In the fall of 2009, our daughters, Sheri and Sandra, suggested we adopt a dog. Linda had just been diagnosed with Frontotemporal dementia and they assumed that a four-legged companion would be therapy for both of us, especially for Linda. So, they set out to identify the right companion.
At a local animal shelter, my son-in-law, Kyle, met a shy little Millie! She had been found wandering the street in the rain by a young boy and his mother. They were not permitted to keep a dog in their apartment, so they brought her to the shelter with the stipulation that she not be euthanized. She was estimated to be about eight or nine months old. They had already named her “Millie.”
In response to my question “What kind of dog is she?” the veterinarian replied as he surveyed her characteristics, “I see Chihuahua, Yorkie, terrier, and….Let’s just say she has a rich heritage!”
Though never weighing more than ten pounds, she was the alpha dog in every encounter with other canines and the “princess” when with family. She was reserved in the presence of strangers but feisty and fierce in defense of her space and family.
Millie quickly became a member of the family and Linda’s constant companion. Linda trained her, cared for her, loved her. Millie faithfully and persistently returned the love. They became almost inseparable. The bond of mutual love grew stronger as Linda’s disease progressed.
Early in the disease process, Linda and Millie took walks together and interacted in multiple ways. Millie seemed to sense the changes in Linda and always adjusted with empathy and added affection. She sensed when she was upset and frustrated and maintained her “non-anxious” presence in the most tumultuous times.
In the last stages of Linda’s disease, she lost the ability to respond to Millie. Yet, Millie remained faithful. She often positioned herself under Linda’s bed, especially when visitors came. She assumed the protector’s role, keeping her eyes fixed on the movements of the visitors.
Millie seemed to sense when Linda’s death was approaching. I don’t know how. Maybe she picked up on our feelings, or perhaps animals have a special sense at such times. After Linda’s death, she didn’t eat for three days. She frequently went to the door to her room and walked away with sadness in her eyes and her little tail tucked low. She was grieving!
We leaned on one another for comfort, support, and companionship. She had been part of Linda’s story for a decade. Now, her presence helped me feel Linda’s nearness. Maybe I did the same for her.
Millie gradually lost her hearing. Her vision diminished. Her dependency on me intensified. She followed my every move. When I returned to the house from errands or walks, she was waiting at the door.
In recent weeks, Millie’s declining health accelerated dramatically. In the early morning hours of September 16, she slowly drew her last breath. I quietly thanked God for her companionship with both Linda and me and for her bearing God’s own unconditional love and faithfulness.
Richard Rohr in his book, The Universal Christ, shares that he saw in his dog, Venus, the presence of Christ, the incarnation of the universal power of life and love. Some may want to quarrel with Rohr’s theology; but I’ll leave the quarrel to others. I just know that Linda and I experienced the power of unconditional love and gentle presence in Millie.
All creation originates in and is sustained by God’s love, and the divine presence permeates all life. The Psalmist declares in a prayer to God, “You save humans and animals alike” (36:6) and Jesus reminds us that God notes with compassion a sparrow’s fall (Matthew 10:29).
I know from my experience, especially in times of suffering and grief, nothing heals and comforts like gentle, loving, loyal presence. Sam Wells suggests that with is the most significant word in the Christian faith. It speaks of incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, Immanuel, “God with us.”
To the very end, Millie was simply with us in gentleness, loyalty, and empathy. I am ever thankful for the gift of Millie. Yes, she was an intimation of divine presence and love from which nothing in life or death can separate us.