A Boy, a Black Lab, and a Father's Search for the Canine Soul
Andrew Root is assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He is the author of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (IVP, 2007). He has worked in congregations, para-church ministries and social service programs. He lives in St. Paul with his wife Kara, two children (Owen and Maisy), and their two dogs (Kirby and Kimmel). When not reading, writing, or teaching, Andy spends far too much time watching TV and movies.
"Beautifully written, touching and profound, this book makes reasonable what we already sense--that our dogs love in a way that goes much deeper than we think, and that teaches us something about what it means to be human. The Grace of Dogs, written by one of my favorite contemporary theologians, is perfect for dog lovers and those who love them. It will open your eyes to what's really going on between us and our canine family members." -Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of Accidental Saints "Like all the best writing (and theology), The Grace of Dogs comes from deep in the author's personal experience. It will make you smile, shed a tear, and nod in recognition. You'll find yourself reflecting on the most wonderful things in life... from the sincerity of a child to the wag of a black lab's tail, from the grace of dogs to the grace of God." -Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration
"Beautifully written, touching and profound, this book makes reasonable what we already sense--that our dogs love in a way that goes much deeper than we think, and that teaches us something about what it means to be human. The Grace of Dogs , written by one of my favorite contemporary theologians, is perfect for dog lovers and those who love them. It will open your eyes to what's really going on between us and our canine family members." -Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of Accidental Saints
In the bestselling tradition of Inside of a Dog and Marley & Me , a smart, illuminating, and entertaining read on why the dog-human relationship is unique--and possibly even "spiritual."
1 Kirby Leaves One afternoon in late July 2013, just weeks after his eleventh birthday, our black Lab, Kirby, wouldn''t move. All afternoon, he lay at the foot of the stairs with a pained, heavy look in his eye. That night, for the first time in family memory, he failed to make it to my son, Owen''s, room to sleep beside him. Instead, Kirby stayed on the cool bathroom floor, a place he rarely went, let alone slept. Kirby''s intermittent bad days had started nearly a year earlier, when he struggled to make it up the stairs or couldn''t summon the energy to chase tennis balls. Yet, every time before, after a day or two of exhaustion, he''d always rally enough to resume playing in the yard with our kids, then eight-year-old Owen and five-year-old Maisy. So, on this day in July, confident that Kirby''s illness was temporary, my wife, Kara, decided to take him to the vet for his next exam. Something was wrong, though. Kara labored mightily to get our slow, reluctant Lab into and out of the car. Kirby, never the kind of dog to voice displeasure, growled, groaned, and pulled on the leash before finally consenting. At the vet''s office, Kara heard the words we had dreaded ever since we first fell in love with Kirby''s floppy black ears. The vet had found a large mass in Kirby''s stomach; our dog was in terrible pain, and the end was here. The vet said he shouldn''t even be moved again. Kara''s anguish bled into her voice when she called to tell me. She was coming to pick up me and the kids so we could all be with Kirby one last time. When the four of us arrived back at the vet''s office, Kirby was lying inert on the sterile linoleum floor, his chest moving in ragged bursts. Each shallow breath was work. Owen and Maisy threw themselves onto him, wailing. Kirby mustered just enough energy to raise his chin and gently lick Maisy''s nose. Owen hugged Kirby''s neck, screaming his grief like a mother who had just lost her son--"No! No! No!" The vet entered and knelt next to Kirby, holding a syringe loaded with a medicine that would take away his pain but also his life. Owen stayed put at Kirby''s side; he refused to allow his friend to depart alone. As the vet gently inserted the needle into a spot she had shaved on Kirby''s back leg, Owen announced to the room, and perhaps to the universe, "My face will be the last thing Kirby sees." Owen rested his nose against Kirby''s, locking eyes, and I watched my son as the light in his dog''s eyes went dim. All the while, Owen kept his arms around his pal''s head, his tears wetting the muzzle of the dead dog. I couldn''t take it. I took Maisy by the hand and left the room. I had known sadness would come, but I was surprised to feel a rush of anger at the thought that Kirby would never return. I headed outdoors with my daughter to feel the grass under my feet. I''ll never forget Kirby''s death, but what I remember most about that day is what happened afterward, in that same room, between the boy and his departed dog. When Maisy and I came back inside, Kara was sitting with Owen while he petted and embraced Kirby and continued to cry. Owen knew that his best friend was gone, but he wasn''t ready to say good-bye. I watched as he quieted, stood, wiped his cheeks, and said to his mom, "I will be right back." Owen walked out to the lobby and returned with a dog treat and a paper cup he''d filled with water. Silently and purposefully, he knelt before Kirby''s body, placed the tiny dog bone on Kirby''s back, and, dipping his finger in the water, reverently made the sign of the cross on Kirby''s forehead. Then he lifted his hands to heaven like a priest at the altar, looked up, and whispered, "I love you, Kirby. Good-bye." That''s the image I can''t shake. 