The Gifts: A True Story, Part One

This is a true story about Gifts and Guidance, Letting Go...and a very special Dog.
This is Part One.  Look for Part Two in another blog entry.

I was a collie breeder for almost 25 years. Like every kid in the Fifties, I grew up watching Lassie. It was always thrilling to see Lassie come to the rescue. Yet that is not what brought the love of collies into my heart.

When I was seven, my great-grandfather went into a rest home. Every other day, we’d go to visit him, so he would not be lonely. In the room with my Great grandpa was another elderly man.

The old man had lots of exciting pictures on his wall, with all kinds of animals doing tricks. Some were even in the movies! He and his son were animal trainers. The old man was proud of the fact that his son had helped train the original "Lassie." Actually, "Lassie" was several 'boy' dogs and none were very good looking collies, but I didn’t know that.

Seeing my shy fascination, he enjoyed telling me animal stories as much as I loved hearing them. Until then, I was sure I wanted to be a ballerina, like another of great-grandpa’s friends. Now, I yearned to experience the close relationship to an animal that the old man described so vividly.

He said that they were always needing more "Lassie look-a-likes" to train and promised me a puppy from one of their upcoming litters. My family did not have any extra money to buy a dog, especially a dog that was from such a famous line. The old man winked and told me not to worry. He could not take care of his puppy in the rest home, so I could look after it for him! He showed me snapshots of the Mom and Dad and we waited eagerly for the due date.

When the pups were born, he showed me the latest pictures every week, finally circling the puppy that was to be "ours." The days went by very slowly, but when they were about six weeks old, he told me that his son was bringing "our puppy" to see us the next week.

Up early that day, Grandma drove me to the rest home. I ran in, nearly falling over my own feet in my excitement. My friend was sitting up in bed and had the smiling puppy on his knee. I slowly approached and reached my hand out, the pup wobbling toward me, with a happy yip! I held him close and stroked his soft, warm fur, marveling at his tiny perfect feet and white-tipped tail. When he washed my cheek with his pink, pink tongue, I was in heaven!

For many years, I dreamed of the gift I received that afternoon. My dreams were the only place in my life that puppy ever lived. The fantasies of a little girl took no notice of the fact that she had recently begun having life threatening allergic reactions to almost everything in her environment.
For more than five years, my parents sat up night after night with me, as I went through the painful and often disfiguring, giant hives. They threatened to cut off my airways and drove me mad with the itching and painful, burning inflammation.
Specialists were baffled at the intensity of the attacks. At that time, no one understood that I'd had a traumatic brain injury that was at the foundation of the problems I had started to have. As one Doctor later said, since I'd survived the initial injury no one had any idea for a long time how serious it really was.

Rigid allergy diets, ripping up the new wall-to-wall carpets and living with an air cleaner did not significantly help me. Of course, a puppy was out of the question. The adults had thought I understood my circumstances well enough and did not realize that I was totally serious about making that puppy mine. 

My heart was broken and it stayed broken until I grew up. I outgrew many of the worst of the all-encompassing allergies and the aid of the newest  antihistamines and consistent attention to keeping my thyroid and other endocrine glands balanced I was well enough to lead a more normal life. But I never forgot the puppy, or the old man who saw the hunger I had for that puppy.

I grew up and when I finally lived in a large enough place for a big dog, I bought what I had wanted for so long.
To this day, I can never watch a collie running toward me, or stroke the fleecy coat of a puppy without holding my breath for an instant and feeling that little catch in my throat.

My great-grandpa and the old man both died that year; the collie puppy went to another little girl. But he will always be mine in my heart.

The willing generosity of an old man and the unqualified love that I received with the wet "puppy kiss" made a lasting impression on me. It became a cascading ripple of perfect and unconditional love running through my life.
A Gift far larger and longer lived than a puppy - it became a pivotal point in my life. And over the years, I have tried to pass it on.

Once in awhile, usually in the course of my work, I will come across a stranger with whom I feel a certain kind of a connection. Maybe it is a just look in their eye, a note in their voice, or a wistful smile as they turn something over in their hands that I have or might be selling. Sometimes I feel guided to try and see if I can help them get that thing. I know that most people don't understand my motives; I know it because people give me a hard time about me giving things away. I can't and won't defend myself or define why I do this - not to someone who has never felt as I have.
I don't have a lot of money, but I don't feel poor. I know that giving things away is not a "sound" business practice, because you can't pay your bills when you do it too much. But I don't care.
When I do it, it's not a feeling of pity or of wanting to take care of someone. It's just something I feel I must do.
Actually, when I feel that strange connection, it’s not even always something that I always want to do or feel happy and excited about doing, at that moment. And it doesn’t always make sense - at least then. As inexplicable as it may sound, I receive so much more than I could ever possibly give when I let something go.

As I have grown older, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I've discovered that there are certain times and certain people, when I just "know" something is the right thing to do. Maybe that old man is watching me, urging me on . . .

One of those times involved another collie puppy.
And that the rest of this story.

At that point in my life, I had been breeding and showing working collies for many years. A few months earlier, I’d had a successful breeding that produced a big sable male puppy who looked like he was going to be everything I had hoped for. I had planned this breeding for years, and wanted to keep two of the pups from this litter for myself. I had several nice dogs, but this puppy was my pride and joy and I knew exactly what his name was going to be: Peter.

