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A Shared Life of Wrestling, Growth, and Discovery

Randy, My "Best Friend"?

The following is a piece I wrote for our writing group that met on 4/12/16.  The topic: Animals

When I was in my early twenties I had a beautiful golden retriever named Randy. I was just out of college and living on my own and got Randy because a friend of mine said, “Gary, a dog would be ‘good for you.’”

“Good for me”? You have got to be kidding! I was an independent kind of guy with things to do and  much to learn. I had a job that was all consuming. I had become active in a local Lutheran church where I taught an adult bible class and served on several important committees. I was enrolled in night school, taking courses in business to round out my engineering degree. Where was Randy to fit into my very busy life? All I could say was, “Yikes, what have I done to myself bringing this ‘foreign creature’ into my life!”

From the very beginning Randy was a nuisance to me and to my oh-so-busy and important life. Every morning taking him out for his business, no matter the weather – what a senseless pain. Having to feed and water him. Having to worry that if I stayed out too late he might “do his business” on my living room floor. When I came home, he greeted me so warmly that guilt arose in me for not having been with him much at all that day. This life with Randy was truly crazy making.

So what was the “Up side” to this new experience in my life? There was absolutely none as far as I could tell. My “new life with Randy” for the first several months was nothing but a huge inconvenience. I’m not sure why I didn’t take him back to the shelter, or perhaps give him to my friend who thought Randy would be “good for me.”

Then I came down with a cold. It was a bad cold that kept me home for two whole days. This being home was new for me – I was rarely incapacitated by illness. And this was before social media or even email – there was no really stimulating outlet for my brain while at home. This “being home” was made tolerable only by my feeling so lousy. “Being home with Randy,” well that was a real pain just adding to my lousiness – sick with fever and going out in cold so Randy could be Randy!

As I said, I was home with Randy for two whole days! As I got better I gradually began to realize that we, Randy and I, were total strangers. Or rather he was a stranger to me as he simply stared at me while I was sitting on the couch wheezing and coughing. I would ask myself, “Who is this creature Randy? Does he know me on a level I do not realize? This seems bizarre, but I say this because he seems to like me around.  I somehow am not as much of a stranger to him as he is to me.”

But Randy’s experience of my two-day cold was different from mine. As we were there together alone, Randy, seemed to be in his glory in a way. And I just didn’t get it. I was perplexed. What was going on here? How could he have been so seemingly happy just being in the same apartment with me when I gave so little to him? Being sick, I was not aware of much of this interaction with Randy, but by the end of the second day when I was feeling some better I realized that something strange and new to me in my relationship with this dog was going on.

On the third day I was better enough to get back to my familiar life: work, and more work. It was so great to be back among people, ideas, challenges, engaging conversation, and problem solving. And I had a critical meeting at church that first night. “Damn it! I have to go home first and let Randy out.” I realized he was already back to being nothing but a huge inconvenience to me.

But over the next six months I became more used to Randy’s being around. I came to realize that I was the most important thing in Randy’s life! This wasn’t only because I fed him and walked him but rather because, for reasons I had yet to understand, he just liked being with me. With Randy I was valued as simply a “warm body” in the room with him. He cared not at all about my intellect, my important roles of responsibility at the office or at church, or my performance. What Randy saw was that all of these key areas of my life were simply distractions that took me away from him – and he seemed to love me enough not to resent my priorities that took me away. He would take whatever I gave. All this “relating” was new to me, not part of my life experience up to then.

Randy was with me but six years. In that time I sensed that he had affected me a great deal. I would come to see that he softened me, that he taught me to slow down and relax, even to play a bit, and, yes, to just enjoy being around him the way he seemed to enjoy being around me. Gradually my self-importance around the office, church, and in my career lessened. Unbelievably to me, I came to look forward to coming home to Randy. In some ways he had gone from being “a huge inconvenience” to, dare I say, the “most meaningful aspect of my life”? Well, at least one of the most meaningful aspects of my life. Strange, but with Randy at my side, my job, my education, and my responsibilities were no longer quite as important to me.

Randy’s significance to me hit me hard when, after six years, I realized he had developed some brain disorder that could not be cured. The vet and I wrestled with what to do, and it seemed obvious that the best plan, the only humane plan, for Randy and me would be to put him down.

While this decision seemed so logical (and of course I was always great at doing the logical thing), when I came home from the vet’s to an empty house I was shocked. Home was just not the same without Randy. I walked around in a daze for several days. But the impact was strongest when I buried him and placed his empty collar on the mantle. I caught myself tearing up. This, too, was new to me. I had not been the teary kind of guy, and here I am uncontrollably crying over Randy’s absence – merely a dog’s absence.

As the weeks went on following Randy’s death I came to realize that, against my will, I had been somehow transformed. Is “transformed” the correct word? I’m not sure, but I did realize that after six years with Randy I was somehow both more human and more alive.  And this human aliveness had nothing to do with my job, my church, my education, or my career. It had so much more to do with who I had become, with my capacity to cry, perhaps even to love!

But in retrospect there were downsides to all of this transformative life with Randy. First, why did this experience with Randy not come when I was, say, 13 or even 6 instead of 23? I feel I missed out on so much of a truly meaningful life in those critical and formative years by not having developed in my more messy human side, a side with deeper emotional connections to life and to the people and world around me.

But there is another downside in this saga with Randy. I am writing this piece in my seventies. This second downside is that Randy never existed. I am simply imagining what my life might have been if he had been injected, unwelcomed as he would have been, into my life at some point. What I might have learned from “Randy” I am just now learning from my relationships with Pat and others. And I am a slow learner in these new human areas of emotion, closeness, intimacy, and connection. At least I am aware of what I missed even if I am not, even now, willing to get a real live Randy for my life of further development and pleasure!  Bye, bye, “Randy.”  “Woof! Woof!” I hear in response. I smile in affection.

Shared in love, Gary

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Gary Vollbracht