Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Eulogy for Grace

Found beaten and abandoned to the streets, she was taken in by Because You Care, a local pet rescue organization.  She was a Yellow Lab/Beagle mix – a “Leagle”, I like to say.  BYC named her Natasha and adopted her out to a local couple.  This couple renamed her Sasha and promptly dispatched her to their backyard, where the neighborhood kids threw stones at her.  In addition, she was only fed table scraps and cheap dollar store treats.  With poor nutrition, no exercise and limited human interaction (abusive, at that) her weight ballooned to 72 pounds on her short beagle legs and she withdrew in to herself.

BYC’s mission was to keep animals out of shelters and place them in loving homes.  In Natasha/Sasha’s case, the home had become no better than a poorly run shelter.  True to their mission, BYC removed Natasha/Sasha from this home and brought her back in to the program.  It was in their “Pet of the Week” newspaper ad that I first laid eyes on her.
Nine months before I’d had to have my dog, Coach put down and after a few months of grieving, I began the process of looking for another dog.  But not any dog, it had to be the “right” dog.   For a few months I’d scanned newspaper ads, gone to shelters a couple of times, followed up leads from friends but none of the dogs were “right”.   Taking in a pet is a lifetime commitment – lifetime of the pet, at least.  This decision needed serious consideration.  But when I saw Sasha’s picture I knew she was the one.
Her newspaper portrait was anything but a glamour shot.  It was obvious she was seriously overweight, sad and withdrawn.  In the ad they referred to her as “plump”, which struck a nerve with me.  Having been more than “plump” at one time, I thought it mean for this to be pointed out.  I felt a kinship with Sasha and called BYC to apply to adopt her.
The application required more than name, address and adoption fee.  I had to provide a veterinary reference, have a fenced in yard (which in my case they gave an exception) and sign an agreement that if I ever had to give her up, I would not put her in a shelter but give her back to BYC and provide financial support until she was adopted again.  Like I said – a serious commitment.
I did all this and we arranged for a meet and greet.  The woman from BYC (Joyce) said she’d bring her over and introduce us.  Since I worked close to Joyce’s home I volunteered to go over there to save her the trip.  Joyce cheerfully declined, saying it was no problem for her to come over. 
Joyce and Sasha came over one evening.  Sasha was so overweight that her belly almost touched the ground and she had a bit of trouble climbing the four steps in to my house.  I showed them around a bit, Sasha cowering behind Joyce.  Sometime during the tour, I realized Joyce was doing a home inspection and screening me; BYC takes their job seriously!  Eventually Joyce and I sat on the couch to discuss the adoption procedure.  Sasha tried to climb up on the couch behind Joyce.  She tried to stop her, explaining to me that they don’t encourage foster families to allow dogs on the furniture since it might be a problem with their final adoptive families.  I have no problem with animals on the furniture (in her abode in heaven, my mother is scowling at this) and since I planned on being the final adoptive home, I let her sit up there with us.  It was a bit of a struggle due to her weight, but she made herself comfortable.
The only potential issue I had with the adoption was no one knew if the dog was good with kids.  Normally, BYC screens this information or gathers it from foster families.  Since she’d just been brought back in to the program and given her experience with the neighborhood kids at her last home, no one really knew.  Because of regular Barbling visits, this was a deal breaker.  The Barblings were on vacation at the time so there was no way to find out.  Joyce and I agreed to have Sasha stay with me for a trial period and if after the Barblings returned from vacation we discovered issues, I could return her with no problem.
So Sasha had a sleepover at my house for a few days.  To increase the chances of success with kids, I headed on over to the Barblings’ home and took some of the girls’ dirty laundry from their bedrooms.  I left the laundry on my living room floor so the dog had many opportunities to sniff and get to know them.
She and I spent the next few days getting to know each other.  I fed her healthy food.  I took her for walks around the neighborhood – short walks, which wore her out.  She slept on the couch, she slept in the chair that eventually became her chair, she looked out the window that eventually became her window identified by the hundreds of snout prints on the glass.  She quickly settled in.
When the Barblings returned, everyone was introduced.  The dog shyfully sniffed everyone and tentatively accepted the hugs of three excited little girls.  We took a brief walk and the girls got her running, tongue lolling from her mouth, ears flapping, a look of pure joy in her eyes!  There was no doubt she was good with kids; she was good with everyone!
Now that she was a permanent fixture in my home, I wanted to change her name.  The name Sasha is a perfectly acceptable name, but it didn’t flow with my last name.   I mulled over a number of possibilities, but one time I looked in to her soulful eyes, dug past the fear and pain and saw…grace.  And so she was renamed and reborn – Grace.
