John Henry had a long tail that curled up into a little white tip on the end. Lady, a slender Labrador mix, donned a pure black coat unmarked by even a single white hair. Sport was some sort of terrier who earned her name from her four white socks. Shane was a small Shepherd-mix with a dark stripe all the way down her back. Smoky was shaped like a Bassett Hound but had long black hair streaked with enough white to evoke her name.
These are the dogs of my husband’s childhood, one spent in the countryside where the life of a dog is often foreshortened by the ragged edges of rural life–but deepened, perhaps, by the uninhibited affections of the kind only a boy and his dog know. This boy even expressed, one day, his adamant wish to marry the black-haired Lady. The boy, of course, outgrew, eventually, such canine romances. But he never outgrew the love of dogs.
That love is one of the things that drew my husband and me together, and has kept us together all these years. We have never had a serious thought of separating. We have often said that if we had, we’d stay together anyway—if only for the sake of the dogs.
Once we had a dog named Gracie. She was a brindle-colored Boxer, a color of honey-brown mingled with stripes of melted dark chocolate atop a creamy coat. Some might think that all brindle Boxers look alike, just as they think our three German Shorthaired Pointers with liver colored coats flecked with white do. (Or did, until one returned, dust to dust, too soon, reducing our speckled flock to two. What I remember most about that one now so missed is the softness of her coat, a fatal flaw by breed standards, but so heavenly to me. I can still feel it now.) “How can you tell them apart?” our visitors have always asked upon being greeted by three dark noses, twelve prancing paws, three brown eyes, and six velvet brown ears. How can you not tell the moon from the star from the sun, I wonder, as I patiently point out which one is taller, which one whiter, and which one has a too-short tail.
But Gracie graced us before this puddle of pups came along. Gracie was an only dog, hence, a prima donna, a doggie diva. (She was, incidentally, also the best dog in the world.) Gracie was the fruit of a fresher union, the canine child of a young, urban couple always on the go. And she always went with. On road trips, to my musician husband’s shows, on family vacations. We even included her in the family picture for the church directory. (Yes, we are those kind of people.) Gracie was ferocious and kind, fierce and beautiful, all at once, as terrifying and affectionate as a mobster uncle. She would lunge forward with her barrel chest, and before you could turn to get out of the way or run, lickety-split, she had already smacked you with her big muzzle and licked you in the face.
It was Gracie who one day brought forth my husband’s story of memorizing every hair on his childhood dogs, upon doing the same with her. He pored over her every feature, memorizing each swirl of hair in her coat, every dramatic wave of her brown brindles, each turn in the jagged coastline that separated honey from white from the cleft of her furrowed brow to her rock-like haunches. Without thinking twice, he found himself following that old pattern he’d established as a small boy who could not imagine anything in life more terrible than losing a dog, and so memorized every jot and tittle so that if the dog ever ran away, got lost, or was stolen, he could offer up a ready description. As if knowing everything about someone were some sort of guarantee of never losing them.
Then in the midst memorizing Gracie, he suddenly realized the superfluity of the effort, for he had overlooked the most important detail of all: Gracie had only three legs.
Such is the perfecting power of love. She really was the best dog in the world.
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is an award-winning Professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of the forthcoming Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014). Prior is a contributing writer for Christianity Today, Think Christian, and The Atlantic. Her writing has also appeared at Books and Culture, Comment, Fieldnotes, Relevant, and Salvo. She is a member of INK: A Creative Collective and the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live in rural Virginia with sundry dogs, horses, and chickens. You can read more about Gracie and Karen’s other animals in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012).
First: Photo by John Carl
Second: photo of Gracie, my husband and me that appeared in the church directory.
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