The Greatest Power
The Power of Love is a curious thing
Make a one man weep, make another man sing;
Change a hawk to a little white dove
More than a feeling, that’s the Power of Love.
–Huey Lewis and the News
We have all (I strongly and sincerely hope) felt what it is to love, and to be loved. The experience is a unique one; perhaps when you think of the concept of love you immediately think of your parents, your siblings, or other relatives. Perhaps your spouse or partner comes to mind right away. It might be the special love you have for your own children (if you have them) that pulls at the strings of your heart with the greatest power. Maybe you share a bond with a friend strong enough to earn the label of love. It is also possible that, blessed by many or all of the above relationships, that you have come to take them for granted, assuming they will always be there. We need to have the loves in our life renewed and reinvigorated so that they remain the precious, sacred relationships that they are. I recently experienced the raw and unbridled power that love can have over one’s heart, and it come from a place I could never have expected.
I had grown up with cats. My brother got a cat when I was probably no more than three or four years old, and as he headed off to college, that cat became my own. She died when I was in high school, but another cat soon entered our lives, and in the end I cannot remember a time in the first 24 years of my life where there wasn’t a cat in our house. My cousins, on the other hand, had a dog; a great big golden retriever. I love my cousins very dearly, I always have…but that dog? He was a nice enough animal, but there were things about him I just couldn’t abide. He smelled. He just had an odor, one that I would forever associate with dogs in general, that if you had the courage to touch him would linger on your hands for the rest of the day and there was just no getting it off. I don’t know exactly what caused it. Was it just an aspect of the breed? Did they need to give him baths more often? It wasn’t just the smell; he drooled too. The lips on the side of his mouth perpetually hung down with frothy saliva smearing against anything his mouth happened to brush against, which often enough was my own leg. Eww. If he licked you, the over-moist, dog food smelling tongue left a ropy drool trail running down your fingers or leg or wherever his foaming mouth happened to contact you. Give me the dry, soothing sensation of a cat’s tongue any day over that.
The greatest aversion I had to dogs was that I was never certain if they liked me or wanted to kill me. My cousin’s dog was always happy as could be when I was around him, but there was another dog in our neighborhood that must have been his evil, separated-at-birth twin. One day as I tried to make my way to elementary school, this huge dog stood on the opposite side of the street, unrestrained, and was barking at me as though I had just stolen his favorite chew toy. I had to run home and get my mom to escort me past it, and I cowered behind her the whole time. After that, I think I viewed all dogs as secret killers just waiting for me to let my guard down.
When my wife and I first started dating, she already had a 100 pound Australian shepherd/lab mix which I was emphatically told came with her as part of a “package deal.” He drooled too. And howled. And ate his own poo sometimes (I NEVER could figure that out–not that I really tried to). He didn’t smell though, there was that. He was also very sweet and kind. Okay, so maybe all of them weren’t out to kill me or smear ropes of slimy drool down my arm. I learned to like him. Just like him.
Recently, my family returned from an extended trip to the United Kingdom, marking the end of our major international travels during this phase of our lives. Time to stay home for a while. My daughter, working on my wife, convinced her that getting a puppy would be a good idea. The dog would “help our children learn to take care of a little life that would be dependent on them.” It would be perfect practice for them should they ever want to become parents. I agreed with all that. Sure. Why not? A cat would have better suited me (I will ALWAYS love cats), but I realized that a house full of leather furniture, along with a number of other less tangible reasons were conspiring against that particular idea. Maybe someday. For now, a puppy. Yay. Can’t you just feel my excitement leaping off this screen at you? Our kids were teenagers. Did I want to have another child in the house again? One that would drool and poop in strange places even after it was supposedly grown up? Well, I could see the light in my daugher’s eyes when she thought about it, the giddiness she felt at the mere thought of a puppy in the house. How could I say no to that? Besides, I had long ago learned that the secret to a happy marriage was to have no opinions, at least not about minor things. This seemed a minor thing, and it would make those I lived with and loved very happy.
