Of his early life we can only speculate.
A young man sees another beating a black dog. He angrily confronts the dog-beater who claims it is to “teach the dog.” The young man retorts that he is teaching him nothing but fear and demands possession. “You don’t know anything about dogs. Give me that dog.” And, inexplicitly, the villain does.
The next day in an online chat for mountain bikers, a curious note appears, confessing that the author has come into possession of a medium sized dog, mixed breed, and he cannot keep him. “My wife says we already have too many dogs.”
My son sees the advertisement and begins negotiating. “Ruby would like to have a stepbrother,” he argues. My daughter-in-law accedes and Rex enters their family.
His senior stepsister (“I was here first”) is a strange Labrador, skinny and high energy. Ruby is a born retriever, endlessly chasing sticks and balls and returning them, dropping them at your feet. “Fun!” she says. “Do it again.”
Rex is likely part Lab, but his physiognomy is of a Pit Bull. His psychology is one of a Pit Bull. He is desperate to be loved. He winces when you try to pet him, as if anticipating a blow. But always eager to forgive and give people more chances.
He is extraordinarily gentle around his human sister, Amy (name changed). As she grows, Rex, alone of the family dogs, will obey the three year old without question. Ruby ignores Amy, but Rex comes when she calls, sits when she tells him.
He visits our house regularly. He leans heavily against my leg, asking to be petted. He is not smart, but he is gentle and kind. He fails to understand the game of fetch, thinking it is a time to gallop randomly around the back yard, the tennis ball in his mouth. Ruby runs after him, frustrated that he doesn’t understand the basics of the game. Eventually Rex loses the ball, Ruby grabs it, runs towards me, ears flapping wildly, and drops the ball at my feet. Just as Ruby knew I would, I hit it with the racquet. Ruby is joyful. Rex is mystified.
He once saw people coming toward young Amy and, not recognizing them, placed himself between them and his human sister. He loves and wants most of all to be loved. Part of love is protection. You protect those in your pack.
There is no growl, no brandishing of the teeth and those incredible Pit Bull masseter muscles, strong enough to snap a bone. Just a careful watchfulness. “Who are you? What do you want?”
We find a newspaper account. An alcoholic woman passes out on a railroad track. The train is coming, and her dog, a Pit Bull, places himself between her and the train. She survives. He loses his left front leg, but is happy. He has been of help. We recognize Rex in the story.
Rex would give his life for those he loves.
He didn’t get the chance.
He shakes his head a lot and gets nosebleeds. His ears bother him with, the vet explains, an ear infection common to Pit Bulls.
His ear problems are treated but the nosebleeds continue.
The vet finds a mass in his nose. It is an aggressive cancer, growing rapidly and spreading. Rex is now in pain. He wheezes when he breathes. He is in more and more pain. His old habit of wincing when your hand reaches out to pet him returns.
Last night we visited him. His breathing was labored, but he struggled to his feet and sits by me. He leans solidly against my leg, and I gently stroked his throat. His morphine doesn’t stop all the pain, but he asks, “Do you love me? Do you know I love you?”
This morning I got the news that he was gone.
Social psychologists identify two somewhat opposite mindsets, prevention and promotion. The focus of a prevention mindset is to keep bad things from happening. A promotion mindset, to the contrary, aims at creating more of something.
A prevention mindset is helpful in many situations. Flying an airplane, for example, has a lot of prevention tasks: checking to see there is oil in the engine, the flaps work, the ailerons function, the elevator works. Is there actual gas in the tanks? Don’t trust the gauge! Look and see! Lindberg once said, “Flying, like the sea, is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of the least inattention or error.” The wise pilot checks everything. Prevention keeps the wise pilot alive.
Prevention argues against adopting dogs, and especially an unknown dog from an abusive background. It isn’t worth the risk.
The promotion mindset is great for inventing and creating. “Done is better than perfect” is the cry of the promotion-minded person. Let’s try it and see. The promotion mindset embraces risk. Adopt a strange dog? Well, if you were a dog who had been beaten, would you want a loving and adventurous family to adopt you? Maybe the Golden Rule is promotion-focused.
Today there will be a funeral. Should my son have adopted Rex? His death has saddened the whole family. We have exposed ourselves to a risk, and the risk was real. Rex left the family all too soon. How can we explain his absence to Ruby? Amy is heart-broken. What can we say?
We say that life is worth the risk. We say that without loss, love can mean nothing, for with the experience of love, one risks all. We say that we embrace the grief because we first embraced love.
We say that we are a promotion-focused family, running risks of love and life and adventure and learning, and suffering and then running those risks again. And again.
Embrace life and love, and know, with all the certainty we can know anything in this uncertain life, that there will be risk, there will be pain, there will be terrible loss.
My son has coached Amy to say, when she is in pain, “It will pass quickly.” Pain always does. Long after the pain of today has passed, our hikes with Rex, our adventures, and even our frustrating games of fetch will remain in our minds. Pain will pass quickly, and we will always have the memory of Rex, uncertain about the strangers, putting himself between them and his sister.
It is worth it.
(If you find this little report speaks to you, please share it in all the ways that one shares in our electronic world. Leave a thought below to Rex and all those creatures that suffer at our hands yet want to love us still.)