My father and I shared a moment last night in the wake of our traditional, Italian, Christmas Eve seafood dinner. Like many of our “moments”, this one came following the consumption of a fair amount of alcoholic beverages: in this instance, roughly two bottles of white wine and a few glasses of brandy. As the fireplace surrendered its last flickering embers, and Bing Crosby crooned, I looked down at my dog, a Boxer named Rocky, sleeping quietly on the floor. Turning to my dad, I said, “That was one of the best decisions you ever made.”
It had been my father who had first suggested buying a Boxer back in late 1999. Like many of his “suggestions”, there was an aura of inevitability to the idea, and before long, our house was home to a rambunctious, brown pup with floppy ears and an oversized head. I hated the name my father gave him: Rocky seemed so on-the-nose and unoriginal for a “Boxer”. At first, I wasn’t a huge fan of the dog itself either. Upon meeting him for the first time during a trip home from college, my initial impression was that he was a perfect incarnation of the old warning, “Be careful what you wish for.” We had previously adopted a greyhound from a rescue shelter in Connecticut, and I had quickly learned that that dog took his “retirement” from racing quite seriously: most of his days were spent lying motionless on the floor, the promise of food at dinnertime his only motivation to ever be active. “I wish I had a dog who would play,” I would complain to my mom, time after time. Be careful what you wish for.
Rocky loved to play. Indeed, it seemed like there was never a time when he didn’t want to play. Every moment that he saw me became an occasion for displays of what appeared to be boundless joy and energy: I could not walk into the dining room without being greeted by a wild dog running at full speed around the table, attempting to coax me into chasing him before collapsing into a fit of panting. Hugs for my mom were interrupted by our new brown-haired companion, leaping impatiently at our feet. Petting him was out of the question: he would continually move his head back and forth, trying mischieviously to nip at my fingers; there was simply no off switch on this dog. “You always said you wanted a dog who would play,” my mom would remind me.
Because I spent most of those early years in Massachusetts, attending the College of the Holy Cross, it was a long time before Rocky and I bonded. He wriggled his way into the hearts of my parents much sooner. At the time, both of them were working in Stamford, Connecticut, running their own drycleaners. The workload was abysmal, requiring both of them to be on their feet for long hours, laboring in brutally hot temperatures. After a few years, my mother’s health started suffering due to the stress of the job and she began dreading going to work each day. My father decided to start bringing Rocky to the store each morning, and a little pen was set up near my mother’s station at the cash register. Suddenly, she had a companion, a lovable little ball of energy who adored any and all attention directed his way. While my mom was still not a fan of the drycleaning business, the days started going by a little faster. My dad often remarks that Rocky saved my mother’s life.
After graduating in 2003, I returned home to live with my parents. By that time, Rocky was a full-grown, regal-looking Boxer, big and muscular, his once floppy ears pointed and standing at attention. While he was still incredibly exuberant and active, he had toned it down a bit since his days as a puppy. Not only would he now allow me to pet him without too much trouble, he would often sit by my side, put his head in my lap and encourage it. After a long day at work, it was always nice to be greeted by Rocky’s enthusiastic sprints around the table; it was as if I had been gone for weeks, rather than a few hours. I think the moment I remember really falling in love with him was the day my mom told me that he had become familiar with the noise of the Metro North train I took home from Manhattan, and had started standing by the front window each night to await my arrival.
We learned more of Rocky’s quirks and endearing traits as the years progressed: He continued to react to hugs between my mom and me with what can only be described as jealousy, and he was now big enough that he could actually leap up and insert himself between us. He also established himself as a huge fan of birthday celebrations: much to our delight, he was smart enough to understand that presents on the dining room table meant cake later on in the night. He would display visible excitement as everything was prepared, and would put his front paws onto a chair and lean onto the kitchen table as the cake was lit and presented, helping the lucky recipient blow out the candles. My mother was always nice enough to give him a small slice for his efforts, which he would consume in seconds.
I eventually came to realize that Rocky was exactly the type of pet that I had been hoping for my whole life: We had always had animals in our house, from dogs to cats to rabbits, and so many of them had acted disinterested or shy. Rocky adored us all and he wanted to be around us as much as possible. He could never get enough attention. What I saw over time was that this dog had granted us each his unconditional love.
As I made my way along the winding path to adulthood, it was so wonderful to have him as a friend by my side. There was something comforting about his constant affection; he was always there, no matter how bad things might be in other areas of my life. I screwed up something important at work? Rocky was there to greet me when I got home. I got into an argument with a friend? Rocky would lay next to me while I sat in the living room. I was depressed over a breakup? Rocky would put his front paws on my lap and invite me to scratch his neck. He would always remind me that no matter how many mistakes I might make, I was still a good person on the inside; I still had this dog who loved me no matter what.
