The exquisite Christmas package was so shiny, wrapped with perfection.My husband handed it to me, after plopping our new puppy up on the bed with us; she circled a couple of times, snuggled down and laid her head in my lap. Her tail thumped against my husband’s leg as he leaned toward me in anticipation of my opening this distinctive gift. Like all the gifts he had given me this beautiful Christmas morning, there was a tiny card attached addressed in his one-of-a-kind handwriting. Each gift was from another member of our animal family and addressed to “mama”. I opened this one and read, “To my mama, thank you for my NEW family and my NEW home, I love you, from Merry Noel Sparks, one of the few good things that remain.” Giggling, I tore open the package to reveal a music cassette; Kathy Mattea’s new release, “A FEW GOOD THINGS REMAIN”, one of our favorite songs that year. We both felt it reflected our love and so it was a personal and precious gift – from the heart of my love and of course, also from our new puppy.
Leaving our bedroom, my husband went downstairs to collect two steaming mugs of fresh hot coffee while I lay for a while among the menagerie of our critters. Purring emanated from our cluster of cats, as our puppy snoozed away in my lap. The only critter missing was our huge angora bunny, Benjamin, who was no doubt, helping my husband in the kitchen. Soon our entire household would be up. My mother in law, Lavenia, with her little Dachshund, Suzie and our human-kids, Summer and Jason. But right now, it was very quiet; our puppy cuddled all the tighter in my lap as I closed my eyes and let my thoughts drift toward how we had so recently come to have her in our lives.
It was a bitter cold Montana winter day and we were out doing a few pre-Christmas errands. One errand led us to the pet shop on the corner of Lake Elmo and Main Street. Entering the shop I noticed a large round galvanized tub -- The kind that is often used for livestock troughs. Inside the tub was a thick cushion of sawdust, a few scattered toys, bowls of puppy chow and water and peeking up out of the sawdust bed were two little black noses. The eyes of both puppies were shut tight in slumber. My husband chatting with the pet-shop owner didn’t notice when I went down on my knees to peer in at the puppies. All of a sudden, one set of ebony eyes came open and then a little mouth. The pink tongue unfurled as the thing yawned, waking its sibling. Another set of eyes looked up at me, one of which was sky-blue, like a Montana Sapphire. My husband had come up behind me by that time and we both looked down at the recently woken puppy. Not being able to stop myself, I reached in, picked up the puppy with the one blue eye, and brought her to my breast. She grunted and curled into my neck. I was in love. My husband took her from my arms and held her up, looked her straight in the eyes and for a while, didn’t say anything as this chubby canine and he connected on some level that was invisible to those who looked on. Then he turned to the shop owner and said, “So, we’ll take this one”. He handed the puppy back to me while he selected a bright pink collar and a couple other necessaries, then he paid the bill while I zipped our new puppy into my coat. After loading our new purchases into the car, we made our way onto the snow-packed street and up the hill toward our home.
It all happened so fast, and with a bit of panic I looked at my husband and said, “But…. I don’t know how to “do” dogs – I only understand how to “do” cats.” My husband smiled, reached toward my jacket and pulled it aside to reveal the face of our new charge. He said to me with such tenderness that it brought tears to my eyes, “It’s okay, hon, I know how.” I looked into my jacket at the shiny eyes and said “It’s okay – daddy knows how”. Our new puppy looked at me as if to say, “yeah, mom, I know.” To my husband I said, “So, what do we name her?”
“Well, it’s Christmas, so, we will call her Noel, Merry Noel Sparks”.
So, Merry Noel Sparks came home to live with us that day; our Christmas puppy, our gift.
In the days that followed, she “helped” me do everything around the house. She ate the gingerbread cookies off the tree and unwrapped many of the gifts that I had painstakingly decorated. A bundle of energy, she followed me everywhere. Suzy, my mother in law’s dog, taught her about the duties involved with toileting and she learned this new process like she had always known it. Suzy would lead our bunchy energetic puppy out into the backyard where Merry would do her duty and come rampaging back to the door. My mother in law, being the keeper of the door, refused to let any dog into the house without first wiping their feet and so from the time she was little she learned that she had to stop at the door before storming into the house to have herself toweled off. Another of the first things she learned was that if she so much as looked at our big Benjamin-bunny, who oftentimes had the run of the house, in any semi-threatening or even playful manner, she heard the words ‘LEAVE THE BUNNY!” She learned early on that the bunny, for her, was off-limits, and any natural tendencies inbred into her as first a canine and then an Australian Shepherd/Labrador Retriever were not to be trusted when it came to bunnies, kitties, and anything she wanted to put into her mouth without permission, including the heels of humans, pinecones, candy, hands, slippers, and the gingerbread cookies from the Christmas tree.
That was sixteen years ago. Having left Montana behind a few years ago, I strolled next to beautiful, blue-merle, elegant, mature Merry Noel Sparks, as we made our way through a quiet neighborhood in New Mexico. The moon was coming up over the Sandias, and the sky was darkening as my thoughts floated back to that time.
