Friday, January 24, 2014

The Worst Dog I Ever Owned

Rumbi is the yellow lab in the foreground.
You can barely tells that her right cheek is swollen from the tumor.
Returning home from a church backpacking trip with three other fellow hikers in the truck with me, I told them of what likely was the worst day of my life. I hesitate to call it “sharing” because my intent, as ashamed of it as I may be, was not simply to share. It was, oddly enough, to brag.
While on this trip with Christian men, we prayed together, read the Bible together, and some of the men began to talk of the trials of their lives. One particularly burly young man cried for three straight nights about the fact that he was not kind to his wife and continually used harsh words and criticisms to denigrate her. He told us, often for quite long periods, many details of their personal lives and his own shortcomings. I listened in silent confusion. Why did he not simply stop being mean to his wife? Why is this a source of pain if he holds the key to his own relief? He did not know real pain, I thought but did not say—until the ride home. It was then that I told the story of my very bad day in Sudan three years earlier.
She appeared to be around nine years old. When her mother brought her to me she was sick and burning up with fever—big spleen and liver, pale and anemic conjunctiva—a classic case of malaria. I had been working in the squalid clinic for around a month straight with no breaks. Each day, parents brought their children to us stricken with malaria, convulsing with febrile seizures, and often taking their last breaths by the time we got to them. Two or three times per day we drew a small cross into our log book to indicate another death. The drugs the missionary provided us had long since stopped being effective and were even illegal to use in Kenya where he bought them. I had raised funds for the next generation medicines including some that were injectable for the children unable to swallow. The way these medicines turned some of the children around from the edge of death seemed nothing short of miraculous. This girl was very sick, but she was able to stand, talked a little, and even took a few sips of water. I gave her some of the medicines which she prompt vomited on the ground. At that time, the missionary would not let us keep the intravenous medicines in the clinic and I had used up the supplies I carried in my backpack. I decided to hike back the tent compound to get the medicines this girl needed.

As I started the seven kilometer hike back to the compound the midday sun scorched every inch of exposed skin on my body. Even by Sudanese standards, it was hot. By the time I arrived at the compound I was dehydrated and feeling weak. My wife told me to drink a bottle of water and lie down for a few minutes and I took her advice. The tent was sweltering, however, and I only stayed for half an hour or so. By that time, she also told me she had some food prepared and I ate with her and some of the other team members.
Almost two hours passed before I started the return trek to the clinic. By the time I arrived, I was hot and weak again.

The girl was dead.

Her mother had already wrapped the small body in a blanket and sat under a Shea nut tree with her daughter in her lap. She did not cry, but looked straight ahead as if she could see at a distance some important landscape or person. When I asked her if she wanted me to help her carry her daughter back to her home for burial she shook her head, no. That was the last time I took a midday break in Sudan. My lunch that day likely cost a mother her daughter's life. Even today as I write this story I feel that same old pain returning, stirring around that a part of my heart that is now almost as dead as that girl.

This was the story that I told the three men riding back to Charleston with me after the camping trip. I knew real pain, I told them. I ate and drank while a mother’s daughter died of a disease that I should have been able to cure. I told them of how I struggled to take seriously the proclamations of pain that the young man described in dealing with his wife. Mine was pain and guilt that really needed expression and healing. Then God taught me a lesson in pain, at least I think it was God.

Our children had named our yellow Labrador, Rumbi—a Shona word which means “Praise.” Three days after I returned from the camping trip, I found myself at the veterinarian’s office holding her sweet, warm face while they put her down for an incurable cancer. I grew up in rural Georgia and had owned many great dogs. She was not one of them. Sadly, I didn’t even liked her very much—smelly, willful, and a terrible retriever. She always found ways of making dog piles at just the wrong time and place and was an expert at embarrassing me, including running away from birds in the dove field in full view of the other hunters.

However, on the day we decided to end her pain I mourned for that dog like she was a child and cried as I stood in the rain in our back yard digging her grave. I broke a water pipe two feet underground and spent another hour repairing it all the while thinking of how, even after death, she had gotten me one last time.

Had my dog died before the camping trip, I likely would have broken down and shared my grief over her and my guilt for not liking her any more than I did. I may have even cried in front of the other men. Likely also, someone would have looked at me and wonder how I could weep so for a mere dog when he was experiencing real pain, pain that threatened to tear apart his marriage or alienate a child. Likely, one of the men would have driven home from the trip telling their friends that he could not identify with my pain over the death of a fourteen-year old dog that had lived a pampered life and died peacefully in my arms.

I have long since abandoned any claim to understand what God is doing and why He is doing it, but I learned a lesson during the day I spent in the rain digging a grave for my dog. We all experience pain on a sliding scale and what may appear to someone else as a lightweight burden may be just the type of thing that causes us heartache, may hit us in our most vulnerable spot, and may be a source of pain that seems unbearable when carried alone.

In Galatians chapter six, Paul admonishes us to “bear each other’s burdens.” Some burdens may appear light to our brethren, others much heavier. But they are burdens nonetheless. A strong and robust body is no guarantee of the strength to bear emotional burdens any more than a small, frail body indicates emotional weakness. I don’t like to think that God may have taken my dog’s life in order to teach me that lesson. Like all of us, I don’t like to think that God does anything bad to me at all. But the timing of my dog’s death could not have been any more precise to teach me about pain and the experience could not have been more humbling.

I know I will never hear about another person’s pain without thinking of Rumbi, the worst dog I ever owned.

Jeff Deal