By Saralee Perel
Gracie, my beautiful 13-year-old shepherd/collie mix, has found her purpose.
Six years ago, when I came home from a Boston hospital after my spinal cord injury, I was wearing a huge rock-solid brace that went from my chin to the middle of my chest.
When my husband Bob helped me to our couch, Gracie hopped up to give me her usual 3 million "Yippee you're home!" kisses. But before she landed her sloppy tongue on my face, she abruptly stopped herself upon seeing my brace and, I believe, sensing my pain.
And in that instant, I was no longer her caregiver. I was in her care.
Ever since then, Gracie's reason-to-be has been to watch over me.
Although she's nearly deaf now, she feels the vibration on the floor when I get out of bed. She rouses herself from her heated doggie bed. As I head to the bathroom, she leads the way as if saying, "I'll protect you, Mom. Just stay behind me." If there is anything such as a slipper in my path, she will come to a stop, turn sideways to block me, and then wait until she's sure I've seen the obstacle.
Lately, I've been re-learning how to walk. And just recently I made my first trek to walk with her at her favorite spot - a woodland path around a pond. I used to walk there with her every day . . . before.
It was emotionally brutal seeing my old dog amble so lamely now. With her head down, she tried her best to walk a straight line, but she couldn't.
The next day something wondrous happened. Gracie remembered her calling. Renewed as if granted a second life, she became happy and purposeful in her ever-vigilant new role as "Grand Protector of My Mom."
If another dog jumps up to greet me, I fall. So, on that second day, a dog about 30 pounds bigger and many years younger than Gracie raced in my direction. Gracie, barking, "I'll get him!" moved as fast as she could to shield me. She planted her old, weak body right in front of me as a barrier.
She faced the large, spirited dog. Then she barked a loud warning, "You better stay away from my mom!" The dog tried to get around her to reach me. Gracie growled, which I have not seen her do in over 10 years, "I mean it!"
The dog backed off. Gracie has taken on 4 dogs at once, to stop them from getting to me.
You see, she has shown me something I had not known before. Gracie would give up her life for me.
A verse from the song "Mr. Bojangles" haunts me.
He spoke with tears of fifteen years
how his dog and him just traveled about.
His dog up and died.
He up and died.
After twenty years he still grieves.
Today, I said to my wise reverend friend Connie, "Do you think that having Gracie is worth the pain of losing her?"
Connie said, "Oh yes. Your sadness is so deep only because your love is so deep. What is a life without love?"
And so, I knelt on the floor next to my Gracie. "Thank you for taking care of me - for protecting me from all of the evils you think could ever come my way." I rubbed her bony hips and shoulders. "You have done a great job." I kissed her golden forehead. "I will always love you." She sighed, then fell asleep, tired from a long day of watching over me. I whispered so as not to wake her, "You are my true friend."
Copyright 2009 Saralee Perel. Permission is granted to send this to others, with attribution, but not for commercial purposes.