Beth looked at the frilly pink ruffles surrounding her and felt as if she were sinking in a satin box of Valentine chocolates. Hers was the fancy kind of canopy bed most girls could only dream about, yet it meant nothing to Beth.
Not that she was a silly, spoiled girl. On the contrary, Beth spent her days and nights in the downy linens because she was very sick. Doctors came to call, poked and prodded with their cruel instruments, yet none could help her get better. Her parents simply shook their heads, brought in more doctors and surrounded her with even more velvety cushions.
But no amount of lace or bows could make Beth happy. A pillow can’t listen to your hopes and dreams. A pretty blanket, no matter how soft, can’t laugh with you or hold your hand when you cry. So, Beth found someone else she could talk to…God. Whenever she felt alone, which was quite often, Beth talked to God. She told Him all her thoughts and feelings. Sometimes she even wrote them down.
One night, after a terrible day of coughing and wheezing, Beth wondered if she might actually die right there under her frilly covers. Alone. This thought frightened her more than any other. So, she wrote God a letter telling Him her feelings about this particular subject.
The next morning, when Beth opened sleepy eyes, she saw her mother holding the letter with trembling hands.
A Thought for a Lonely Death-Bed
If God compel thee to this destiny,
To die alone, with none beside thy bed…
Pray then alone, ‘O Christ, come tenderly!*
The simple words seemed to cause quite a stir in the household. Later that evening, her parents stood at the foot of her canopy bed.
“Beth, we read your poem. Honestly, we’re worried.”
Beth squirmed underneath the pink coverlet.
“We don’t want you to be lonely, so we bought you a friend, a companion.”
Beth wondered what they could possibly mean.
“His name is Flush.”
Suddenly Beth found herself face to face with a little red spaniel, standing among her frills and ruffles.
“What do you think, sweetheart?”
Beth remained silent. A normal girl would have squealed with excitement, but she was hardly normal. She was sickly and pale, confined to her fancy bed. She couldn’t throw a ball for this dog or run and play with it in the woods.
“Um…he’s cute.” His fur was the exact color of a shiny copper penny and he had the loveliest wavy ears Beth had ever seen on a dog.
She reluctantly patted the ruby pup on the head. He licked her fingers and wagged his stubby tail.
Had Beth had a tail, it wouldn’t have wagged. She was worried. There was no way this dog could ever love her. It was a Cocker Spaniel. Cockers were meant to run in muddy fields, chase birds and dance in happy circles. What could one ever like about a girl like her?
Beth closed her eyes and prayed. Please God, let Flush go. Let him run out the door and find a new girl. A healthy one who can play with him and make him happy.
Beth talked to God for a very long time that night, pleading with Him to take the dog away before she began to love him in a way he could never love her back. She fell asleep with tears running in rivers down her cheeks and her frail hand resting on Flush’s head, as though she were blessing him.
But when Beth awoke early the next morning, Flush was snuggled beside her, his body softly rising and falling beneath her delicate fingers. He remained there all day, and the day after that, and the day after that, until Beth could no longer imagine her silky pillows without him nestled among them. She thanked God every day for ignoring her pleas to take Flush away. It seemed He knew exactly what she needed all along.
Beth wrote a new letter and hid it beneath her pillow. This one was just for her and God…and Flush.
To Flush, My Dog
…of thee it shall be said,
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night, unweary,
Watched within a curtained room
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary…
Therefore to this dog will I,
Tenderly not scornfully,
Render praise and favor;
With my hand upon his head,
Is my benediction said
Therefore and for ever.**
Although she battled severe illness her entire life, Elizabeth Barrett Browning never stopped talking to God and writing down her thoughts. She died in 1861, not alone as she once feared, but cradled in the arms of her loving husband. Now, 150 years later, she is one of the best-known and widely read poets of all time.
* From the poem A Thought for a Lonely Death-Bed by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
** From the poem To Flush, My Dog by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
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