When I first met him, his name was Streaker and I didn't like him at all. Then again, at the time, I wasn't much of a "dog person" and this was, after all, a noisy, smelly ASPCA kennel in a back alley somewhere in East Harlem, NYC on a hot summer's day in 1995.
I had been hoodwinked into agreeing to take in a dog through "Boxer Rescue" -- an affiliate of the AKC national program for specific breeds of animals that are abandoned, lost, or abused. My beloved wanted a boxer, the dog of her youth, and I have always been a sucker for her Irish eyes. What was to be done?
No one was certain of his age or story, but some of the chapters could be pieced together by his behavior: He was clearly a runaway who had been on the streets for quite awhile. His mouth bore stitches from having been bitten by a squirrel or rat and his chest revealed scars gained from having jumped a barbed wire fence. "Streaker" was well deserved. Never had I seen a dog run so fast -- from a dead stop to the end of the fenced-in yard in a matter of seconds! His absolute refusal to go down stairs that even vaguely resembled a basement, his deep growl when any man in a uniform approached, and his quick response to Spanish rather English told another part of his story.
Still, he had a certain potential. He carried himself with an assured, almost aloof air, and had a certain attitude about him. When he finally sat still and members of my family fawned all over him, he picked up his head and tossed it in the opposite direction with a cavalier, "Harrumph!" He had beautiful markings and a trim, lean, muscular body with, as the kids would say, "good definition." And, those eyes! Deep, brooding, brown pools with the kind of forlorn look that are a magnet for "professional helpers." There was no doubt. This one was trouble for sure. A ruffian in a well-tailored suit.
"What will we name him?" I heard our daughter, Mia ask as I thought to myself, why is she asking that? Who made the decision that we were going to keep him? I heard her say, "I mean, 'Streaker' will not do! He's got way more class than that!" And, right then and there, I knew that this was the dog for our family. "Bogart!" I heard myself say from the other side of the yard. "His name is Bogart. Like, Humphrey Bogart. Same eyes. Same trouble." Yippee!" said Mia to a confused Bogart. "Mom named you. That means you are coming home with us, Boggie! Boggie-doggie! Yippee!"
Within the first month, I had started a list, "THINGS BOGART OWES ME," which included a door stop he had chewed, a lamp he had (very accidentally, I admit) broken, and the kitchen door he had scratched which needed to be sanded and repainted. I'm convinced that half his problem, in the beginning, was that he didn't understand English. And, he had never lived in a proper home. I suspect he had been bred for the dogfights, which are a popular if not illegal event in East Harlem. He had, no doubt, been kept in a cage in a basement somewhere. We never could get him to follow us downstairs while we did the laundry in the basement of our home. And, he HATED men in uniform!
Over the next seven years, he crept silently into my heart. And, just as silently, the deadly condition known as "cardiomyopathy" began to creep into his. As the lower chambers of his heart expanded and enlarged, they functioned less and less efficiently and he began to have "fainting spells." We thought he had adult onset diabetes but the lab tests were all negative. Finally, a major seizure prompted a visit to a canine cardiologist who said that his condition was very common among Boxers and very advanced. He gave us some medicine that, if effective, might give us "a few good months." Ten days later, Boggie died on our front steps, right after his 10 PM walk.
Since his death a few weeks ago, I have started a list, "THINGS I OWE BOGART." Boggie taught me about family -- about membership in a pack, and the responsibilities of belonging to something greater than your self. I learned that, contrary to what I had been brought up to believe about animals, I didn't "own" Boggie. Rather, I belonged to him and he to me. He was not a "pet." Rather, we were each other's treasured companion.
Boggie taught me more about justice and mercy than any of my socio-political or theological education or experience has ever given me. Bogart's powerful jaws could have snapped off a limb and yet, he never once even growled at me, despite my occasional tirades at his early antics as a puppy, or when he would occasionally sneak up onto the "forbidden territory" of the bead or sofa. Love -- not power -- was always his lead and his expectation. He obeyed not out of some dumb, blind allegiance to a rule, or because he was weak and powerless. He obeyed only because he loved and was loved. Eventually, I learned to obey his needs and wants. We tamed each other. This element of mutuality is foundational in the justice and mercy of walking humbly with God.
Finally, Boggie led me to a deeper appreciation of the mystery of my relationship with God and creation. I think what I will miss most is coming home from a long, hard day's work -- or, just a quick fifteen minute jaunt to the store -- to find Bogart absolutely beside himself with joy that I am home. His little dance of pure delight included a very strange contortion of his backside so that I could pet him -- the more vigorously the better. What if I believed that God loved, welcomed, longed to greet me as dog? Do I believe in a loving God, a God of unconditional love? Of course I do! I say the Nicene Creed every Sunday, don't I? But, I confess that I have yet to fully believe in a God who yearns to meet me as I long to be met.
I'm closer to that belief, thanks to Bogart. I have come to know that I did not choose Bogart in that long-ago, hot, smelly East Harlem kennel. Love chose us. Love decides -- what's wrong, what's right -- even when it makes no sense. Love makes a family -- and that love is strong enough to conquer the bonds of death. Bold enough to forgive -- over and over again. Courageous enough to capture the heart of an otherwise sensible woman who has dedicated her life to telling the story of the One who was Incarnate Love.
And, there he was, under my roof the whole time! Thanks, Bogart. Rest well, my sweet, sweet gentleman. Your job here on earth is done. And I, for one, am changed and transformed and will never again be the same. And, you will never be forgotten. Whenever I tell of the unconditional love of God, I'll think of you.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
200 Main Street
Chatham, NJ 07928
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