It's been said that there are two kinds of pet owners in the world: dog people and cat people. Dog people are outgoing, taking their dogs for walks on which they meet other dog people. My wife, Karla, and I were confirmed cat people. With our two cats, Euclid and Jamie, we spent long hours working in solitude at our desks, a cat in each lap. Karla's freelance writing usually kept her homebound, and my career as a mathematics professor at Hofstra University required many hours of solitary work. When we were first married, we said that some day we would get a puppy. Yet by spring of 1991, we had been married 13 years, and a dog seemed an unlikely addition.
Our lives were changed that spring when two Hofstra students walked onto campus one day and a beagle followed them. They didn't know where this happy, friendly female with no identification had come from, so they began asking around the neighborhood near the university. Further inquiries through the newspapers, veterinary offices, and animal shelters yielded nothing, and they began to seek someone to adopt her. When I described this situation to Karla, she excitedly suggested that we take her. So we did. We named her Cayley.
Our research into the care and raising of beagles taught us that beagles often get lost. We found an organization in California specifically devoted to reuniting lost beagles and their families in that state! Beagles have a keen sense of smell and follow all the interesting scents the world offers. Unfortunately, although some beagles are smart field dogs, the breed as a whole has a reputation for not being too bright, and many have trouble finding their way home.
Karla and I coined a modern version of the scripture from Isaiah, "All we like sheep have gone astray." New York suburban professionals such as us had little experience with sheep. On the other hand, "All we like beagles have gone astray" seemed to sum up the human experience. How many people have started out in life optimistic and idealistic, following what seemed to be an interesting path, only to find themselves lost some years later, with no idea how they got where they are or how to make it right again? Like so many beagle owners, God is seeking to bring those lost beagles home, if only they could hear his voice calling.
The most important task in training a dog is housebreaking. When we acquired Cayley, she was probably less than a year old and was partly housebroken. Unfortunately, finishing the job was a formidable task, made more so by our lack of a fenced-in yard. When I sensed that Cayley needed to go outside, I would grab her leash, which caused her to start bouncing with joy at the thought of going for a walk. And we would walk and walk, sometimes for a half hour, meeting all the neighbors, and especially the children, who loved her so much and ran to us yelling "Cayley!" Unfortunately, Cayley sometimes neglected the basic reason we had taken her out in the first place. I would finally give up and came home, only to discover 10 minutes later the mess she had made on the floor. I scolded her firmly, and she looked at me with her big sad eyes as if to say, "I'm sorry! I forgot! I'll do it right the next time!" Sometimes she did, and sometimes she didn't.
Cayley's inability to learn the basics of dog life made Karla and me reflect on how God must regard us humans. God tries to teach us how to live right, and we humans keep goofing up and ruining things. We ask for God's forgiveness and then go out and make the same mistakes. I wonder how God has the patience to keep loving and forgiving us; doesn't he get so fed up as to give up? Somehow God keeps loving us in a way we can't understand.
Would that Karla and I had that patience. Five months after we acquired Cayley, Karla was sitting on the floor and crying, cleaning up the fifth mess on the carpet Cayley had made in one day. Our carpet was a wreck. It seemed that all we did anymore was walk Cayley and clean the carpet. We couldn't take it anymore.
It didn't take long to find another home for Cayley. We located a woman who was about to move from an apartment to a house. Her son wanted a dog, but she told him it was impossible as long as they lived in the apartment. In her heart, the dog she wanted most was a beagle.
She came to our house one September afternoon to take Cayley to her new home. It seemed the perfect resolution to our problem. She and Cayley got into her car, and I saw Cayley look back at us through the car window as the woman drove away.
Then I began to cry. I kept crying for days, and I couldn't seem to stop. This was not like me; I think of myself as a rational mathematician, not overly emotional or sensitive. But I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of loss that I couldn't overcome. I told myself that Karla and I were better off; the woman and her son were better off; Cayley is better off. So what's wrong with me?
Over time, I came to realize how few neighbors I knew before we had Cayley. Karla and I seemed to live in seclusion, but Cayley served as our ambassador to the world. Before Cayley, I would pass people on the street without either of us acknowledging the other, in the anonymous New York way. With Cayley, people would stop and smile, petting her and talking with me. I had considered my relationship with Cayley as comparable to God's relationship to me. Now I saw that, in a way, Cayley carried out a role comparable to that of God in my life. Doesn't God want us to break out of our own little shell and reach out to others? Without Cayley, I didn't know how. I felt lost. With regret, I realized I wasn't a dog person.
Life became quiet again. Karla and I entered a period where we were both absorbed in large amounts of work, with little time for others. Our cats, who had been neglected during five months with Cayley, returned to sitting in our laps as we sat typing at our computers.
We might still be like that, except for a friend who asked us the following spring, "Would you like a dog?" Willing to have my heart broken again, I said, "Sure!" That's how we got Musk, a six-month-old American Staffordshire Terrier, known more popularly as a pit bull. To my surprise, I found I could be a dog person after all; I just needed the right dog. Musk was quickly housebroken and was the brightest dog in her obedience class. Despite the fierce reputation pit bulls have earned in the news, Musk was even friendlier than Cayley, without a hint of aggression. Nothing made her happier than to meet other people and dogs. I registered her as a therapy dog, and now the two of us make visits to convalescent hospitals and nursing homes, meeting and cheering up elderly people. Musk wins their hearts quickly by licking their faces and performing the tricks I've taught her. She even likes our two cats, who are uneasy about returning her affection.
Looking back, I see that giving up Cayley was an important step. If I hadn't done so, I wouldn't have been able to take Musk. Sometimes God wants us to make hard decisions, decisions that make us weep and confront the hollowness within us. Only in doing so are we able to say "Sure!" when God offers us something even better.
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