Even before opening the car door, I could hear him barking from the street, which meant one thing: Mom was home. Show up when Dad was alone, and the most you’d get was a nervous whine. Arrive when the house was empty, and the dog might deign to lift his head from the sofa—the living room quiet as a church on Monday morning. Some guard dog. He was saving his energy for some as yet undetermined barking, no doubt. But what he lacked in zeal for home protection, he more than made up for in being a loyal companion.
Flash, a lean Cockapoo with a haircut like Little Richard’s, had started getting on in years. And by the time my first daughter was born, it was beginning to show. His eyesight had dimmed; he slept more and was less inclined to run around the yard.
We came through the front door, and Mom was there to quickly hug me before moving on to a smaller, more important person. While she cuddled her granddaughter and I stumbled down the hall with a truly incredible amount of baby paraphernalia, there in the background was the familiar refrain: Flash, barking with the stamina of a pup, the rhythm of a metronome. Finally Dad scooped him up with a firm, “Enough!” and the house was quiet again.
Life continues on, and though mortality stings this side of eternity, it’s but for a little while.
As for my little girl, she was getting older, too. By this point, her love for animals was mostly observational. And without a dog of her own at home, she had little affinity for a sniffing nose, much less a sonorous muzzle. Whenever Flash was nearby, she would be looking down on his wavy sable fur from the safety of Daddy’s arms. That started to change as time went on, of course. Pretty soon, she seemed not to mind him much at all.
After clearing up dishes from the evening meal, we were sitting in the living room, where Dad was petting the dog between the ears. It turned out Flash hadn’t been doing so well. Dad said the problems with his health were becoming more pronounced, and the veterinarian had said it was anybody’s bet how much longer he’d be around.
Some weeks later, I got the call. Flash had taken his last breath in Dad’s arms. All the signs were pointing to soon, but death never comes at a good time. My wife and I wondered how to explain it to a two-year-old and opted instead to say that Flash had to go away. And then, when she would bring him up over the last year, we’d repeat the explanation. It worked for a little while. That was, until just the other evening when her question took on a more knowing tone.
“Daddy, do you remember Flashy?”
“Daddy, where is Flashy?” I debated within myself for moment—searched my mind for some clever wording to skirt the question. But at last, inexplicably, I knew it was time.
“Flashy isn’t alive anymore, sweetheart. He died.”
“Why?” she said.
A lump was growing in my throat. “Well, dogs don’t live for very long.”
“What about Nana’s other doggies? Are Tiny and Sweet Pea going to die, too?”
I thought about the broader implications of a dog’s death—that’s it’s a reminder of what will one day be for all creatures. That her now three-year-old mind didn’t, couldn’t yet, comprehend the largeness of living and dying—what it does to us all in the passing of those we love, and finally to those left behind when we ourselves depart this life. “Someday, baby,” I answered. “But not right now.”
And that was it. She, seemingly unfazed, went on playing with her toys. But the discussion had affected me deeply. Here was my little girl, so near to life’s beginning, already encountering what from a Christian perspective wasn’t intended to be. I thought about the someday death of my parents and sisters, colleagues and friends. That one day, hopefully a long, long time from now, even she—my precious little girl—would live through the grief of my passing.
And then I was reminded of Christ’s promise: Death is not the end of the story. Life continues on, and though mortality stings this side of eternity, it’s but for a little while. The faithful departed are never far from us, in the end. Somehow, mystically, they dwell in Christ just as we do, all of us together one body. Someday, we’ll see them again, gathered together in God’s embrace.
And who knows, we may even hear a little barking.