The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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R. I. P. Rocky

He was a bantam weight dog with a heavy weight personality.  He was funny and exasperating; loyal and obstinate.  He loved people and hated other dogs.  He taught me that “terrier” and “territorial” come from the same root.

I’ve written about Rocky twice before.  The post on his TV-watching idiosyncrasies was very popular.  I also used him to describe our culture’s relationships to pets.    He died last Wednesday and like most pet owners, we  feel as if part of our family is gone.

It’s been coming for a while.  Eighteen months ago he had his first seizure while walking around the block.  He lost balance, feel over, and flailed his legs for a moment.  The first time I thought he had just lost his balance, but a couple of months later another seizure hit and I knew age was catching him.

Cataracts affected his sight.  He operated around the house as if he could see perfectly, but he would walk right by Aggie, a neighboring dog, and never see her.  His hearing began to fail and he no longer reacted to the AFLAC Duck on TV, nor hid in the closet during college football games.

Last fall we had our granddaughters for the weekend.  Saturday afternoon and evening Rocky hid.  Two preschoolers can create a lot of chaos, so it didn’t seem abnormal for him to stick his head under the bed.  He thought he was hiding although we could clearly see his legs.  Then I heard his breathing and realized that, as a farm dog goes under the house to die, he was going under the bed to be at peace while he slipped away.  A quick trip to the vet resulted in a diagnosis of congestive heart failure.  All you had to do was hold him as he panted and you knew what it was.  The rasping of his lungs sounded wet and labored.  Dr. Pate was on call and came in, even though he’d never seen Rocky before. Some medication relieved the worst of Rocky’s symptoms and he came home.

But he wasn’t the same.  He slept more and seemed to lose track of when he had gone outside to the bathroom.  We could no longer interpret his needs like before.  Out? Food? Water? We never seemed to know what he wanted when he pawed at us.  I’m not sure he knew, either.

Last week the seizures started daily.  Instead of just falling over, he dropped to the ground, contorted, and howled.  It was haunting and painful to watch.  Kneeling over him one morning as another struck, I prayed this would be the seizure to kill him so we wouldn’t have to make a decision about his life and death.  So he wouldn’t suffer any more.  After being perfectly  still for a minute, he struggled up and pranced into the house.  Just when you thought you knew what to do, he broke into that terrier strut.

Tuesday afternoon, through Wednesday morning, he had four seizures.  The prancing strut was temporary.  Tuesday night he never moved while sleeping.  I heard him grind his teeth early in the morning; it was the only way I knew he was still alive.

Wednesday morning we made an appointment at the vet for late afternoon, the first time available.  Rocky had another seizure on the way there, leaving no doubt we were doing the right thing. We waited our turn while Rocky quivered.   Then it was our turn.  I had a brief conversation with Dr. Dixon to say I understood why we had come. Three minutes later it was over.

Several years ago I  read a story about Sigmund Freud’s evaluation of a boy whose father had died.  Freud was shocked that the boy said he still expected his father to come through the door.  Freud thought the boy’s reaction was abnormal.

If the story is true, Freud must have never had family, or a friend, or a pet.  I find myself still expecting Rocky to bark at the doorbell, or paw my leg and tell me it’s time to go out, or kick his bowl across the floor, hoping for different food.

Absence is not felt in general, but in the particular patterns which once existed – and now are lost to us.  It is felt in those places where our lives were once entwined with the presence of another and now feels frayed. Unraveled.

With people it isn’t just that someone is gone, it is the phone call which can no longer be made, the advice which can’t be sought, the door which a father  won’t walk through again.  These moments are not part of a theory about grief; they are the concrete expressions of  our love and our lives joined to those we loved.  Even a pet.





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Joel I am so sorry for your loss. Indeed our pets are our family. I miss my Sancho, which it was my sons puppy. Sancho became mine after he joined the service. Sancho was 14 years old and had a very special smile. I had many adventures with him. If you’ve seen Marle and Me I can share with you that there were some incidents thAt I can relate. Joel thank you for sharing your story and experience. I want to say and believe that Rocky is in Heaven playing and having fun with God and has no pain any longer. Love to You and Cheri and Prayers.
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth Mercado/Hernandez

February 27, 2016

Thanks, Mary Elizabeth. I’m glad you can relate. It is good to hear from you.

