An Antler in the Toilet
The splashing sound coming from the restroom was louder than the usual lapping noise I hear when Grizzly ducks into the bathroom for a drink of water. When I rounded the corner and saw him, I knew why. His back paws were on the ground but both front legs were in the toilet, frantically pawing, splashing water to the walls and floor with abandon.
I fished an antler out of the toilet.
A few days later, I’m taking a bath mid-morning while no one else is at home. If Grizzly is not kenneled, he is usually within five feet of me, so there he lay on the bathroom floor, gnawing on a bone I’d roasted for him the day before. Suddenly he stood up, placed the ivory colored ring on the side of the tub and pushed it in.
I’m staring at a beef bone floating in my bath water.
Is this what you mean by letting my life change, God? Where is the embodied truth coming to liberate me as I wipe water off the walls and fish beef bones out of my bathwater? This is not “5 Easy Steps to a New Life”.
It’s hard to see the transformation when we are in the middle of it, maybe impossible.
Like walking the labyrinth, the view is constantly shifting and often your back is to the center. You seem to be moving away from the destination. The symmetry, the wholeness and the singular path of a labyrinth are only obvious from a distance.
On Sunday I went to the graduation ceremonies for Service Dogs Alabama, Class of 2018. These would have been Grizzly’s classmates had he finished the program, but I learned Sunday that as a ‘drop-out’ he is in a fairly large group. One in two dogs are not able to complete the rigorous training and actually wear the coveted ‘service dog vest’. The point, however, is to train each dog to his potential to do the job he was made to do. Therein is his dignity and our gift.
As the dogs and their owners processed into the auditorium to the “Theme from Rocky” I found myself exploding with a smile and weeping at the same time. The class took the stage, humans in chairs and dogs at their sides on the floor. The director of the program spoke and through video and in person we heard the stories from several people whose lives have been changed by the presence of their dogs.
That phrase can sound so cliche', “lives have been changed” and yet that is what every one of us wants in one way or another. Transformation. No matter who we are, what our experiences, or how far we have come, there’s always some way in which we seek a better version of our lives or our selves whether that involves a service dog, a pet, or no dog at all. From weight loss to overcoming anxiety to career goals to spiritual awareness, we may have mixed motives for the change we want, but hoping for it is a universal desire.
So stories like I heard Sunday, of an autistic boy who went from hating school and having no friends to being included in groups and part of his school community or the veteran with PTSD who was once suicidal but is now a healthy, productive citizen and father - transformation is the subject and hope is the takeaway. That sounds like the gospel.
But how does it happen? While there is certainly work and practice that goes into training and living with a dog- or any other kind of transformation, the path of true transformation is not self-will.
Somewhere in it one must surrender to mystery …how can a DOG make such a difference in a human life? Doesn’t man have dominion over the animals? Who’s in charge here? Can anyone actually explain scientifically how a dog knows to wake a man having a nightmare or prevents a child from suffering test anxiety? Why do humans need needles and numbers to measure blood sugar levels but a dog’s nose can know? Why does Grizzly use his body to manage the space between me and others without any command to do so?
I keep coming back to the last half of that sentence about lives changing. By the presence of their dog, I wrote. Presence changes lives. Being with the dog, dwelling in his presence constantly, having him follow you everywhere, all the way to the bathtub…that does its work on you. Love, loyalty…call it what you will…but you are surrendering to a constant presence in your life. It’s not a cognitive process, a truth to be understood; it’s an experience to be lived.
Sometimes that surrender and that experience brings upheaval and pandemonium …fishing antlers out of the toilet and beef bones out of the bathwater. I’ve moved furniture around in the house and changed my morning ritual. I’ve allocated more money for dog food and vet bills. I’ve accepted dog hair as part of my wardrobe and barking as background noise. As an empty-nester, who knew I’d be paying attention to a potty schedule again? A relationship with a dog can range from inconvenient to downright expensive, from uncomfortable to annoying at times.
But these are the costs of Grizzly’s presence.
A presence which is changing my life.
Sometimes I wonder: Am I writing about Grizzly or God?