To look at her, she was not the typical picture of grace.  She had the long Lab body on short Beagle legs.  Overweight, out of shape, shy and withdrawn, her grace was not readily apparent; covered in layers of fat and fright, her true character hidden.  She did not have the lithesome body of a dancer but the solid, wide-shoulder look of the working dog she was designed to be.  She lacked the agility and speed of a runner; she lumbered and plodded, but she plodded with enthusiasm!
From healthy food, regular exercise and overdoses of affection Grace quickly shed pounds and apprehension.  Her beautiful personality began to emerge.  So did a bit of willfulness, too I must say.  Considerate of her abusive past, I was gentle in my training of her, but Grace still needed to know the boundaries of our household; I still had to discipline her.  Any sharp word or scolding from me would send her slinking away in fear.  It broke my heart and I wondered if she could ever recover from her sad past.
Over the years, I would occasionally whisper her old names to see if she would react.  “Natasha”, I’d speak; “Sasha”, I’d quietly say.  Sometimes I’d get a bit of a response – a flick of the ears, a jerk of the head.   It might have been my imagination, but at times I thought the reaction was a fearful one.  About three years after her adoption I called out Natasha, Sasha again.  There was no reaction; her ugly past was forgotten.
 About two months after her arrival, I reprimanded her for something when she walked away to her crate.  She turned around, slumped down and started muttering under her doggie breath.  She’s sassing me!” I thought.  I knew then that she’d shed her Natasha/Sasha self.  She was now truly Grace.
She was full of grace in her gentle and kind bearing, her quiet demeanor, the manner in which she approached new friends, two- and four-legged.  Those who experience grace understand joy better and joy Grace exhibited at the mere mention of the words walk, treat, biscuit, or ride.  At the jangle of her leash or the crunch of a lunchmeat bag she’d practically do backflips.  We made many walks up to the local Dairy Queen often times with a Barbling at the end of her leash.  She liked trips to the playground across the street and Barbling #3 even got her to go down the slide a number of times.  Grace enjoyed the simple things in her life, perhaps because she’d known depravation.
Because grace had been extended to her, Grace extended it others.  A number of other dogs (and a couple of cats) have stayed with us over the years.  Atticus, Daisy, Tin, Bella, Buddy, Phoebe – they were all welcomed in to our home. But in every interaction, Grace had to be top-dog.  Most of the time this was a given, but occasionally a skirmish broke out as her dominance was established and reestablished.  She was gracious, but not a doormat!
About four months after her arrival, I was contacted by BYC to foster another dog.  “Sissy” had been found wandering the streets and she was extremely frightened and skittish.  Joyce had to drag her in to my house.  Like Grace and the “plump” and “portly” comments, I thought it cruel to call this dog “Sissy”, highlighting her weakness and so I renamed her Dora.  We became a two-dog, three-bitch household.
From her behavior it was clear Dora was traumatized, but she slowly came to be a bit more trusting of humans.  I think this was because she saw the two-legged being treated the other four-legged being pretty well so she didn’t have to worry so much.  Though they never became playmates or best buddies, Grace and Dora had an understanding.  And as top-dog, Grace took her role seriously, on occasion facing down another dog who might try to go after Dora.  Other times, Grace would place herself between a stranger and Dora, offering a layer of protection.  And Grace bestowed the greatest of kindnesses to Dora by allowing her to sleep on our bed – albeit at the foot, saving the honored place at the pillow beside my head for her own.
After over nine years of faithful service and loyal friendship Grace left this world on Friday,      September 27.  Almost twelve, age and arthritis ravaged her body, but her graceful heart remained strong until the very end.
That last day, as we both lay on the floor of the vet’s office saying our goodbyes, I whispered “Natasha, Sasha” and she had a little twitch, as if she was spending some time reflecting of her life, a trip down memory lane.  I was doing the same, speaking to her about how much I loved her, how she’d been a good dog and done her job so very well.
Years ago I read the book “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn in which he biblically answers people’s questions about what heaven will be like.  When I first got the book, I saw that the format was each chapter answering a specific question.  I quickly looked up the question “Will animals, including pets, live again?”  Alcorn’s answer was that though there is no definitive biblical answer, some noted theologians allude to the fact they will be.  In fact, Alcorn quotes a poem by John Piper in which he refers to seeing his old dog, Blacky in heaven.  If one so noted as Piper believes his pet will be in heaven, then there’s a pretty good possibility of this being true.
My pets in heaven – Priscilla, Dusty, Lucy, Coach – this isn’t a deal breaker between God and me.  He gave me more than I ever deserved just with their presence on earth, let alone heaven.  I’m just so very thankful to have been blessed with the most amazing, Grace.
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