They were not human–not quite.
Yet they became part of us for ever
The Big Dogs in My Life
By Kathy Bingham, Vinton, Iowa Guideposts Magazine February, 1995
I swore I would never have a big dog in my house. When my sister and her husband first got their huge Doberman, Big Red, we all fell in love with him, especially my five-year-old daughter, Kami. I like Big Red–as long as he lived in somebody else’s house. I could imagine a fluffy little lapdog in my old age, perhaps. But not a big dog, ever. Then a terrible thing happened. Big Red was dognapped.
It was one winter day when the cold north winds swept down from Canada, across the Plains and cut through the cornfields of Iowa. My sister Dorothy looked out her back window and didn’t see Big Red in his usual spot. A few days later a package arrived with Red’s collar and a scrawled note: “Don’t bother to look for your dog. I have planned this for a long time. I’ll take good care of him, but you’ll never see him again.”
My sister and her family were just devastated, and we shared their heartache. We called the sheriff and advertised a reward in a local newspaper for Big Red’s return–no questions asked. Hardest of all, though, was trying to explain to Kami how such a thing could happen.
One night that spring my husband and I left Kami at my father’s house while we went out to dinner with friends. Later when we swung by to pick her up, expecting our usual sleepyhead child, she met us at the door all smiles. “Aunt Dorothy called,” she announced. “I said she could stop worrying because Jesus told me he was going to make the man who took Big Red feel so bad that he would bring him back.”
“You what?” I almost shouted. “Kami, it was probably just a dream.”
“It wasn’t a dream, Mommy! Big Red will be back in a week. Jesus promised.”
My husband and I exchanged uneasy glances. In a week, how would we explain to Kami why there was still no Big Red?
We had told Kami that God cared about all of her problems, hopes and dreams. We had prayed together for Big Red to come home. But Red had been missing now for six months.
It had surprised me what a hole Big Red’s loss left. We mourned him as we would a member of the family. Dorothy had originally discovered him abandoned near a busy intersection. She was recovering from surgery, and the bond that grew between her and the dog seemed to accelerate her healing and ward off post-operative blues. He had a distinctive, almost courtly personality. An exceedingly neat eater, he was always careful to pick up any morsels he spilled from his bowl. After Dorothy put in new carpet, Big Red would wait at the door for somebody to wipe his paws before he entered. No one taught him this. He had a special spot where he rested or slept, his forelegs crossed characteristically.
When it had become clear Red was gone for good, Dorothy had bought a new Doberman, a small, demure female called Mandy. She was sweet and quiet, but didn’t have the same spirit as her predecessor. We’d all moved on without Big Red– except, apparently, Kami.
Exactly one week after Kami announced Red’s imminent return, there came a knock at Dorothy’s front door. She opened it to find a nervous, sad-eyed man holding the leash. On the end was a frail, shrunken animal with its ribs protruding. “Lady,” the man said before beating a hasty retreat, “I think this dog belongs to you.”
Mystified, Dorothy invited the dog in. He wouldn’t look up at her. He hesitated at the door, then finally stepped in and trotted over to where Big Red’s old bowl stood (now filled with food for the new dog) and neatly gobbled up the contents, being careful not to leave any spilled morsels. He then went directly to Big Red’s spot and plopped down, crossing his four legs in a characteristic manner.
“Red?” Dorothy gasped, suddenly realizing why this dog had paused expectantly before coming inside. Big Red jumped up, came over to Dorothy and nuzzled her trembling hand.
That night we all gathered at Dorothy’s to marvel at Big Red’s homecoming. No one was happier or less surprised to see him than Kami, who kept his bowl filled with treats and whispered to him that she’d known all along he was coming home. And I give thanks to the Lord, who answers little girls’ prayers. Dorothy’s vet theorized that Red, miserable without his family, had been starving himself, so his abductor, feeling remorseful, brought him home rather than watch him die.
Now my sister had two Dobermans on her hands, and before long Big Red and Mandy became parents. My brother-in-law called and said, “We have a lot of people who want these dogs, but naturally were saving the biggest one for Kami.” The word biggest struck fear in my heart.
Like it or not, I allowed Big Red’s son into our home. Kami named him Brandy. My resolve never to have a big dog collapsed. We moved to a larger house with a fenced-in yard, but it soon became evident that Brandy was a people dog. He howled and cried and carried on if left outside alone for very long. He was afraid of the dark, frightened of birds and mice, petrified by loud noises. He considered everyone he met a friend for life. We actually had people come to visit our dog!
Brandy took up a lot of space in our home and in our hearts. He weighed 175 pounds when he finally stopped growing, but like his father before him he was the gentlest of giants. Late in life Brandy developed diabetes and required insulin injections. At the same time every day he went and stood next to the cabinet where we kept the injection kit, waiting patiently for his medicine. We always rewarded him with a treat when it was over, but I sometimes wondered if it wasn’t the kind words and loving pats that he really looked forward to.
When my father began suffering the ills of old age and had to enter a nursing home, the kids and I took Brandy to visit him every week. The nurses adored Brandy, and I think Dad was as happy to see him as to see us. Brandy’s big feet slipped and slid all over the linoleum as he strained at his leash to find Dad.
When he was 12, Brandy was stricken with cancer. It was a rough period for our family. Dad was frail, and we did not dare tell him that his brother was dying because they feared that Dad would give up himself. But when Brandy died the same week Avery did, I had to tell Dad about Brandy because he would wonder why the dog had stopped making his weekly visits.
Dad wept as I told him how we were each holding a paw and stroking Brandy’s sleek, satiny head as he slipped away, surrounded by his family. “If God is just,” Dad said, wiping away his tears with a bony hand, “we will see Brandy in heaven.”
My father grew weaker, and as his time neared we brought him home to be with us. I prayed almost constantly for God to ease Dad’s suffering. One morning when I went into Dad’s room he greeted me with an enormous smile. “I thought you told me Brandy died,” he demanded with a vigor to his voice I hadn’t heard in months.
“He did, Dad, about a month ago.”
“Nonsense,” he replied. “he and Avery were just here. Avery was taking Brandy for a walk in his new garden. They wanted me to come along. I said I couldn’t walk anymore, but told them to come back later and we would figure something out.”
A smile stayed on Dad’s lips as he drifted off to sleep. I had never told him about Avery’s death.
Dad had one week left, and that brief glimpse of Avery and Brandy helped him face his death peacefully.
Dad, Avery, Brandy, and Big Red–they were all gone now. But the lessons they helped me learn are replenished by their memory. Without the big dogs in my life I might never have understood quite so deeply how much the Lord cares. He is a God who is concerned about all that concerns us, his family. He is involved in every aspect of our lives. And I know without a doubt that my father is walking in God’s garden with Brandy and Big Red.
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