King of Hearts
Our farm dog named Tyler lived an idyllic outdoor life as king of our property. A handsomely configured, black-and-white Australian shepherd with melt-your-heart, chocolate-brown eyes, he snubbed his castle - the fit-and-proper doghouse by the shed - and deferred to his own favorite haunt beneath a huge overgrown bush. It was cool under there, almost air conditioned - private like a cave, but also within ten seconds of the back porch and his beloved people.
Tyler was a lawyer-missionary who lived an equitable mix of justice and mercy. The gray matter behind those cocoa eyes qualified him as innately intelligent; his dog IQ surely pushed the limits of genius. Teachable and responsive, he seemed to think of himself as human. Sometimes, so did we.
Good manners came naturally to this polite creature. His body language consistently said please and thank-you, and he never grew fickle or impatient. A jaunty step and an optimistic attitude coupled to define him as a gentleman’s gentleman. There was something mystical, almost medicinal, about the sensitive, delicate brush of Tyler’s soft mouth against your hand.
This interactive dog glued himself to the family without our even knowing when or how, and the glue stuck. Tyler participated when we picked tomatoes under hot sun; captured fireflies at dusk; chased cows back inside the fence; played in snow. He joined us when we wandered along quiet, foggy roads; sang Christmas carols to neighbors; dug craters in the sand box. In it all he committed himself to us, teaching by example what it meant to love.
There was a time when we swallowed a bitter pill, when a family member was diagnosed with heart degeneration and a disability check started coming in the mail. A for-sale sign showed up on the front lawn, and we moved to a smaller, easily maintainable house three hours away. Although we still affectionately addressed him as “Puppy,” it had been almost eighteen years since Tyler first joined our family. According to his veterinarian, he was also beginning to have heart issues.
Tyler hated the imposed confinement of the new little house: the collar, the long lead rope that hog-tied his feet. There was nothing familiar about the place, no way for him to establish his bearings. He belted seal-barks when left alone in the yard, strained against the rope, and peered anxiously toward the door hoping for rescue and release.
We could hardly expect him to thrive in such concentration-camp-like confinement when he’d been free to roam on twenty-five acres all his life. The old house wasn’t selling, so one day we took him back and left him under the bush. He was ecstatic. A neighbor pledged to check on him daily, to feed and love him for us.
Prospective buyers came and went, and periodically we visited the property as well. Whenever we drove up the driveway, he recognized the car and bounded out from beneath the bush to greet us like dignitaries. His whole body shook, especially that little stump-of-a-tail, and he whimpered puppy-like whines that meant he was actually speechless with joy. He pawed our legs, an affectionate gesture requiring an equally sincere response. So we went through the ritual of licking-and-petting, yipping-and-speaking kindnesses, and re-looking eye-to-eye - reaffirming that although separation was hard, the current situation was best.
One hot July day our greeter was absent. We called until our voices grew raspy and hoarse, and hoped that perhaps he was simply wading in the creek to cool off. However, when he didn’t show up by evening, we feared the worst. Lying in bed that night, an emotional sledgehammer slammed its verdict on my heart and soul. I knew he was gone.
The next day we hung a wanted poster in the local post office window, but with little hope. The lower branches of the bush invited us to look repeatedly, but to no avail. We never saw him again, nor did we find his remains.
That was two years ago and the property still hasn’t sold. Next week we’re planning to uproot Tyler’s old bush and plant grass on his special spot. Just for old time’s sake, this afternoon I looked underneath its branches, and a sweet-sour, billboard-sized memory showed up. In my mind’s eye I cradled a soft, graying muzzle in my hands and gazed into cataract-stricken, trusting eyes overflowing with genuine adoration.
Although we abandoned Tyler to a lonely death, he was king of our hearts. His legacy of loyalty will never die.
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