(This was first posted in 2003.)
As many of you long time readers know, our family traveled as full-time musicians from 1989 to 2002, right up till the day when Sarah was diagnosed with cancer. Back in 1999, our travels took us to a church in South Carolina where Steve got to talking to a veterinarian who attended there. Steve offhandedly asked her, “Nathan keeps on saying he’d like to have a dog. Not that we’d ever get one or anything, since life on the road is a bit crazy, but in case we ever did, what kind of dog would you recommend that would adapt well to our unusual lifestyle?”
She thought for a moment and then said, “You need a Maltese.”
Steve thanked her, stored the info in the back of his mental filing cabinet and we headed off to sing in the next town on our itinerary.
A few days later, this same veterinarian called us and said, “I really feel like God wants your family to have a dog.”
I immediately started reciting to my family (and anyone else who would listen to my whining) some very good reasons why it would not work for us to have a dog on the road.
1. We lived in just 470 square feet of space, twenty-four hours a day. Where would we find room to put food/water dishes, a kennel and all the accompanying dog stuff?”
2. It wasn’t uncommon for us to spend 6-10 hours on the road in one day, cooped up in a truck. I was already home schooling a 4th grader, chasing after an active 4-year old, trading off driving the rig with my husband, doing housework, songwriting, office work, recording and performing. What were we going to do with a dog thrown into that crazy mix?
After reciting these reasons to my family I summed it all up by saying, “As long as we’re on the road, I am absolutely not in favor of our family ever owning a dog!”
Ignoring the disappointed look on Nathan’s face, I harrumphed my way out of the room and thought, “Well, I guess I made my point good and clear.”
And then the veterinarian called again.
She said again, “I really think God wants you to have a dog. In fact, I’ve found the perfect one–a teacup Maltese. He costs $500 but I feel so strongly about this that I am willing to pay for him myself.”
I thought, “Hey! Wait just one minute! We never even agreed we were getting a dog and now you’re saying you’ve found the perfect one? I don’t THINK so!”
I dug in my heels again with my last line of defense which was, ”Who usually ends up caring for a puppy once the family gets over the novelty of having it? The MOM, that’s who! We are NOT getting a dog!”
The most famous of all famous last words.
A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, we left the recording studio where we had been holed up for several days working on our latest CD. Once we got on the road we told the kids, “Oh, by the way. On our way back to Mooresville (a town in NC which was our home base at the time), we have an appointment to meet someone at a truck stop. We can’t tell you who it is, because it’s a Big Surprise.”
Well, of course Nathan and Sarah were beside themselves with anticipation, chattering excitedly and asking all sorts of questions as they waited for the unveiling of the mysterious surprise.
We parked our rig in the side parking lot of the pre-arranged meeting place; Nathan and Sarah were peering eagerly through the windows of our truck when a car pulled up right next to us and a man and a woman got out. But this was not just any ol’ man and woman, mind you. No, this particular man and woman were carrying the darlingest, teensiest, fluffiest white puppy you have ever seen. And tied jauntily around Sir Puppy’s neck was a big red bow. He was the cutest thing on the planet. And he was the Big Surprise.
Well. You should have Nathan and Sarah’s faces when they walked up to the little fella and asked with quavering hope in their voices, “Is he ours?”
They could hardly believe it was true!
It was a Christmas Eve Steve and I will never forget as we watched the kids joyfully compete for a chance to hold and hug the newest Smith family member. After Nathan finally carried him up unto our (Kenworth) truck and got settled in the back seat with him, he suddenly broke down crying–tears of pure, little boy joy.
Sarah immediately started mothering the tiny trembling ball of white fur, covering him carefully with her special blankey and singing comforting little doggie lullabies to him. And it didn’t take more than just a few moments for Nathan to declare with great authority, “His name is Snowy!”
And so it was! Full name: Snowy Studmuffin Smith. A full-fledged, bona-fide member of our traveling family.
He was wobbly and fluffy and he made all of us laugh, especially whenever he tried to climb the three steps leading up to our bedroom in the RV. He would charge up to those giant steps at intense, tiny puppy speed, full of intense, tiny puppy enthusiasm. However, he would always put on the brakes at the last possible second and squeal to an undignified halt before just standing there with the tip of his tiny nose barely visible over the over the steps, pausing in great puppy puzzlement as he pondered this insurmountable Mt. Everest in front of him. And the more he tried to climb them, the more the kids would giggle. From the very beginning, he brought us joy.
