Puppen: The “perfect” little dog who broke my heart and taught me what it means to truly love

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I’m not a father, but hope to be someday. I like to think I have a lot of love to give. I also know I’m learning what it means to truly love.

I know this because I’m learning it in the hardest, most heartbreaking way of my life. I’m learning to love and lose from a little dog named Puppen.

Her real name was Jewel, but we didn’t like it because it wasn’t a fashionable fit for our then eight-year-old Scottish/Cairn Terrier, Jack, or Captain Jack, the pirate. Jewel and Jack? The alliteration works, but we could do better.

Jack and Jill? Nah. Who names their dog, Jill? Let’s see … how about a liquor theme? Jack and Brandy? Brandi. Bingo.

We called her Brandi about a dozen times, but it felt like we did so to call her down. Brandi didn’t work because it didn’t fit. Our little tri-color (red, tan and white) Miniature Aussie deserved better. Then my wife’s mom called her “Pupdawg.”

Pupdawg. It fit. She became Pupdawg and Pupdups and Pupcake. Then, for us, she became Puppen.

And Puppen was perfect.

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Lover and leaper

She was a natural, consummate athlete. She moved with a fluid efficiency, nothing wasted. Puppen quickly revealed her love for chasing, leaping and catching Chuckit-propelled balls and, later, for frisbee fetch.

Puppen was an affectionate love-bug. She’d lean against you during car rides, snuggle sessions, afternoon naps—she was an ultra-sensitive natural therapy dog who gave as good as she got.

Her car-ride love-leaning turned my father-in-law from a cat person to a guy who rushed to our Miniature Aussie breeder to get his own Puppen—her half-brother who became his Merley.

Puppen was, paws-down, the smartest little whip of a dog I’ve ever known. She picked us at the breeder’s. While her litter mates rolled around in a big ball of furry puppy, she stood apart investigating her surroundings. Then she saw us.

Puppen made a beeline for the fence gate and stood on her hind legs to welcome me with a few well-placed whimpers and longing gazes from her soulful brown eyes. She seemed to be saying, Get me outta here and make me yours. These brothers and sisters of mine are idiots.

No training needed

My mother-in-law has complimented us more than once on how well-trained Puppen was. I had to correct her. She trained herself. Puppen was an obedient, loving, wicked-smart dog who naturally took to frisbee fetch, love leans, and so many other wonderful things that made her her.

A contractor friend reminded me of Puppen’s intelligence one day while he was building a music studio for my father-in-law. “She’s the smart one. When she watches me work, I can tell she’s thinking things through.”

Puppen would ascend to her perch of a giant red rock on the ranch to survey the situation while the three other dogs ran off barking at phantom intruders. Let the slobberheads scare up whatever it was (or wasn’t)—I’ll wait here and watch.

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Puppen & Merley

A month or so ago, Puppen was in the prime of her life—a few months shy of six and always ready to go and keep going while chasing frisbees and launching herself in the pond after well-placed ball throws.

Too much, too soon

Puppen seemed indestructible. We looked forward to many, many more years of joy with our perfect little dog. Life was wonderful. Then we were caught flat-footed the last Saturday morning in June when Puppen woke us wailing.

Her teeth were locked on the bars of her crate, eyes wide and bulging. Through tears and our worst fears, I unlocked her teeth and gently pushed her snout back through the bars. My wife pulled her out, her body limp, as she panted and drooled.

We called the vet and were told he was booked with emergencies. Emily’s parents rushed over in robes and slippers. Puppen seemed to rally, but then suffered another seizure that caused Emily’s father to collapse on the carpet next to her crying, “Oh, no, no … Pupdawg, Pupdawg.”

We carried Puppen to the truck and headed off to Reno for an emergency vet an hour and a half away. It was the longest drive of my life. As my wife tried in vain to comfort her, Puppen went through a half a dozen more seizures during which she wailed and paddled her front feet helplessly.

When we finally arrived, Puppen gave my wife one last look that may haunt her for the rest of her life. For one brief instant, she looked at her with recognition. During her fits, those piercingly intense brown eyes went blank.

prognosis: Grief

I carried Puppen into the clinic where she was whisked to the back for an IV and for what we hoped would be seizure-stopping midazolam. While waiting for the vet, we heard her screaming every ten minutes or so.

At this point, I was confident the vet would verify that Puppen had late-onset epilepsy and that it was merely a matter of getting things under control and then managing her condition with medication.

The look on his face told a different story. He knew Puppen was in deep trouble. We talked about cat scans and MRIs and taking her to Sacramento three hours away. We called Emily’s father who had spoken with his vet friend.

We discussed leaving her at the pet hospital and in good hands until Monday. Surely by then the IV and medicine would help her rally, so we could get her to another vet with advanced medical imaging capabilities. So we could fix her.

