Celebrating Thanksgiving 1988, with a new dog was the last thing I wanted to do; we had four children then: ages 7, 5, 3 and 1. But Jon had seen a litter of Lab puppies, and wanted me to see them too. Not being quite so dumb as a post, I met this proposal with strenuous objections, overwhelmed by visions of doggie poop and baby poop- not to mention nocturnal walks in the snow with a shivering puppy. Jon countered with, “If you don’t like them, we don’t have to get one- but, Deb…it’s almost Christmas”.
The introductory visit magnified my pessimism: his puppy was the only one wandering outside the enclosure when we got there- and the evidence of its explorations was all over the floor. Naturally, when Jon called him, he came running. And, naturally, even as a tiny thing, he retrieved the ball of paper when it was tossed to him. At that moment, Jon saw a future full of successful duck hunts, and I saw more messes. But the deed was done, and I knew it, so I petitioned for the privilege of naming our new brown wriggler. Blaming Jon’s Irish heritage for the stubborn streak that stuck me with a new puppy, I named the dog “Finnegan”.
Although Jon bought Finn for hunting, he ended up being a family pet, the gentle dog all parents want for their kids. The fact that there was no place in his doggie brain for meanness made sense to me, when I discovered that all those neuronal pathways were devoted to mischief instead.
Finn could turn on the outside spigot with his teeth. He could climb seven stairs to the kids’ tree house and bark at the neighborhood dogs. But, perhaps the most memorable thing he did, was to invent a game which inevitably reduced Jon to silent, gasping laughter. Finn would charge at our youngest son, swerving at the last second to bump him with his shoulder. Knocked down, Tim would roar, unhurt, but furious. Goal achieved, Finn would scoot to the opposite end of the yard, to wait for the small human to stand up, and then he’d charge again. Oddly, this game did not inspire fear in Tim; he loved the crazy brown dog, in spite of being used as a bowling pin.
Most of his waking hours Finn spent with me and the kids, but he was foremost and finally, Jon’s dog. He retrieved everything his master threw, and came running whenever he called- even when that obedience deprived him of a delicious decayed morsel the buzzards had left behind. Only encounters with live raccoons or possums would keep the dog from answering a summons – except for this, he was an obedient, loving pet. He was not effusive in his loving- he rarely licked us, but Jon liked that. “It was”, he maintained, “a manly type of affection”.
Years passed, and we toted kids and pets from Wisconsin to Missouri to Mississippi. One day, someone startled our older dog awake from his slumbers, and he snapped at the perpetrator. “How odd”, I thought, “that’s not like Finnegan”. But Finn appeared apologetic for his departure from dignity, and even licked the victim, who bore no teeth-marks. Since the situation never recurred, I mentally filed it as random animal behavior, and temporarily forgot it. I should have realized that it was significant.
Soon after, on Thanksgiving Day, Finn followed his nose, and left our property. At first no one worried; we gave thanks, ate, and watched football games. Periodically, one of us would wander outside and whistle, expecting to see our brown dog come trotting up the driveway. But no dog came. Jon got concerned, and hopped in his truck to spy out the neighborhood. He came home alone, and occupied himself with other things. I whistled and watched, until I grew tired and depressed.
It began to rain in the afternoon, and by nighttime, a cold fog set in. Fidgety and anxious, I told Jon I was going to look around one last time before bed. I think I took the human bowling pin, now eleven, with me. We walked down the lane in the cool mist, not conversing, only hearing the crunch of gravel underfoot. Every once in a while, we’d whistle, wait for a familiar woof, and set off again- further into the fog. Crunch, crunch, crunch, whistle, wait. We realized it was time to give up for the night- but we decided to go just to the rise of the hill. We’d stop there and call one more time.
“Fineeee”, I yelled, “Finnegan! Where in the blue blazes are you?”
“FINNEGAN SHEHANE! GET HOME RIGHT NOW!”
“Wait. Did you hear something? Listen”.
We stood and listened and strained our eyes, and then we saw him- walking forward, then hesitating, stopping beneath a street lamp to sniff the air. I can see him now, paused, with ears forward and nose raised, inhaling clues from the moist air. “Finny!”, we called again, and he began to wag his tail. We hugged him and took him home, where he fell asleep, exhausted from his ramblings.
That holiday journey was the last adventure for Finn. We discovered that he was losing his sight, so he was kept confined and comfortable in the back yard -with his favorite pear tree. People sometimes asked us if we didn’t think it was cruel to let him live that way, and I’d point out that Finn was adjusting. He learned to navigate his environment, finding sticks and bones and tennis balls. He nosed around to find fallen pears. He lay in the afternoon sun, while little birds pulled out his excess fur. He wasted no time moping. But I grieved a little, watching him, remembering his high-jinks with kids and water and pear branches.
Finnegan died at thirteen, full of years and pears, but every Thanksgiving, I remember him as he stood in the misty lamp light, motionless and alert- a blind dog smelling the air as if his life depended on it. Finn was more alive to me in that instant than in all his years of youthful mischief.
I think of that night, when I feel lonely and restless- an alien on the earth, and remember a promise God made to apostate Israel:
” Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me, and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29: 12-13
I do have a home. We all do. But like Finn, we have to look.