Throughout the room I heard several of my female classmates gasp. I, too, was struck somewhat dumb by the news. But with several members of the football team sitting behind me, eager for any excuse to make my teenage life hell, I dared not express my feelings. Instead, I choked back on the emotions I felt for Buffy, my family’s dog. Even though I held my tongue, something about the teacher’s words didn’t feel right. Why would God punish an animal for being exactly what he created? Especially a dog that brings so much joy into peoples’ lives. I looked back up at Mr. Klemm. The football coach/religion teacher crossed his huge arms across his chest. A ripple of laughter shook his shoulders.
Yep,” he said with a beatific smile on his face, “your little Fido won’t be waiting for you in heaven. Dogs don’t have a soul.”
Ah. The memories. Is it any wonder that the word “lapsed” pairs so well and so frequently with the word “Catholic?” Another Catholic belief is that if you marry a divorced person, or if a divorced individual remarries, you are living in mortal sin. That means hell time in the afterlife no matter how solid your marriage is.
My wife was married and divorced long before meeting me. Prior to meeting my wife, I was never married. We’ve been married for over 14 years. During that time, we have attended our fair share of Catholic weddings. With the exception of two I can think of, all those traditional marriages have been marred by serial unhappiness. However my wife and I continue to cohabitate happily in sin.
I think one of the secrets of our marriage, is that we sleep on a full size futon. Yep. Together. Both of us. In college I developed a preference for sleeping on futons. When we started getting serious, the lack of a bed didn’t impede anything. When we got married, we didn’t have the money for a bigger bed. Now we are used to it. I tell you what, though; there is zero room on a full size futon for two people and a load of bullshit.
OK, I told you that story to tell you this one. And I promise you, when the story comes to the dog and his actions, I am not exaggerating.
I walked into the kitchen to see Betty smiling with a brilliance that matched the morning sunlight that filtered in the window behind her. When her eyes looked up from her coffee to meet mine, the intensity of the smile went up to eleven.
“Wow,” I said, “you’re in a good mood.”
She stamped her feet like an excited toddler. “Sweetie! Chaos tucked me into bed last night!”
At that time in our marriage I usually stayed up late playing video games with my co-workers while Betty went to bed early. I had no way of knowing if what she was saying was true. And I admit it. It took some control not to snort outright. My first thought was that my wife had been watching Disney’s Peter Pan again and the scenes of ole’ Nana had colored her perception. Chaos was capable of some smart behavior for a puppy, but intentionally manipulating bed sheets? What was she talking about?
Betty picked up on my doubts. “I promise you, baby, I’m not making it up. He tucked me in.”
“OK. Fine,” I said it, but I did not believe it. “Do you think he’ll do it again?”
“I hope so!” she sipped on her coffee. The joy was still bright in her eyes.
The next night I passed on playing Battlefield 1942, and went to bed with Betty. We sat side by side on the mattress. She read her magazine, and I read my book. After several minutes of reading in silence, I heard the jingle of Chaos’s tags as he ran up the stairs. I looked up to see him standing in our bedroom doorway. His eyes went from me to Betty.
“Watch.” Betty whispered from behind her magazine.
Chaos walked over to my wife’s side of the bed and laid his head upon the mattress. Then he rolled his eyes and looked over his nose at Betty like a disapproving librarian. Betty trembled with anticipation. She fought down a smile as she pretended to read. Chaos walked over to my wife and stood there, looking at her. Without either one of us saying a word, he ducked under her arm and knocked the magazine out of her hands with his snout. The periodical slid to the floor and snapped shut. As I watched, Chaos then began to poke his nose into my wife’s chest. He continued to do this until Betty lay back fully with her head upon her pillows. Then he moved to where her share of the sheets lay folded over and pushed them up under her chin with his snout.
“Sunnavabitch,” I thought, “She’s right. He tucks her in.”
Before I could react, Chaos trotted around the bed and next to me. Then he did to me exactly what he did to my wife. I don’t know how else to describe it other than, “he tucked me in, too.” When his snout bumped into my chest, it was the perfect balance of force and care.
In Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, there is a line towards the end which describes what happens to the Grinch when he realizes the true meaning of Christmas. “And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.”
As I lay there in my bed, stunned and looking up at the ceiling, I understood what it felt like to have a heart grow three sizes. I was seven again, believing in Santa Claus, the Force, and the Smurfs. Wonder, so long missing from my adult world, was back.
“Oh my god,” I said, “that was so fucking cool!”
Betty and I held each other and giggled until sleep took us.
Over the next few nights, Chaos’s ritual of tucking us in began to fade. Despite our best attempts to keep it going, it never happened the exact same way again. He’d knock the book or magazine out of our hands, but not lift the covers. Or he’d nudge the covers but leave us sitting up. Within a week, he stopped doing it completely.
I’ve often tried to rationalize his behavior from those nights. The best I’ve come up with is that it was a manifestation of the corgi’s natural herding instinct. But what triggered it? Why did he pause when he did? Where did such a gentle caring touch come from? Despite my rationalizations, I have never forgotten the feelings that surged through me that night.
Do you know what a soul is? I don’t think the Catholic Church has a clue.
I’ve wanted to write that for a while, but I’ve been nervous of how it would seem. I’m sure some who read that will think my wife and I are cracked. Plus I find it hard to convey how wonderful and strange it was. It was like something out of a damn Disney film. I promise you, not a single word describing Chaos’s actions is made up. I finally wrote it because I’m afraid Chaos won’t be with us for much longer. The nosebleeds are getting worse. His right eye can no longer generate tears. Our vet today advised me that we needed to start planning for . . . she left it unsaid.
I want to do what’s right for him. When I think of letting him go, my thoughts always return to that night nine years ago when he made me feel like a happy kid again.
I don’t think I can bear it.