The wife and daughter research team had quickly settled on a Jack Russell Terrier, having seen one of them fetching a stick in England and being smitten right then and there. These dogs weigh about twelve pounds, can jump like five feet straight in the air from a standing position, and run faster than any animal I have ever seen. I started reading books about this breed and just puppy training manuals in general, increasingly wondering what I was letting myself in for. We contacted a local breeder, and it looked like we would have our little bundle of drool in about ten or twelve weeks. We started making some preliminary plans and purchasing the obligatory gear like a dog bed, a dog crate (two different sizes), numerous rope toys to shred, about a hundred nylon bones to gnaw on, and three or four sizes of rubber Kongs for the dog to accost at its leisure. We also thought we had several weeks to prepare. As we were soon reminded, life doesn’t always capitulate to your best laid plans.
The pregnancy of the mother dog out at the breeders ended unexpectedly, and after speaking with her for some time, we had a new list of options to pursue. The breeder was going to breed two other dogs soon, which would result in a delay of a couple of months (we would then be getting the dog in January as opposed to November). Still, that was an option. We could look into another breeder the first one recommended up in British Columbia, but due to vaccination rules at the border, we wouldn’t be able to bring the dog into the country until he/she was too old to train ourselves. Finally, there was yet another breeder in Idaho we could consult. After a long family conference, we went from disappointment to the new plan of my wife, son, and daughter driving to Idaho to pick up a dog that was ready right then to be adopted. This also meant that instead of having two months to prepare for the dog’s arrival, we now had four days.
Off they went to Idaho. I was teaching so I couldn’t go, but when I got home on the night they left, I checked the computer to see an e-mail testifying that they were safe and sound, with a picture of my daughter holding the cutest little animal I had ever seen. That’s when it started. I had not expected it in the least, but when I looked into Bonnie’s two little dark eyes (that was the name on which my wife and daughter had settled), it felt like a warm comforter had just been wrapped around the heart in my chest. I found myself talking to the picture: “Just look at you,” I said. “I’ll get to see you soon, little Bonnie. Hurry home.”
That day of their journey back home, a nine hour drive, was one of the longest ones in recent memory. It was a Saturday, and I busied myself with work around the house preparing for the puppy’s arrival. They got home around seven in the evening, brought little ten week old Bonnie into the house, and life changed.
Before I had a chance to even think what to do or say, a little black, white, and brown missile shot from my wife’s hands and barreled into my chest. I fell to my back while letting a tiny tongue thoroughly probe my neck, face, and ears. There was no drool, there was no smell…there was only a raw and unbridled love emanating from the puppy. I almost cried right there on the floor. To be the recipient of such powerful, pure emotion, when you hadn’t done the slightest thing to earn it, was a stunningly powerful experience. I had been reminded of love’s power to melt hearts, break down barriers, and heal wounds. I repeated her name as she squealed, licked, and scampered all over me, and shook my head at life’s unexpected twists. I would like at this time to formally apologize to those people I had judged from afar who seemed to take their relationships with their pets too seriously. It’s just an animal., I had often thought. It’s not like its a person. Love is love.
Puppies are a lot of work, and there were details about raising one that I had never contemplated or as yet had a chance to research. One of those details was that even your own fenced in backyard could harbor things toxic to dogs who explore the world with their noses and mouths. One afternoon during the first week we had her, while running around on her leash and sniffing the yard, she suddenly snatched something up in her mouth. “Bonnie, LEAVE IT!” I commanded. I pried it out of her jaws and instantly felt a cold dagger of fear punch through my heart. It was a mushroom.