I took another step along the path to adulthood this past June: I finally moved out of my parents’ house into my own apartment in Queens. While I have enjoyed the freedom that this has brought me, there is one thing that makes me very sad: leaving Rocky behind. Obviously, I love my parents, and I miss them both very much when they’re not around, but they have the capacity to understand why I left. They can comprehend that I needed to become independent and act as my own man. Rocky does not have the benefit of such reasoning. I feel guilty sometimes because I imagine the confusion he’s felt over the last few months, as his friend, the guy he continues to wait for by the window each night, has stopped coming around on a regular basis. I worry that I’ve broken his heart.
Rocky is now 11 years old, 77 in those mythic dog years, and the age is beginning to show. My dad put it in perspective last night: “When we got him,” he said, “I was the old man, and he was the baby. Now he’s the old man.”
“You’re still pretty old, Dad,” I responded, but I understood his point. The brown on Rocky’s face is slowly becoming more and more grey. His eyes have been clouded by cataracts, and his hearing is starting to go. I didn’t realize how bad the latter had gotten until this morning, when my family came home from church. Until not too long ago, our trip up the front steps after even the shortest excursion outside of the house would be met with loud barks of excitement, a happy dog bobbing up and down in the front window, relieved at our return. This afternoon, we made it all the way into the house to find Rocky fast asleep on the dining room floor, unaware of our presence. It wasn’t until my father knelt down and stroked his stomach that he jolted awake and began his usual, frenzied greeting.
I see Rocky get older and more frail each time I come home to visit, and it breaks my heart. I know that at his age, we probably don’t have much time left with him. My eyes tear up when I think that this might be the last Christmas we get to enjoy with him. He has meant so much to my parents, my brother and me; he has become much more than just a dog, or a pet: he has become a member of our family. The love that he has shown has touched me on a deeper level than I could have ever imagined back in the fall of 1999, and I will never forget him when he’s gone.
It is one of the tragic facts of life that all of the earthly joys we experience, no matter how meaningful or profound, are in the end, fleeting. The individuals who come into our lives, individuals who we care for and who show us affection, will leave us someday, if we do not leave them first. I look at Rocky slowly fading away and I realize how hard this will be for me to accept as the years go on. I have been so blessed during my life to have had such a wonderful family, and the thought of living without the love of my mother or my father is heart-wrenching to comprehend. And yet, I know deep-down that it is a reality I will have to face one day.
So what, then, is the meaning of our lives? Are we simply destined to experience incessant sorrow, interrupted by temporary moments of happiness, before our own existence is forever extinguished? Or is there something deeper that we can hold onto? While I do not deign myself worthy of solving the riddle of life’s meaning, I can tell you where I find meaning in my own life: in the promises offered by the man whose birth we have just finished celebrating.
I have definitely not been a model Christian. I have long been a Christmas and Easter churchgoer, and I have certainly made my share of mistakes with regard to my treatment of friends and family over the years. And yet, I feel as though the older I get, the stronger my bond with Christ becomes. I believe it’s because I’m becoming more cognizant of my own mortality, and that of those around me. The thought that this life, this eye-blink in the grand temporal scheme, is all there is and ever will be is an incredibly depressing, terrifying thought. I find solace in believing that we are all a part of something much greater.
Clearly, we will never know for sure what lies beyond this realm of existence during our lifetimes. If we had a definitive answer about the veracity of God’s actuality, there would be no need for “faith”, the belief in the things for which we lack concrete evidence. And yet, we also do not have definitive proof of God’s absence. Science can take us to the point of the Big Bang, but it can go no further; it cannot describe what preceded the origin of life, or what set it in motion. Thus, I would argue, we are each presented with a choice: On the one hand, we can believe that we are simply a collection of molecules, brought together through a series of accidents, leading lives without an overarching purpose, before we simply cease to exist.
Or we can find sustenance in the promises offered by religion. As Christians, we can believe that the stories of Jesus are true. We can believe that there is a Creator who made us in his image, who built a universe and did not recede from it, and who placed human beings at its center. We can believe that he has put us here with a purpose, to live good lives as compassionate human beings, using the gifts he has granted us to better the world for those around us. We can believe that he sent his only Son to guide us, so that one day we might experience an eternal reward in Heaven. We can believe that there is hope after the tragedy, that those who have been torn from us are those with whom we will one day be reunited. We can believe in a God who loves us unconditionally, a God who is always there to offer comfort when we are scared, or sad, or hurt, a God whose unending devotion we can gleam through the affection of our family, our loved ones, and our friends… or in the expectant gaze of an excited Boxer, waiting by the window for our return.
I, for one, choose the latter.
Merry Christmas to you all.