came to visit me this weekend. Jana’s third time making the trek out to Arizona. I am too blessed! To my great Joy, Jax came into the visiting room, too, laying down quietly on a blanket next to my buddy, who was visiting his parents. My mom told me she asked Jax’ human to bring Jax over to say hi to me, explaining my love of dogs and Boxers in particular.
Jax came over to me, with his kind-hearted human attached on a leash. I was so happy. “Hi, Buddy!” I said, and my friend’s dad said I could pet him. “Really?” Then to Jax, he said, “Say hi, Jax.” Sitting at the table, my face was just inches away from that adorable face, with the floppy ears just like Jake and Rocco, his stubby tail cautiously beginning to wag. I worked those ears in my hands, getting the itch-spots behind them every dog loves. It meant the world to me, and Jax could tell, his eyes never leaving mine, which began to fill with tears as the pain of regret flooded through my heart afresh. All of a sudden, my face was wet with puppy kisses, Jax getting close to comfort me. I took his giant head under my arm, cradling his face in my hands as I just released my emotions and sobbed on him. I finally let him go, at the realizing that I’ve never let my dear friend Phil go … and I won’t.
Unconditional love and self-sacrificing kindness is a powerful thing, whether it be demonstrated by God, a long-time friend, a stranger in a prison visiting room, or a cute dog with big brown eyes.