That little boy of ours is growing, isn’t he?


February 27, 2016

I am so sorry. I have my 17 year old black labs ashes in a tin in my living room. There they will remain as long as I do.
Maybe he was giving you freedom to travel to see babies with our a dog sitter.
I hope you know I love you and Cherry so much. Karen


February 27, 2016

You are right about the freedom. We will miss Rocky, but it will be nice not to have to make arrangements for every time we travel or need to be gone for a long day.

You are one of my most faithful readers. We love you, too.


February 27, 2016

He was such a wonderfully silly dog with an amazing underbite. Poppy would have been so happy he brought us so much joy. I’d like to think he’s sitting on Poppy’s lap while he stuffs a pipe full of sugar barrel tobacco.

Love you.


February 27, 2016

That’s a great image. I think about the times when Rocky came to live with us and he sat and watched the door. Maybe he was hoping to smell sugar barrel as well.
Love you.


February 27, 2016

Joel, over the past twenty or so years I’ve come to realize our house pets are more than just “pets” to us. I think God must have known we’d accept them as family members and smile at their antics, take care of them like we would a child, nurse them back to health when sick, and have broken hearts and grieve for them when they died. So many of us in your congregation relate to what you’re going through and we sincerely think God accepts our prayers for your comfort just as if Rocky had been a human–which he may have been to you.

Mac Eubanks

February 27, 2016

Mac, I think pet may be an additional way that God gives us the opportunity to be better people. They are an opportunity to be kind or cruel, responsible or not. If we choose the lesser way, who is to know, except god? I think our true character shows in how we treat them.

I pray Nancy is on the mend.


February 27, 2016

What a wonderfully unintentional impact he had on your lives.


February 28, 2016

Very true. Thanks for reading, Becky.


February 28, 2016

Joel and Cherry, I am so sorry to hear about Rocky’s death. Even though we knew that he wouldn’t last much longer, that doesn’t ease the pain of the loss. I will miss him and will always remember how he would run to me, and especially to Bill, for a friendly hello and scratch on the head. I will miss seeing you and Cherry out walking him in rain, snow, heat…whatever the weather. What a loving family you provided for him. A part of the Village neighborhood is gone, leaving many to remember his exuberance and friskier days. Yes, R.I.P., Rocky.

Betty Zane Morris

February 28, 2016

I always said more people knew his name than mine. He did love you and Bill. Thanks, Betty Zane, for your comment and your kindness.


February 28, 2016

I am so sorry to read about the loss of Rocky. I know she was special to you and Cherry. Having just gone through that experience with our sweet lab, Lucy, less than a month ago, I could relate all to well to your comments about feeling as if a part of your family is gone. Pets just have a way of getting ahold of our heart strings! If you haven’t read it before, Google the poem Rainbow Bridge. It is a very sweet poem. Again, I am sorry for your loss.

Alice Clements

March 2, 2016

Joel, I am behind on my blog reading and am just now reading this. So sorry to hear about Rocky. Your words about grief are so good and true, no matter human or pet. I’ve experienced it as being so much about what will never be again and also what never got to be that I had hoped might be someday. Thank you for sharing. Prayers and love for you and Cherry.

Tara Inman

March 3, 2016

Joel, this is my first visit to your site and I went straight to Rocky’s story. We lost our little bantam Chihuahua last fall, so I can relate to what you went through. Well written account of what happened to Rocky, but threaded in there is how you felt about him, so it became a wonderful tribute to him. After we lost our dog, we thought some aspects of life would be easier, but in about two weeks we realized we couldn’t live without a dog, so now we have another little Chihuahua that fills our life. I wish the same for you.

George Harper

April 4, 2016

Thanks, George. I am sorry for the the loss of your dog. We still think about the need to walk Rocky or do something else in our day that adjusts to his schedule. But I don’t think we will get another dog. We will just love on the pets of others.

Best to you.


April 5, 2016