We asked to see Puppen before we decided what to do.

One look at our little pupdawg shattered all our plans and hopes.

Fear and anguish

Lying on her side with a puppy blanket covering her to the shoulders, her eyes were blank and half open. Her breathing was labored. Then she wailed and writhed. The addition of two more injections of the stronger anti-seizure medicine, phenobarbital, did nothing to help her.

The vet told us that her heart rate was dangerously low, which is not a symptom of epilepsy. He said that she probably wasn’t in pain, but was confused and frightened. Our little Puppen was a smart, sensitive little dog, and the information broke our hearts.

When her seizure ended, she panted and drooled, but when we spoke to her close, her ear flicked and she let out a faint whine of recognition.

This is when we knew that it would be an absolute mercy to deliver her and let her go. When Emily gave the word through sobs, I told a visibly relieved and wonderfully kind vet what he knew and hoped we’d choose to do.

They wheeled Puppen into a private room. We spoke to her soothingly and she whined with each word while desperately staving off yet another racking seizure. Her whines seemed far away and sadly plaintive. The vet gave us a merciful yet heartrending ten minutes or so with her.

Our words to her were of sorrow and regret that we couldn’t help her live and would miss her terribly.

Merciful release

As I watched the overdose of pentobarbital run from the plunger and into Puppen, she breathed deeply several times in a way that I can only describe as a peaceful letting go of relief. When her heart stopped forever, we sobbed in each others’ arms while the vet verified that it was done.

They wrapped her in a sheet and took an ink paw print. I carried her out to the truck through tears. We would bury her in a grove of cedars on the ranch, so that our little Jacky could join her at some point.

As I carried Puppen down the drive to the cedar grove. I cradled her little head against my neck. Through sobs, I told her I was sorry I couldn’t save my little girl. My wife braced me as we stumbled to her resting place. We’d picked her together and brought her home nearly six years before and now we were letting her go so cruelly early.

It seemed surreal and impossible that she was gone. How could such an athletic, intelligent, energetic, loving, obedient, beautiful little dog get so sick so fast? The disbelief and grief hit us like a freight train.

From sadness to fondness

Today is a week since our world was rocked. We’ve cried together and laughed with recollection of Puppen’s short, dreamy life as a ranch dog. We see her everywhere here. Somehow the memory of a little 16-inch dog casts a giant shadow everywhere we look and on our hearts.

We know time will heal us, and we’ll think of her with smiles and sadness, and later with fondness and little stabs of happiness.

Meanwhile, God is using Puppen and our love for her to tenderize our hearts toward each other and toward others. There’s nothing more clarifying than the life-color-draining grief of losing a love—even one for a dog.

My wife says the cedar grove where we buried Puppen reminds her of the Cedars of Lebanon, the Old Testament stronghold of a living, loving Lord. She says she feels like God is guarding Puppen even as he guards her heart.

Learning to truly love

I’m learning to love the one who made Puppen and who loves her more deeply than I ever could. Jesus wept for Mary and Martha as they grieved the loss of their brother, Lazarus. He wept even though he knew that day he would raise him from the dead. This is the sign of the ultimate loving and knowing heart.

I like to think that we’ll see Puppen again when God makes all things new. When he heals this broken world and knits the bones and flesh of our little pupdawg back together with a word of command and perfect love for us and his creatures.

Someday, there will be no more tears or pain or fear or seizures or heartbreak. I long for that day with a newly-softened heart that God used my little girl, Puppen, to break, so he could heal.

Looking for Clover: Our pursuit of Paradise in a wonky world—What is LOVE?

Love is a crock. I mean this in the way it’s defined in Western culture. You know what I mean. I’m talking about the sappy-sweet you-complete-me romantic sentiment that powers a billion-dollar Hollywood industry.

The longing for romantic love is a siren call of lofty proportions and a losing proposition. My wife does not complete me. I’m not half of a half-baked pink heart puzzle. And neither are you. One thing’s for sure though:

Love is a supercharged emotion. And one sure-fire attractive clover.

What does clover have to do with love? Consider clover a metaphor for happiness, fulfillment, significance, love—whatever it is that you long for that you think will make you happy. It’s something that if only you can grasp and make it yours, you’ll have found paradise.

Love is a form of clover we all look for. And if and when we find it, as hard as that seems to be, often the finding is a whole lot easier than the keeping. And finding it is only the beginning—love must be cultivated. If untended, it will grow cold and brittle.

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Love means never having to say you’re sorry. What the? Real love—not temporal infatuation or “true love” or romantic love—means always having to say you’re sorry. Love requires a humbling.

The greatest love—the kind that dies to self and cares for others—is the rare one. As rare as it gets.

