3: The White Dog

3: The White Dog

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles

The White Dog

I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source.

~Doris Day

My wife, Betsy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer less than a month earlier. That morning, I would be taking her to the hospital for a lumpectomy and the removal of some lymph nodes.

I’d just stepped out onto the back porch with my coffee mug to take a few deep breaths and try to stop the panic I felt. I couldn’t stop from worrying that she wouldn’t make it. Our daughter, Emily, was only two and a half at the time. We’d been married ten years and felt as if we’d known each other all our lives.

There I stood, trying to control the panic. Suddenly, I saw a dog sitting in the back yard near the east corner of the garage — a medium-sized white dog, maybe a Labrador mix. I didn’t see him enter the yard from anywhere but I’d been distracted, lost in thought, and I wouldn’t have noticed him walking in from another yard on the street.

The strange thing was the way he looked at me. He wasn’t moving and he looked steadily at me with warm brown eyes. Once our eyes connected, he dipped his head slightly and walked off toward the trees behind our garage.

I suddenly felt much calmer.

We’d only moved into our house two months before and had been concentrating on fixing it up. I didn’t know the neighbors on the street, and I certainly didn’t know who had a white Labrador or any other kind of dog. Even though it didn’t have a collar, I assumed it belonged to someone nearby.

I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, though. Somehow that dog had made me feel confident that everything would be all right.

On the way to the hospital that morning I asked Betsy, “Do you believe in totems?”

“Maybe I would,” she said, “if I knew what one was.”

“Oh. You know, messengers from the spirit world, like angels, from God. As in totem poles.”

“What messages do they bring?”

“Messages about our lives. Life, death, love, changes, hope — those sorts of things.”

“I guess God can send a message anyway he likes. Why?”

“Nothing. It’s just . . . I saw this white dog out back this morning and . . . and I just felt . . . better somehow. He was there and then he was gone but he let me know it would all be all right. Everything with you. Sounds crazy, I know.”

She smiled at me and patted my leg.

The surgery was a success and we found ourselves trying to walk steadily on this uneven path; the next step was chemotherapy. The only problem was that Betsy couldn’t take needles. The oncologists decided the best way around this was to implant a sub-cutaneous port-a-cath in her chest to administer the chemo.

And so there came another morning of another surgery and, again, my stomach kept flipping around inside me and my head felt light and tingling and I kept wanting to cry or hit something. I stepped out onto the back porch with my coffee to see the white dog sitting in the exact same spot as before, looking directly at me.

I actually wanted to ask him a question. I wanted to ask him “Why?” I wanted this dog to tell me why all of this was going on and how it would all end. The dog just sat there gazing at me and I felt instantly ashamed I’d forgotten the reassurance I’d been given before. No sooner did I remind myself of that than he turned and walked off in the same direction he’d gone earlier.

And the second surgery went just as fine as the first.

I went around the neighborhood asking people if they owned a white dog. There was one neighbor with a small white Poodle but that wasn’t my dog. No one on the street over had a white dog matching my dog either. As I’d drive around on my various errands or to work I became especially attentive to people walking dogs; but none of the dogs in the village was the white dog.

The morning of the first dose of Adriamycin I felt tired. Betsy hadn’t been sleeping well, worrying about how she would react to the chemo, and I had been up most of the night. Stepping out onto the back porch that morning I was silently praying the dog would be there; and he was.

In the same spot, with the same look in his eyes, the white dog gazed steadily across the short expanse of lawn at me and I looked back, sighed gratefully and nodded at him. He seemed to almost nod back but, I was sure, it was just that dip of the head he would do just before leaving. He started off in the same direction he always did, heading east toward the tree line.

I almost felt like crying in gratitude.

The feeling this dog gave me — that everything was going to be all right — was not a guarantee that Betsy would not die of cancer nor that we weren’t going to suffer; rather it seemed the assurance that, whatever happened, we were not going through it alone.

Betsy responded well to chemo and, when those treatments were done, she went through radiation. Months were measured in chemo treatments, trips to the oncologists and diet regimens. We found ourselves closer than we’d even been before; we talked more, took more chances, went more places, and had more fun. Nights in our house were like three kids at a sleepover as we’d play hide and seek with Emily or just dance to music in the kitchen, the three of us together.

And so a year passed and there came a morning when I was going to take Betsy to the hospital for another surgery: to have the port-a-cath removed. She was cancer free, at least for now; and I’d come to recognize that “for now” is really all any of us have.

I half expected to see the white dog that morning as I stepped out onto the back porch; but then, I also knew, I didn’t need to. He’d already delivered the message three times and, finally, I’d understood it.

~Joshua J. Mark

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