Beren spent the majority of his first year in his kennel. We got him a week after our second anniversary, in a townhouse with no backyard. I was battling depression and anxiety and often couldn’t handle his excessive Australian-Shepherd energy. He wasn’t much of a cuddler, and I got tired of trying to keep him from eating the carpet and chewing the door frame.
The baby gate we used to keep him in the kitchen fell on him when he was a few months old. And while he wasn’t injured, he stopped approaching us if we were anywhere near it—preferring to stay in the safety of his kennel. Sometimes I worried that we had made a mistake in bringing him into our family. I can still see his sad puppy face, one blue eye and one brown eye gazing at me through the wires, chin on paws, waiting for me to let him out to play.
When he was almost a year old we moved into a larger house—a yellow one-story on top of a steep hill. Within days, we saw him lie down in our presence for the very first time. All Beren needed to calm down was the nearby green pasture where he could frolic off-leash, and our growing confidence that he was past the stage of destroying every object in sight.
Beren shepherded us well over the next eight childless years. He knew where we were at all times—following us from room to room when we were home and keeping watch for us whenever we left—his paws on the windowsill in obedient anticipation. He kept watch over everyone, really. When friends left after a visit, he wouldn’t remove his gaze from the front window until they had safely gotten in their cars. If someone ever left the group while Beren was briefly outside, he would sniff everyone who remained and then go look for the missing ‘sheep.’
His vigilance extended not just to our friends, but to his toys. He whined if a tennis ball got lost under the couch, often escalating into such a ruckus that we had to get up and get it for him if we wanted any peace. Then he would turn his attention to the next lost sheep, leaving the ninety-nine safe toys to rescue the poor squeaky one that had rolled under the bed or gotten stuck behind the dresser. He would even brave approaching the “Gate of Doom” if one of his toys rolled into it, but first, he would whine at the toy for a few minutes, hoping it would rescue itself. When it became clear that his ‘sheep’ was well and truly stuck, he would lower his body close to the ground, slink forward, grab the toy, and briskly trot away from the danger.
After years of infertility, when Beren’s presence and affection were a balm to my aching heart, the baby we had prayed for for so long was born five weeks early and very small. We had worried that Beren might be aggressive or rough with the baby, but while he was sometimes overly-attentive, he quickly took on our son as the most important of his ‘sheep,’ and would sleep next to his Rock ‘n Play whenever he could.
As he gets older and closer to his life expectancy—twelve to fourteen years—I am determined to delight in everything God created this dog to be: funny, companionable, faithful, and duty-bound. I want to celebrate that he still hops up to catch a piece of ice in midair, that he vigorously whips his tattered blanket around when he’s feeling frisky, and that he always finds a place to settle down equidistant from each person in the house.
Our Court Jester
One of Beren’s roles in our family’s kingdom is as the court jester. The jester isn’t hired to make the king’s life more convenient, but to bring joy and fun to otherwise mundane activities. When we moved to Texas in 2012, we not only traveled from the East coast to the middle of the country, but also from having a close group of friends who loved our family deeply to knowing no one at all. Beren cheered us up on countless lonely evenings. He became so familiar with the end-credits music of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which we binge-watched in the absence of friends to spend time with, that he would pop up from a sound sleep upon hearing the first few notes, then walk resignedly to his crate, assuming we were headed to bed when the episode was over. When we, because of stress or distraction, deny Beren our laughter, we deny him of part of the glory of being a dog: to be the jester, the entertainer, to bring lightness into difficult moments.
More than a dozen arguments in our marriage have been defused by something funny Beren did, whether it was whimpering and kicking in his sleep as he presumably dreamed of finally catching the neighborhood birds or plopping his head in one of our laps and begging us to pay attention to him for just one small second. No matter how angry we were, sharing a laugh at our dog brought us back to ourselves and reframed the disagreement in less dramatic terms.
As our son grows older, we laugh more than ever before when our son chases Beren around, tossing his blanket at him, trying to get him to play: “Bewen, do you want yoh bwanket? Bewen! BEWEN! Get yoh bwanket!” When he giggles madly as Beren catches a ball in mid-air, we join him in marveling at the energy and coordination of this elderly dog. And as we teach our son how to be gentle and treat our dog with kindness, we are challenged to do the same.
Laughter has followed me all the days of his life.
I grieve the years when my exhaustion prevented me from enjoying Beren. We denied his canine glory when his instincts to herd and protect irritated us rather than caused us to appreciate how he was created. Of course he barked madly whenever anyone picked up the baby! He hates to be picked up, so he must have been warning us against such dangerous behavior, trying to protect his new little sheep. Of course he noses around in the kitchen to find scraps we’ve dropped. He’s following his survival instinct to find food wherever it may appear. Yes, he gets underfoot, but we haven’t trained him well enough to stay away, so our frustration at him should be placed on ourselves, instead, for not stewarding his intelligence and training him more effectively.
Looking back at all the years Beren has been apart of our family, I see that goodness and mercy, as well as laughter, have followed me all the days of Beren’s life. He always knows when I’m upset, and comforts me as best he can, with his gentle licks and quiet presence. In the worst moment of my mental illness, as I contemplated which of the knives in the dishwasher were sharp enough to “accidentally” cut my hand on, Beren sidled up to me, licked the fallen tears off my fingers, and wagged his stump of a tail. God used him to show me His care, which was enough to redirect my attention away from self-harm and toward asking for help. And in the past year of physical illness, Beren has again been a source of comfort and hope.
I don’t know whether Beren will dwell in the house of the Lord when he is gone, but the laughter he taught us is just a small taste of the eternal joy that awaits us all. We don’t think of heaven as a place full of laughter, but why not? Do we think that laughter is too silly, too ephemeral, too earthly for the presence of God? Perhaps our experiences with laughter have often been slightly ridden with guilt—the off-color remark, or the hilarious-but-biting comment at someone else’s expense. But what of the giggles we could not contain when our dog briefly got his head stuck in a large Tupperware container of goldfish crackers? I’d like to think Jesus was laughing along with us as Beren shook the container off, then raced to gobble up the crackers that had sprayed across the floor.
Cover image by Patrick Carr