Thankful: A Four-Legged Story

 

My baby, Dex Espínola 💛

This past week was rough. Some would say its because Mercury is in retrograde. Some would justify it by saying they got up on the wrong side of the bed. I'd rather say "its life," because really, no matter how hard we try to find explanations for some things, we live in a fallen and broken world in which suffering and sadness can be right around the corner at any given time.

But, absolutely nothing that happened prior to Friday could have prepared me for what was coming when the vet said we would have to say goodbye to one of our dogs. I was even more unprepared for my mum to call a mere hour later to tell me my baby, my Dex, had breathed his last.

We had two Bichon Frisé pups. After having to put our first dog, Blackie, to sleep, we promised never to have another pet again. The pain of losing them was simply too much. But, one afternoon, my home phone rang and I was the only one around to pick up. It was our neighbour. It turns out their dogs had had puppies and they thought we would be a great family for one of the girls. This one phone call altered the rest of our lives. Were we ready? Could we possibly give this a chance? I thanked her for thinking of us and told her I'd ask my mum and let her know. My heart was racing with excitement. My mum agreed to go and have a look. No promises.

Of course, from the moment we saw her, she stole our hearts. She was a furry white ball, excitedly jumping up and down and snuggling up to us. It did not even take one minute for her to invite herself into our hearts and our family. She jumped straight into my hands, ready to go to her new home. We had no choice really. We told our neighbour we would come to pick her up in a few hours, we just needed to go get a bed, some toys and bowls for food and water. It was a done deal, we had a new dog. Our family had grown by one: Nina.

I can vividly remember how she jumped and played and explored once we brought her home. Her explorer instinct has not waned a bit in the ten years since that call. But, as many of those who have pets might understand, having to go out and leave her alone was torture for both her and us. Still, in my worst nightmares, I can still hear her shrill cries when we walked out the door for even the shortest amount of time. We sought a thousand solutions so she could have some company, and one day an idea occurred to us... What if we brought Nina some canine company? We had already made the leap with one, what would one more be?

We asked our neighbours, Nina's parents' parents, where they had gotten their Bichons since this breed did not exist in our country at this point. They gave us the name of their contact in Miami where they had gotten them. We had a trip to Miami planned around this time. Once again we promised we would just go take a look. No promises.

Of course, at this point, we should have known that we were unable to "just go see." We went to this place and asked if they had any Bichons by any chance, and they said they had one from a litter who was all gone, except for him. I believe with all my heart this is how it had to be, he was waiting for us.




When they brought us to him, it was nothing like the image of a new dog we had in mind. This puppy was already 8 months old. He was anxious, quite large, a tad cross-eyed and he breathed through his mouth - he was perfect. I asked the lady if I could carry him. She took him out of the cage where he had spent his last eight months, silently watching each one of his brothers and sisters be taken away one after the other until only he was left. His nails, which had never been cut, were penetrating my shoulder to the point of pain. This dog gripped me like a castaway would hold on to a buoy in the high seas. From that moment on I knew we would never be able to let each other go; that even if there was physical distance between us, the tie he and I shared would be forever. Immediately, we began the process to adopt him as our own. I could not bear the idea of him living in these conditions one more day.

However, there was one little problem. Not only were we staying at a non-pet-friendly hotel, but we still had a week and a half left of our trip, half of which was to be spent in Orlando at another non-pet-friendly hotel. We arranged everything so we could continue visiting him while we were in Miami, and for them to drop him off with us at Miami international airport on the day of our departure.

From that moment on, the rest of our trip revolved around our new dog. How would we name him? Would he and Nina get along? We were full of questions, and worries, but most of all, we were full of excitement. We bought him many things, visited him daily and within our constraints, did everything we could to make him feel at home from that moment onwards. We had to arrange many legal things remotely so he could enter the country once we arrived back home. Our neighbours were a great help throughout this process, not only guiding us but also running errands for us to get our paperwork ready.

The moment came to pick his name. After deliberating for much of our vacation, we narrowed it down to three names: Dex, Louis, and Conde. If I remember correctly, Conde was the first option off the table. This name had been my mum's choice and it was based on a character from a 1999 Mexican telenovela. Our new dog had a grand total of zero Conde "vibes," so this name was discarded. I can't recall where the other two names came from, but after a while, we decided that Louis, pronounced in French, would be too complicated in the day-to-day. And just like that, he was named Dex. They were now Nina & Dex, our own little canine version of Bonnie & Clyde.



The day arrived when we were going back home, and this was the first test. We had to call the guy so he would drop Dex off at the airport, at the right terminal, at the right time, for us to purchase his ticket, check in ourselves, go through TSA, and board on time. Our levels of adrenaline at this point were at an all-time high.

The man got there on time, thankfully, but informed us Dex had vomited on the way to the airport. We cleaned him up like we could, and my mum and sister ran to the counter to purchase his ticket. They did not want to sell it to us. Between prayers to God and pleas to the airline manager, we were able to get his ticket and run to the "next station." We made it to our gate with a decent margin, just enough to go to the bathroom and get Dex and his crate, from which he stared at us with fear, confusion, and a whole lot of love and hope, clean. From that moment on, he knew we would never forsake him, never would let him suffer if we could avoid it, that he could trust us - something he did blindly until the end. I want to believe we honoured that trust.

The rest of the trip was uneventful until we landed in El Salvador. The second test. We managed to get all the paperwork on time, but they wanted to leave him in quarantine at the airport. Once again we went to prayer-and-pleading mode until we managed to take him with us right then and there. We released a breath we hadn't realized we were holding. We did it. Dex was closer and closer to his new home. On the way home, we decided to leave him at the vet for grooming while we went home to prepare everything for his arrival, including Nina.

