“Nobody can fully understand the meaning of love unless
he’s owned a dog. A dog can show you more honest
affection with a flick of his tail than a man can
gather through a lifetime of handshakes.
Gene Hill – The Dog Man
I just returned from the meal offered to veterans every year by the kind folks at Applebees. I go less for the food than to see the 100 or so other vets there from every era from WWII to Afghanistan. In fact, I feel a little guilty about the free food and always donate the cost of the meal to a charitable cause. Though, I am grateful to Applebees for making present and former service personnel feel valued and for bringing back a nostalgic spirit of comradery. There is a special love and respect that exists between those who served regardless of their country of origin or the job they performed. We are a sentimental lot looking for validation that our time in uniform meant something. It becomes more and more of my persona the older I get. But, already I digress–a little…
A man in his sixties wearing a black ball cap with embroidered Vietnam service medals quietly approached my table and leaned over to stroke Gander. His eyes were swollen as he told me, without looking up, that he wished he could bring his dog with him on trips and into restaurants. “I have a Boxer. And since my wife died, that dog is everything to me.”
It’s far from the first time Gander has evoked powerful feelings and memories for people around him. There was a widow in a department store who said she wished that she could have a dog in her living facility. “It’s so lonely there.”
And there was the 6’2″ muscular and intimidating retired SEAL who, two weeks ago, barreled through the lobby of the complex where I live. He had been drinking and his face told me he was mentally far away and not happy about what he had found there. Gander uncharacteristically went against his training and headed straight for the man and leaned all 65 pounds against his shins. The tension drained from his face, his voice became scratchy as he gently stroked Gander and spoke with a powerful gentleness about his canine companion of 14 years that he had just freed from the pains of age and infirmity. He went on to talk about his fears about an upcoming trip overseas and the panic attacks he was having and how he now knew what invisible wounds and suffering were and wondered out loud why more victims didn’t kill themselves. And wished his “battle buddy” was still here to help him through this.
If Gander can do this with total stranger, imagine what he does for me. I am asked a dozen times a day what job Gander performs for me. I never know how to adequately answer. “He is my best friend”, “He saved my life” are a couple of my replies. More playfully I might muse: “He is a Bodhisattva here to guide me to compassion for myself and others”… But, truly? If I were Buddhist it would be easy to believe this dog was the newest incarnation for some wise Tibetan Lama.
I read The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis when I was in high school and it helped me make sense of the myriad feelings that relationships can conjure and kept me from confusing different types of connections. And after I had accumulated a few more experiences in my life, I came to believe that there other were types of love that Lewis and the Greeks didn’t record.
Ancient Greeks had four names for love:
- Storge:”It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity.”
- Eros: Sexual love. The madness and fire that consume us and fell our ego boundaries.
- Agape: Unconditional love for others. A spiritual mandate to be kind and charitable.
- Philia: Friendship and the strong bond existing between people who share common interests or activities.
Most of us are confused about love and what is means to love someone or something. People who love their animals understand a special kind of affinity that is borne of fidelity not unlike that of soldiers who have relied on a comrade to carry them physically or emotionally through difficulty without the thought of reward. This love transcends Philia and is deeper felt and longer remembered than Storge. It is a love that knows it can never repay the other for what he has received. It is a love that knows fidelity is not required, as Lili Palmer once wrote, but that it is a mutual gift. And it is a love so powerful and positive that the receiver grieves the loss of the other, long before he has departed. Marjorie Garber said, “If you have a dog, you will most likely outlive it; to get a dog is to open yourself to profound joy and, prospectively, to equally profound sadness.”
It has been a while now since Gander entered my life. Prior to that I was being tested by the VA for heart disease because my resting pulse was routinely above 110. It now averages 80. I sleep better. And I don’t reach for the phone in the car to quiet fears or shunt an overactive imagination because his muzzle is always resting on my shifting arm. And I don’t move him, just as you don’t wake a sleeping infant for the sense of peace he provides–something I have not known for a while.
I don’t have a name for this love yet. I am still understanding it as I learn more about my new friend and earnestly work to improve the private communications we share, the ones that allow us to better care for each other. I will be writing more about those in posts to come.
When I was at my worst with panic attacks and night terrors I could not remember what it meant to be normal. When I left Freedom Service Dogs last week–I was there for Gander’s graduation–I remarked that I could not remember what life was like before Gander. And I don’t ever want to .
Here is to battle buddies past and present and their selfless sacrifices for all they hold dear.