I reflected of some of the trails of tears I have endured and how faithfully she has been at my side. Over the course of the past sixteen years, I have, with such intense sorrow, lost so much; my husband; other loved ones, home, land, dreams, hopes, treasures, many of my other critters and my horses. I have experienced the devastation of loss, bereavement, loneliness, an absolute tearing asunder of every place of safety or security, of acceptance, unconditional love and sanctuary in such a palpable way that I have come to a place on several occasions where I have begged God to release me from this earth and let me come home. I have had to let go of things that I never dreamed I could survive without. I have found myself helpless as stone-upon-stone of my life was dismantled and spread out; completely laid bare, as all evidence of earthly or human strength was made void and useless. So many times I felt as if my world had indeed gone insane, like my dreams had died, like I had no future and no hope, like every precious and perfect thing I had loved and counted on had been lost or had faded to dust. Through it all, I sobbed buckets of tears into my Merry’s soft coat. And in awe, I watched as through the eyes of this gift, my precious Merry Noel, my King has reminded me of His unceasing love, His undying acceptance and grace, His provision and faithfulness, as my Father of Lights has come alongside me to lift me up, to help me to stand on stormy seas, to prove over and over again to me that it is His strength which is made perfect in my weakness. That He alone is capable of making all things new; that He alone has promised to restore that which the locusts have eaten and destroyed.
Merry looked up at me as we walked when she heard me whisper, “Thank you Father”. She seemed to know that she was intimately connected to what I was thinking and to the overwhelming sense of gratefulness I was awash in. She has always known. I believe that the Father whispered His plans into her puppy ear and when she looked up to find the faces of her family hovering above her, she simply took on the mantle that the Father had presented her. From that puppy plush she learned the grace and order of becoming the mature matriarch of my little New Mexico family unit which exists today. She has traveled the country with her family, and has taught us all along the way. She has weaseled her way into the hearts of so many. She has “owned” Sun Valley, Idaho, having been welcomed into banks, Coffee Shoppe’s, hotels, and movie theatres. She has been borrowed by people who want to play with a dog, or walk a dog, but who do not have a dog. She has lent herself to them with great anticipation, poise, refinement and grace, always willing to go and have a little fun, even without her mom at her side. Well behaved and always ready to romp, she is a wonder to me.
Today, sixteen years after hauling our little plump puppy into a wintry night and bringing her into our home filled with Christmas smells and music, Merry Noel Sparks has cancer. Our Gift of Christmas, Merry, and I have battled this invisible enemy for some months now. It’s a battle that in the end will win and will take Merry from my side. It’s a battle that I am ill equipped to face. And yet, in her honest grace, she continues to minister to me. She has with bravery and patience endured the perpetual trips to the veterinary oncologist and to see her regular veterinarian. She has tolerated tests, poking, prodding, and more tests. She has fought her way through horrendous nose bleeds and she and I have laid on cushions in the living room on nights when she could not get air through her nasal cavities. She has with jubilation run from the oncologist’s office with me once she was proclaimed better. We would now have to watch her to make sure that the cancer stayed in remission for the time. With the help of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, nasal sprays, and careful monitoring, she was released from more chemotherapy treatments, a process I learned had none of the side-effects for animals that it has for humans. Every two weeks, we revisit the vet to check on Merry’s progress and to monitor her breathing capabilities but the treatment has bought us some more time. I have been told by several veterinarians that despite the cancer, Merry could be a poster dog for being one of the happiest and healthiest geriatric canines they ever treated.
In the past years, she has steadily stood at our side through so many of the joys and sorrows, the storms of life, the joys and simplicity found in sunsets and car rides. The birthday and graduation celebrations of our kids, the new additions to our family, including three other dogs, horses, a couple of extra cats, and even through the passing of so many of those. She has been steady in her devotion; she has bought magic, magnetism, charisma, personality, charm, character and a kind of celebrity status to our lives and has poured out of her spirit a joy in living that is untouched by any circumstance. She has loved without condition and without measure.
Tonight I reflect upon the words of the song that so many years ago my husband gave to me as a Christmas gift, and presented to me from Merry Noel Sparks, our new puppy. I think of the words he scribbled on the little card “from Merry Noel Sparks, one of the few good things what remains”.
The last few years have been a season of loss for me, and yet, my Merry Noel, is indeed “one of the few good things that remain”, she and the lessons she has taught me about Jesus who is indeed our truest Lover; He who holds me in the palm of His hand, who sings songs of deliverance to me (Psalm 32:7) are what remain, and that is enough for me. I focus on Merry’s paws padding softly on the concrete beside me, her nails clicking against the sidewalk as we occasionally stop on our walk so that she can sniff some “majestic smell” in the night. The cancer located high in her sinus cavity causes her to wheeze much of the time. I find I am constantly aware of the sound of her breathing. Tonight, her breathing is perfect. Thankfulness explodes in my heart and the tears trickle down my cold cheeks as I hear the words play in my heart: “I heard a siren late last night, you must have felt me shiver, Shaken by a wave of fright. . . Then fear gave way to better things, like a warm summer and sweeter dreams. When living leaves my pride bruised up, I'm fragile as a feather. The storms of life just won't let up, You're like a change of weather. When dust settles on my dreams, you wash them clean. Like a warm spring rain, on a roof above. . . While the world outside my window goes insane, you’re here to remind me, a few good things remain.” (Kathy Mattea)
(Merry Noel Sparks took her last breath on earth and her first in heaven at 10:15 a.m. in the morning on January 6, 2005. She was loved so dearly, but gave of her honest spirit so completely and without condition, she has left a gapping hole behind and a legacy of what it means to love completely and to live with joy and wonder at absolutely everything.)
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