I was pretty sure that she hadn’t swallowed it. I quickly did some research, and yes, there were several varieties of mushrooms that grew in our area that were toxic ones. The symptoms that would result from ingesting one were horrific: vomiting, diarrhea, coma…death. I had no idea exactly which kind of mushroom it was, or if she had actually ingested part of it. Almost every source I found was pretty clear as to the course of action to take: induce vomiting immediately in one of a few ways, and get her to a vet’s office IMMEDIATELY. My wife and I consulted about it, and decided that based on the mushroom’s appearance (it appeared virtually whole, and did not resemble a toxic variety) that we would watch and wait rather than put her through the misery of making her vomit and hauling her to a vet when there may be no reason to do so. Our sources said symptoms could emerge within 20 minutes or after six hours. Those were some of the longest hours I have ever spent, watching the little innocent puppy prance about, oblivious to the stress in the air, I myself feeling the nausea that I keenly hoped she wasn’t about to feel. I couldn’t lose her. Not now. Not when I had just met her…and I had been the one walking her in the yard when she ate the blasted thing. I would blame myself forever. I would blame myself for not acting fast enough, for not watching close enough, for not having done enough research about yard safety…for all of it.
She was fine, and nothing came of it save for a newly established regimen of mushroom scanning and removal from the yard, coupled with a hyper-vigilance about anything she even attempted to eat. I would also never forget the feeling of dread and doom I had felt. To have one you love, and who clearly loves you, ripped away from you due has to be one of the most soul-wrenching experiences anyone can face. I do not presume to understand what it is like to have lived through the experience of having lost a loved one in a sudden or terrible circumstance. For those who have, I can but send out my love and support to you as fellow humans and Spiritual Naturalists.
I nearly lost my son when he was two to anaphylactic shock, but he pulled through, and for some reason then I had never doubted he would. That was likely my denial and ignorance of just how much danger he was then in. I stayed by his side for hours, watching over his little sleeping body, strapped to a table and hooked up to intravenous medication equipment. I read to him, sang to him, watched his chest to be sure he was still breathing, all the while never believing that he could be taken away from me. My brain wouldn’t let me go there; such contemplations dwelt in a dark, foreign place where only other people were forced to go. It couldn’t happen to my son, to someone I loved. Tragedies like that only happen in the news, or every now and then to a random person in your community you might not even know. Life is secure and safe today. So go the illusions.
Today, my family is happy, healthy, and content. I am, however, under no illusion that things will always be that way. I have worked to gird my soul against the day when illness, injury, or death alters that reality. Stoic methods of negative visualization, meditation, and other strategies have helped bring perspective and offered tools to keep stress under control. The strongest technique I have, though, is love itself. I work to make the most of the time I have, and to not take those I love for granted. I fight against the narcissistic desire to pursue my own interests if my wife, one of my kids, or Bonnie needs time and attention. We just can’t take love for granted. A few years ago, my father had a stroke and fell down the stairs in his home. He lives eight hours away from me, but my sister, mother, and others were there to take care of him. When I spoke with him by phone in the hospital, realizing that I could have lost him when he fell, I said “I love you, dad.” Never before could I recall having said that, or having heard it said to me. We just didn’t express love in words when I was a kid; we expressed it through our actions. I never doubted the love my parents had for me, for I felt it through their actions and support. He couldn’t say it then, either. His response to my verbal love statement was, “You take care now.” I love you too, dad.
Love is the force that binds us together, all of us, as brothers and sisters in the human and planetary communities. Love your family, your pets, your friends, and your environment actively and constantly. Protect them all from that which would harm them. Work to renew and sustain that soul-warming feeling you have when you hold one another and together experience the rare and precious thing that is genuine and mutual love. You never know what experience might kindle it in you. This is the greatest power, the one that can solve all of our challenges, turn enemies to allies, and sustain us through the many difficulties and challenges inherent in this, our existence on this unique and irreplaceable world. Now–right now–get up and express your love in the way that is most appropriate to you. Don’t take it for granted while you have it, for then, when changes come, you’ll have only good memories…and few if any regrets. Peace be with all of you.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.