From the moment we stepped foot inside, she felt it. She smelled us non-stop from head to toe. She knew we had been with another dog, but at seeing us and not see the originator of that smell, she relaxed and gave us the warmest of welcomes. This lasted approximately three hours until the time came to go pick Dex up and introduce them. The third test. We brought him home and placed him on the floor in front of Nina. She smelled him from the tip of his head to the tip of his tail, and from that moment on he declared his unconditional devotion to her. While she sniffed him, he only wagged his tail excitedly - his signature move.



It was not until this moment though that we could really appreciate how much his time in that cage had really affected him. Dex could not walk well. His paws were cracked and dry. He was very anxious. He couldn't walk up or down the stairs, much less play with toys. His cognitive development was affected by it and he never fully learned to relieve himself outside on his own, a behaviour that often caused frustration, but that also taught us very much about love. What others would have seen as "defects" we saw not only as opportunities but also as areas in which we could provide more intentional care. He taught us to love in spite of. Love is sacrificial and patient, pets are the simplest and purest examples of this.

Little by little we healed his paws with petroleum jelly, and we taught him how to go up and down the stairs. Little by little he began to comprehend what a toy was and how to use them. He came to understand what grass was and how to run freely in it. What we saw Nina instinctively know was all new to Dex. Every step was uncertain. Seeing him flourish and develop his personality day after day was one of the most gratifying processes of our lives. After a short time, Dex had not only become capable of going up, down, and playing, but had also become a vital part of our household.

A year or so later, Nina and Dex were pregnant. They had five of the cutest puppies I have ever seen. Dex did not move from Nina's side for a minute during her entire pregnancy. His gentleness and patience were magnified during this period like never before. And as these five little puppies began to grow, cry early in the morning, bite, and play, Dex was there, wagging his tail, taking care of each and every one of them. This process taught us so much about God's perfect design. None of us knew what to do, but they both immediately and instinctively took on their caregiving role.



Time would never suffice to recount every single anecdote that brought us tears, and laughter, that moved us or taught us something. I can only sum it up by saying that every minute of Dex's life added something to our lives. Every breathing second he was alive showed us how uninterested the love of a pet can be. He spent his short existence giving, and giving, and giving, without expecting anything in return. In every situation, his tail, in perpetual movement, made us smile. Every time he saw us cry, his soft kisses were like a balm on an open would. He was gentle, humble, and persevering. The idea of no longer seeing all this, personified in a little creature no more than half a metre tall, on a day-to-day basis fills us with ineffable pain.

A few days before all this went down, I was writing the following short piece for our podcast's new "section" called #AThoughtAMinute, not knowing that a mere 72 hours later I would have to put it into practice in my own life:

"Before Instagram gurus, motivational speakers, personal coaches, and even mental health experts recommended it, the Bible had already spoken to us about thankfulness in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Talking about it once, the Pastor at my church explained that it is not that we give thanks FOR everything (how to give thanks for the loss of a loved one, or for an innocent child's abuse, or for a global pandemic?) but, as he explained it, we give thanks IN everything because each experience strengthens us, adds to our faith, and prepares us to be who we were created to be.

Nowadays, thankfulness is a well-known practice. Its benefits have been scientifically proven. Coincidence? I think not. Tomorrow is uncertain. As the saying goes, "We live on borrowed time." It's sad to see many people wasting this little time we have complaining, worrying, fighting, holding grudges and not allowing themselves to experience the fruits of gratefulness.

Open your eyes. Yes, perhaps there are things around you FOR which you are not thankful, but IN your circumstances, what can you be thankful for? The mere fact of being able to read and access this post is one. Think of at least two more. Your turn"

So here's me, taking my turn. I can't thank God because Dex is gone, but in this situation, I'm thankful for the time we got to share with him, and for every lesson, we learned while he was with us. For every time we were fighting about something stupid among us, we had to put our pride aside to take care of Nina and Dex, coming back to a place of unity and forgiveness. For every time we had to wake up significantly earlier than we would have liked to take him out to relieve himself because this taught us discipline and sacrifice. For every time that we had to plan how and where we would leave them when we went on holiday because it taught us to think of others above ourselves. For every time we tried to teach him a trick with treats, because he never fully learned how to do them right, but this taught us to persevere and enjoy the process even if the results were not what we expected. For every time we came back home and both of them were at the door waiting with their little hearts pounding in excitement, because this taught us to enjoy the simplest things and understand that to be happy, we don't really need that much.



Today, as I was praying and laying my broken heart before God, He reminded me of the following passages in His amazing Grace:

Matthew 7: 9-11 > “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!"

Matthew 6: 25-32 > “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

Reflecting on all the time we shared with Dex, I realize God cared for him. With every day we were able to feed him, with every time we were able to take him to the vet, with every time someone was willing to care for them when we weren't there. And, if God cared for him like this, how much more does He care for us? If He gave us the ability to love and care for Dex and Nina so much, how much more will He not give us the best?
Nina and Dex never once doubted we would be there for them to supply their needs. They never worried about what they would eat tomorrow. They never experienced anxiety to tick all the boxes on a to-do list. Not once did they manifest any sort of worry for what our visitors would think of them, or if others liked them. What a beautiful image of the trust and freedom in which we can live under our Heavenly Father, who cares for us in such a perfect way, beyond what any of us could ever offer our pets, our friends, and even our kids.

It is this, above all else, for which I am thankful for IN this situation. It is thanks to the whole experience of being Dex and Nina's dog mum that I have been able to catch a glimpse - albeit an imperfect one - of important lessons and truths about life, death, love, pain, health, faith, friendship, and family that will forever accompany us, just as the memory of the noblest four-legged baby we could have ever asked for will.

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