Did Snowy make our lives more complicated? You bet!
Was he sometimes a hassle and a headache? Most definitely.
Was I seeing any great reason why God wanted us to have a dog? Nope.
Now let’s fast forward to May of 2002 when Snowy’s “big sister” was diagnosed with Stage IV Neuroblastoma. Up until that time, Snowy had been Nathan’s dog, sleeping with him, hanging out with him, creating a poignant and perfect picture of that special “boy and his dog” relationship.
However, when Sarah got sick, we found out pretty quickly that our little Snowy had come to us fully equipped with a God-given compassion gene that quickly flowered into full bloom as Sarah entered her season of suffering.
When Sarah was home between chemo treatments–bald, sick, demoralized, emaciated–Snowy began crawling in to bed with her every night, attaching himself to her person as if he were a new, undiscovered appendage.
I remember countless times being sound asleep in our front bedroom when I would hear the unmistakable rattle of Snowy’s dog tags. I would look down and see him pacing worriedly back and forth, staring up our bed, and shooting us a look filled with pitiful puppy pleadings. The look basically said, “Come right this way, please. And, oh yeah, would you make it snappy?”
Then he would take off toward the RV’s back bedroom that Nathan and Sarah shared, pausing every few seconds to look over his shoulder to make sure the reinforcements he had summoned were still following. Invariably, when we arrived at Sarah’s bedside, she would be throwing up or be in some other sort of distress. What was really amazing though, was how many times Snowy would come and get Steve or me before Sarah even started throwing up. He would somehow sense, even when she was still sleeping calmly, that she was about to need help and he would alert us just in time to be there right when we were needed.
Sarah faithfully carried Snowy’s picture with her to the hospital during chemo and posted it on her wall during transplant. She told countless Snowy Stories to all her nurses and doctors and when she was at her very lowest point physically or emotionally, it took just one mention of Snowy’s name or one glimpse of his photo to bring a smile, however small and weak, to her face.
The day Sarah was discharged from the bone marrow transplant unit (after being inpatient for twenty-eight days), we headed across Durham to get moved into our temporary apartment. When we got there, who should be waiting in the parking lot to greet us but Snowy! Her doctor, knowing how much it would boost Sarah’s spirits to see him, had given her permission to spend five minutes with him.
I watched as the paleness and exhaustion on her face dissolved into the purest sort of joy. She drank in the sight of her beloved dog as she walked him on his leash around the parking lot, her weakened body only allowing her to take the smallest, slowest steps. She laughed delightedly at his antics and as her laughter pealed through the cold January air, I couldn’t help but smile. Her laughter had been such a rare sound during the weeks spent on the transplant floor and I rejoiced to the point of tears at hearing that sweet sound again, a sound inspired by the very dog I had been so determined not to own.
When we were finally given permission to leave Durham and go back home, Snowy was the first one at the door of the RV to greet Sarah when she came up the steps. She flung her arms around him, and buried her face in his fur.
Over the months that followed, Snowy continued to sense when Sarah didn’t feel well and he knew when she needed extra attention. He applied himself with great diligence to providing laughter, comfort, and just plain old companionship to his convalescing sister. They are still the best of friends, joined at the heart as a result of having weathered the most tumultuous of storms together. (To new readers: we had to put Snowy to sleep in August of 2012 after thirteen years of being a faithful family member.)
The question is: Could we have gotten through Sarah’s cancer treatment without Snowy?
Yes, I’m sure we could have.
But without him on board, our little cancer survivor would have been sad twice as often and laughed half as much. He was her buddy, her morale booster, and her smile-producer through the very worst of the worst of times.
So. Did God really want us to have a dog?
While I wasn’t convinced of that eight years ago, I have no doubt about it now. God saw the future and He knew that the Smith family was going to need an on call, tender-hearted, canine nursing companion. I’m so thankful I let my stubborn mind be changed and said yes to the arrival of the small bundle of fluff brought specifically into our lives to make our daughter’s cancer journey bearable.
I don’t know if dogs go to heaven but I do know that for one little girl at least, a little dog brought heaven to earth.