2 The Origins of Kirby Kirby is, to date, the most outrageous impulse buy of my life. I''m not tempted by shiny new gadgets or even those candy bars that line the checkout counter at the grocery store. But this was different. It was the summer of 2002, and Kara and I had recently moved from Los Angeles to Princeton, New Jersey. We''d left behind the jammed freeways and entertainment industry vibe of LA for Princeton''s Colonial buildings and dense air of academic importance. I had survived my introduction to Princeton Seminary''s PhD program, slogging through a grueling summer session of German. Both Kara and I grew up in suburbs of the Twin Cities, thirty minutes away from each other, but we met in grad school in Southern California. It was the late nineties. I wore mainly windpants and backward baseball caps and spent my spare time watching college hockey. Kara, with her long, dark, curly hair and combat boots, was sometimes mistaken for Alanis Morissette, and she preferred run-down coffee shops to ESPN. After months of being "safe" friends with nothing in common, a summer of Intensive Biblical Greek and awkward study sessions (that is, make-out sessions) led to us dating. A few months later, we were engaged. Both of us had grown up with hunting dogs. Kara''s was a black Lab named Mitzie who actually hunted, while mine, a Brittany spaniel named Katie, lay on the bed all day and would run away when anyone opened the front door. As our marriage began, in student housing and tiny Pasadena apartments, having a pet was not on our minds. Our life was transitional, and we never knew what would come next. As the nineties gave way to a new century, clarity began to emerge in the form of acceptance and rejection letters, and soon we were packing a U-Haul for the East Coast. In retrospect, we''d always kind of known we would get a dog; we just didn''t know when. Or that it would arrive with ice cream. One Friday evening, just before the start of fall term, we found ourselves in need of milk. So we headed off to Halo Farm, just outside Trenton, which we''d discovered had cheap, fresh milk and the bonus of amazing homemade ice cream. In the short time we''d lived in Princeton, the weekly trip to Halo Farm had become part of our routine. And on every trip, we''d noticed the sign by the side of the road: PetWorld. The last thing we needed during this season of our lives was a furry animal taking up room in our one-bedroom apartment. For some reason, though, this time around the pull was too strong. On the way home, with the floor of the car filled with cartons of milk and double chocolate ice cream, we pulled in. "Let''s just pop in for a look," we said, "just to see the puppies." Maybe we''d pet one or two. Maybe we''d ask the attendant about Labradors--we''d always wanted a Labrador--but only to get some information for the future. After all, we weren''t the kind of people who''d buy a dog at a pet store. We would do our homework and support a local breeder, and only when the time was right. At the back of the store was a cage holding a small black puppy. We peered inside at the naked pink belly of a sleeping little Lab who was panting like a fat man on a long run. I''ve seen dogs "hunt" in their sleep before--the quivering legs, the whimpering, the occasional sleep bark--but from the looks of it, this tiny guy was working an entire field filled with tennis balls or squirrels or whatever prey he had in his seven-week-old imagination. He looked exhausted, and he hadn''t even woken up! As we stood watching his tiny chest rise and fall with the rhythm of a bouncing basketball, the clerk asked if we wanted to hold him. The correct answer would have been "No, thank you. We have milk and double chocolate ice cream in the car, and we need to get home." Yet somewhere between my brain and mouth, those words turned into "That''d be great!" Fifteen minutes later, the back of our little Honda Civic was packed with bags of dog food, a kennel, and toys. An eight-pound puppy curled up nervously on Kara''s lap. As if we needed any more proof that this was a major impulse buy, the ice cream sitting on the floor of the car hadn''t even begun to melt. We debated long and hard what to name him, this overwhelming, excitable black Lab who had burrowed so suddenly into our home and hearts. The other theology nerds at Princeton had dogs named after theologians. There was a Scottie named Schleiermacher, a spaniel mix named Augustine, and a handful of "Calvins" of all shapes and sizes. So I decided to buck the trend and return to my youth for a name: Kirby Puckett, the Minnesota Twins centerfielder who won six Gold Gloves and two World Championships. For me, as a Minnesota boy who grew up in the eighties and early nineties, there was no name more revered than Kirby. It was perfect. From the beginning, Kirby the dog was a ball-catching sensation, just like his namesake. He became one of the fastest fetchers in the neighborhood, known for being able to catch a tennis ball in his mouth, no matter how hard it was thrown, without flinching. In the winter, little kids would line up to throw snowballs at his face, knowing he''d snatch every one of them. Kirby spent most of his life carrying around a yellow tennis ball, shifting it from one jowl to the other, leaving his big pink tongue hanging in the fresh air. After only a few short months, it was hard to imagine there had ever been a Kara and me without a Kirby. He had become part of us, and our lives took on a whole new shape with the added joy of his participation. It''s strange to say this now as a parent of two kids, but in a very real sense, it was Kirby who first turned us into a family. A Mind of His Own When Kirby was eight months old, I decided it was time to start taking him with me on runs. I had always wanted a dog I could jog with, and Kirby was now big and strong enough to be my partner in exercise. Since he could never get enough of playing outside, I figured he would enj