The Four Loves

C.S. Lewis, in his The Four Loves, lays it out quite well. I’ve listed the English word, followed by the original Greek word in italics, and then a brief description of the four loves as follows:

Affection, Storge—love that grows from familiarity, like between family members and people who find themselves together by chance.

Friendship, Phileo—the strong bond that’s built between those who share a common interest or activity.

Romantic, Eros—no need to elaborate here, but rest assured, I will do so below.

Charity, Agape—the kind of love that perseveres regardless of circumstances. It’s the giving, sacrificial, often painful love. If we love this way, it’s because we’ve found a true clover.

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Loving supernaturally

Lewis considers charity or Agape (pronounced äˈɡäˌpā) love as the greatest love and describes the others as natural loves that are subordinate to it. He writes that God is the ultimate charitable lover. Does this mean that charity is a supernatural love? I think so.

How many times have I loved someone and showed my love by giving my time and tears without selfish motives? I can count them on one hand. Imagine a God who loves charitably every day, every minute of the day. His ability to love is as far beyond ours as he is beyond us.

And God loves lavishly. He lays everything on the line. For us, this higher love is unnatural. It goes against our broken nature. God loves us in spite of ourselves. And when we love someone God’s way, with Agape love, we give our all and expect nothing. We take big chances and are willing to suffer loss.

Affection and friendship are relatively safe loves. Romantic love, Eros, is dangerous because it’s a taking, selfish love. Romantic love is conditional and is ripped away when needs go unmet. This kind of love can be brutal and harmful because it’s overrated and misunderstood.

What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more. ~Haddaway

Romantic love

We misunderstand love because we’ve elevated precisely the wrong kind. How many rom-coms do we watch and quote dialogue from and base our dreams of romantic love upon? What of our songs? In my view, we’ve made romantic love, which is a lesser love, the greatest.

So, with that in mind, allow me to spurn the clover of romantic love and favor the others, especially charity, which I will refer hereafter as Agape, so as not confuse it with our perception of modern charity. I’m confident that affection and friendship need no defense, but in our culture, the selfless love—Agape—has been kicked to the curb.

If Agape love is rare and precious, the clover of romantic love is common and cheap. I don’t mean that loving another romantically is cheap. Come on, I’m married—I’m not about to put that live grenade in my pants.

In my view, romantic love, which often lacks commitment, is just barely above attraction and way below Agape. What I’m saying is that the search for the clover of romantic love is a wild goose chase compared to the real stuff. Love that lasts, selfless Agape, is the highest and best love.

I wish I’d read about the four loves long ago. Like when I was four. It would’ve saved me a lot of trouble. Love is an attractive clover—it can make you do and say some dumb stuff.

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Dumb love

My friend, I’ll call him Seth, claims that when it comes to (romantic) love, no woman is safe from his advances until she has said, “I do”—to another man. Seth is ultra-secretive about girls he’s into. He goes to great lengths to keep everything hush-hush. Which is funny because the girls he’s into almost always live out-of-state, even out of country. Dude, why so secretive?

Seth dates online and has been interested in girls in Canada or somewhere far away. You’d think the distance would make him feel safe enough to share his love life with his friends. Maybe he’s afraid the single ones will use his all’s-fair-in-love-and-war philosophy against him.

Seth rails against people who prefer courting. He thinks modern dating is the way to go. A mutual friend—Seth’s roommate—blames Seth’s kooky love ideas on the fact that he was home-schooled. Maybe, but I kinda think his being a minister’s kid has something to do with it, too.

Dating: The case for courting

Dating is not all it’s cracked up to be. Same for romantic love. I experienced enough of both to realize this: Dating is one pressure-packed, heart-wringing butt kicker. It’s like a promising land-mined field of clover one must navigate carefully in order to avoid blowing oneself and a love interest to smithereens.

Courting is different. I never courted, but rather wish I had. But then, I may have married young and dumb and would be sitting down to dinner tonight with eight bonnet-wearing, suspender-clad children—crops tended, fields filled with clover and horses stamping the field. Stereotype? Of course, it’s fun.

I’m glad I didn’t court, but not because I don’t believe in it. Relying on the boundaries of courting is an effective way to build genuine love based on sharing personalities, joys and values rather than bodily fluids.

And besides, had I courted young, I would’ve missed out on my wonderful wife and our little family of two dogs. Not looking for that clover anymore—I found the real thing. Suckah! Just tipped my hat to romantic love.

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Dating disaster

I don’t write this to denigrate dating, per se—my real target is the romantic love myth. Dating is merely a component. I know that one can find love by dating, but it’s a risky business.

My first date was a disaster. When I was a high school sophomore, I invited a girl I didn’t even know to get ice cream after school. I arrived at her place in my first car, a 1968 Mustang—candy-apple red, black leather interior, chrome mags and white-letter tires.

