It was one of those moments you experience in both slow motion and lightning speed at the same time. I don’t know how it happened, but the glass jar disappeared from my grasp and hit the floor before I could stop it. Pickle juice and dill relish flew both before me and over my head five feet behind me! The pungent stench was immediate. Tiny flecks of pickle were everywhere.
Any other time I would have been super frustrated about it. Then the sound of spilled food would have alerted our little ombré gold and white shih tzu to help with clean up. But not this night.
Having been sick and grieving all day, I didn’t have energy left to get upset over spilled dill relish. Hours earlier on Wednesday, we held Elijah for the last time, memorizing the feeling of his silky soft hair between our fingers. His spirit was so very willing to stay with us, but his body was done. The only family dog we ever had.
Growing up, I loved animals. We had several outside dogs over the years, and one wild kitten I tried hard to tame. As an older child, I remember sitting for hours on end in the backyard at my sister’s cuddling and playing with her puppies ‘til the sun went down. I can’t explain the depth of love they made me feel, but it drew me again and again as if I couldn’t get enough.
Something shifted dramatically by adulthood. I traded my love for pets along with endless piles of laundry and clutter for neat, orderly, kempt space.
We had our firstborn, a son, whose chubby toddler face would light up at the sight of any animal. I pulled him away everywhere we encountered one, telling him not to touch, cringing at the thought of him coming in contact with something so dirty. Animals no longer fit into the sterile, tidy, near perfect environment I worked to create. What was once profound comfort and love had become repulsive.
It’s strange how I never thought my changed reaction odd. I had grown so accustomed to cleanliness that it was chosen above solace. But, why?
Several years into my twenties, I began to see a lot of things were not right within me. I barely recognized the young blonde staring back through the mirror. She simply didn’t sound or feel like the real me. And she wasn’t.
I asked God to help, to show me what had happened. He began consistently bringing up memories of the various types of verbal, sexual, and spiritual abuses I endured as a child and teen. Though very afraid at first, I had a deep feeling I needed to listen. Sometimes I questioned if I were crazy dredging up the past to see how it affected my present. Yet, the more connections God made, and the more I faced the pain with Him, the more I also remembered who I am. I chose to walk with Him through what I now refer to as a three-year head-on collision with my past.
One of the things I began to learn was some of my reasons for extreme control. It is amazing how much of our unconscious choices are driven by an attempt to right a wrong, or a lot of wrongs. As an adult with a home and family of my own to create, my wounded heart and mind were bent on never feeling out of control again. Rambunctious, dirt-rolling, potty-training, slobbery-tongued dogs didn’t fit into the path of self-preservation I’d concocted.
During that three-year head-on collision, our family suffered 3 major losses in a matter of two months. The foolish illusion that I could control everything was shattered. For my good.
The most significant and unexpected loss at the time was my precious Granny. She was my momma’s mom, my second momma, my safe place, and consistent, loving presence in our family. To help her grief-stricken daddy and her own grieving heart, my momma bought an irresistibly adorable, black and white little ball of fur, a shih tzu. That sweet furbaby worked his way into all our broken hearts, mending and bringing comfort with every snuggle. Next thing I knew, I was searching the internet for one of our own!
By Christmas that year, we had our biggest family present ever. Elijah Thomas Pickens. He was everything I prayed for and then some. Silky soft, playful personality, smart, loyal to the core, and obedient (except when he spotted a new human or furry friend, there was NO stopping him from running to greet them). He thought every person who entered our home was there to see him. He mostly only barked when he sensed something was a possible danger to us.
Our favorite game was Hide-and-Seek. And he was GOOD at it! We would exclaim, “I’m gonna get you!” And the chase was ON, running and hiding under tables and behind chairs. Eventually, he’d pick a room to hide in for a longer period. At this point, we hid on the other side of the wall near the door, asking in drawn-out fashion, “Where’s Elijahhhhhhhhh?” Nothing. We’d ask again with a higher pitch. He’d patiently wait us out another time or two. Then, “Elijahhhhhhh?” Out he came, running at lightning speed past us, landing in his bed, which was Home Base. There, he knew we couldn’t catch him.
With a houseful of kids, there was a lot of making and snacking in the kitchen. I would unconsciously say “uh-oh” when something dropped. It didn’t take long for Elijah to realize that meant free food. Every one of us adopted the practice of yelling “uh-oh!” on purpose for him to help with clean up. We even did it just because. I had to yell a little louder in his old age the last year, but somehow the rustling of the cereal or cracker bag got him up about ninety percent of the time.
The funniest “uh-oh” moment came after he lost one of his big, beautiful brown eyes: Abby dropped a piece of pepperoni as he sat staring her down while she snacked, but it fell with a soft smack to the right side of his face, his “no-eye” side. His stare was so intent he didn’t hear it, and he couldn’t see it. He never even flinched. And she caught the whole thing on video.
He was called Sweet Boy, Baby Boy, Little Brother, One-Eyed Pupper, Goober, Angel, and more, answering to every one of them. He was the extended family dog, spending Sunday afternoons hanging with us at the grandparents’ homes. It has been said that he was special, a truly good dog. He stayed ever so close when he knew we were sick or sad. Many surgeries with long weeks and months of recovery over the years, yet he never tired of comforting his humans.
Through our furry baby, God reminded me of a person I once knew. Myself. Elijah taught me, along with our kids, how to play again, to snuggle, to comfort. His presence, along with my family’s, awakened my desire to love and to be loved more deeply.
When we first got him, I prayed he’d live a long, healthy life to see all four of the kids off to college. He did that and more. God knew I needed his slower pace of old age to sit with my aching heart through the transition of empty nesting. Our favorite pastime together became soaking in the beauty and the presence of God on the back porch. After I’d poured out my best for my children for twenty-four years and didn’t quite know how to proceed with this next chapter of life, He taught me through Elijah that slow can be good.
Elijah’s loss may be significant, but his gifts are lasting.
Now what does any of this have to do with dill pickle relish, you ask? Not much, really. Except, I started to shout “uh-oh!”
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