Up until the moment we drove away, I’d thought my aging Mustang was the coolest, tightest machine ever. By the time I dropped her off, my beloved pony seemed like a squeaky, lurching pile of junk. The whole experience was nerve racking—like a wreck.

Makes me wonder if my car was as embarrassed as I was. Like if it could, it would have said, what’s gotten into you, boy? We don’t need HER. Turn the radio back on and crank it—you’ll forget about my squeaks, if you don’t hear ’em. Let’s roll.

I have a high school friend who rode the exciting dating wave all the way to bed and then to the altar. He got to know his wife after building a relationship on the false intimacy of sex. Two kids and numerous legal battles later, they divorced.

I’m not saying that dating is a false clover love-hunt. It’s a crapshoot. I mean, let’s face it—on a date, everyone’s on the their best behavior. And real intimacy is developed by a whole lot more than sex.

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Love is not Paradise

Our problem is not love. It’s with our fallacy about love—that finding it is the key to happiness. In truth, it’s a seductive clover hunt that rarely leads to happiness. Here’s why:

No one can make you happy. And looking for someone to make you happy is selfish. It isn’t love—it’s loss. It’s not paradise—it’s parasitic.

If you want someone to make you happy, you have to take it out of him or her. And they out of you. So there it is—two people trying to squeeze happiness out of each other. Or worse, one emptying oneself for an emotionally grasping other.

At least in the case of two love-suckers, each will eventually realize they’re not getting what they think will make them happy, so one or both ends the relationship and moves on. But when one gives while the other takes, it can be a long sad sucky story.

“You are the answer to every prayer I’ve offered. You are a song, a dream, a whisper, and I don’t know how I could have lived without you for as long as I have.” ~ Nicholas Sparks

Spoiler alert

Here’s a spoiler: There is no such thing as a soul mate. How do I know this?

Well, for starters, there’s no ONE person in this world who’s ideally suited for you or for me. On a planet of nearly 7.5 billion souls, there are at least thousands who would be a good match for either of us.

Do you realize how arrogant I would be to think that only one person among billions could be my perfect match, my soul mate? As if my needs in a mate are that incredibly unique. Even eHarmony founder Neil Clark Warren can’t really believe this tripe.

Another reason soul mates don’t exist is because the maker of your soul is not nearly as interested in mating your soul to another as he is in you loving him back. God is not a heavenly matchmaker. He’s not Chuck Woolery looking to make a love connection for you and some other sucker.

That’s not to say that God isn’t interested in gifting you with a well-suited mate. Or that your husband or wife isn’t crazy wonderful. Don’t mistake me for a sourpuss soul mate scoffer. I love my marriage and my wife, and I love our love. But we’re not soul mates. No one is. It’s a rom-com myth.

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Love is bigger than us

Do you see how our perception of love makes love seem small? We think love is meant to be found, to be enjoyed for what it gives us. For how it makes us happy. That makes love a what-can-you-do-for-me proposition.

When we long for a soul mate, we elevate our need for love for and from another person above God’s love for us and his desire for us to love him back. The romantic love mythicized in movies, music and any other form of culture is fool’s clover. It’s not about us … with us. It never has been.

God is all about making a love connection with us. He loves you infinitely more deeply and completely than some schmuck like you or me. He wants you to love him back. If you do, maybe he’ll give you someone to love. But don’t settle.

After all, why would you settle for the gift when you can have the giver? We settle for less all the time—to our loss and God’s pain.

God’s love is the real deal and is free. A relationship with him, however, cost him infinitely more than we could ever pay—the death of his beloved son. This is how much he loves you:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” ~John 3:16

What will you do with this kind of love?

The greatest love is not a form of clover. Nor is it found in a person. It’s found in the one who created love because he is love. God is the ultimate lover and you are his love interest. He—not Tom Cruise or Renee Zellweger—can complete you.

The hassle of hugging: If I must, I do it right.

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Hugging. I’m not a natural hugger. I can count the number of times my mom hugged me on one hand. She’s not a natural hugger either.

My hugging hang-up haunted me for years. When older women hugged me, I experienced profound discomfort. I’m talking sweaty fear and blushing. And by the time I’d become a passable hugger, someone invented the side hug, and it was all the rage.

Side hugs are for chumps

I HATE side hugs. I’ve worked hard to develop my rudimentary hugging skills, and here comes this silly-safe side-hug hogwash. Perhaps it was created as an anti-predation measure for inappropriate touchers, but it’s a slap in the face to us non-pervs. Sadly, this pseudo hug has caught on like wildfire.

If a woman offers me a side hug, I say “No, thanks. It’s the real thing or nothing for me.” Or, “I’m good, thank you. I’m a married man. You know, because we men think hugs are so erotic.”

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