When Peter was about 14 weeks old, I got a call at 11:30pm one night, from a woman that I had never met. I was annoyed that she called so late and felt tired and impatient and told her so. She said she was looking for a big sable male puppy; it had to be sable, and it had to be male. Sable is the most popular color, due to "Lassie," and every "backyard breeder" around likes to breed them because selling even their worst sable puppies is easier than any other color.
So, I replied to the woman with a laugh: "Who isn’t looking for a sable male collie?" The only sable I had left was Peter, so I told her that I did not have any right now was not planning another breeding for at least a year. She  didn't say anything for a moment and then said, "Are you sure?"

I felt a strange feeling come over me. She went on. None of the collie breeders she had seen so far had any dogs who could herd worth a bean. In a grocery store in Phoenix, she’d spied a magazine called "Pet World." In it, she had found an ad for my kennel, and suddenly, she’d felt that God was urging her to call me–that I would know the right dog for her. With a prayer on her lips, she put her coins in a payphone and dialed me. (Yes, this was a while ago, when there used to be payphones all over!)

She was a humble woman, used to people refusing her. She was also stubborn, very patient and a devout believer that the Lord had told her that she would be provided with her sable collie. I knew of only a very few people raising collie dogs with the kind of natural working ability that my dogs had, and no one I knew would sell her one at any price, at that moment.
I hated to disappoint her, but of course there was no way that I would sell my Peter. Regretfully, but firmly, I bid her good bye and put her out of my mind.

However, it was just not that easy. I found the memory of that strange late night call creeping into my mind. By the time I got her second call, I had already gone over all of the reasons why it wasn’t my problem to help her get a dog. Why did she have to show up needing a male sable collie now? Why not last week, when I had four??!!

I felt somehow that this was not just a whim on her part, but an actual need. But the only one I had left was Peter. We had not discussed money, but I knew that she couldn’t have much money. It was not up to me to let some stranger have MY collie! My dog was worth at least fifteen hundred dollars and maybe more back then - and he was priceless to me.
I really loved Peter; I had planned for him, bred him, helped his mother whelp him and I would not let him go.

Night after night, I tossed and turned, frustrated and mad at myself for even taking her call to begin with. Nevertheless, after her third call, I reluctantly told her to come on up to my house and we would talk.

The woman showed up at my doorstep looking tired and intense. I invited her in and gave her a glass of water. She turned out to be a small, dark woman, in her late 40's, with the slightest hint of an accent. She sat down and sat up straight, as she told me her story.

Her parents had been missionaries and she’d grown up in South America and later, southern Mexico. She’d returned to the U.S. after her parents died and their church had abandoned the financial support for their mission. She went back to school in her twenties and became a teacher, but she felt restless and empty.

About fifteen years before, on a vacation, she had found a beautiful, yet remote, mountainous village about 300 miles south of the US border. She felt drawn back to the people and the land, feeling that God was telling her to make it her home. Using her small inheritance, she bought a house with a few acres and several outbuildings. She would devote her life to teaching people to read. However, she had found that this "simple task" was not so easy.

It seemed that her new neighbors, had grown tired of the steady trickle of tourists who would show up with money in their pockets, trying to buy everything they thought was quaint or interesting. They paid fees for taking photos of locals they thought looked "funny." Many let the villagers and their children know that they thought they were savages. The village needed the small cash flow, but they bitterly resented the "holier-than-thou" Americans. The woman was not like that, but no one had seemed willing to give her a chance to show them.

Hoping to make a difference in the quality of the local people’s lives with her knowledge and skills, she started a small school for the children. But, their parents were suspicious of the woman and the children would rather be outside in the sun and wind than stuck inside, with dusty smelling books. She planted a garden and bought some livestock, hoping to share her food and meat, but the proud villagers refused her offerings with a polite smile, but without a word. She was and would remain, it seemed, an outsider.

One day, a year or so after her move, she made one of her infrequent trips back into the U.S., to visit an old friend. She told her of the frustration, loneliness and daily difficulties she faced in her adopted home. Lately, it was so discouraging that she was ready to give up and move back to the States. She felt that the Lord was asking her to give it another try. Hearing the description of her old friend’s daily life, her simple faith struck the friend. She was moved by the unrelenting, struggle and loneliness of the woman’s life.

As they caught up with each other, a thought entered the friend’s mind, accompanied by a strong rush of excitement. She asked her if she had ever thought of getting a dog to keep her company; a dog who would also carry its own weight by helping with the livestock. She knew of some puppies for sale on a neighboring farm and she thought that one would be just the thing for her.

The woman slept on it and prayed about it. When she left for the village, three days later, she had not one, but two, purebred collie puppies with her. Many collies have had the working ability bred out of them, but she was lucky enough to have a pair who still had some instincts.
She named them "Lassie" and "Laddie," of course.

As she raised them, she found them to be relatively easy to train to handle her sheep and chickens. Soon, they were of inestimable help. In more ways than one. Within the month, it became obvious that the collies had another, even more important job. Even in this remote area, people had heard of "Lassie." Folks were curious about the woman’s new helpers and soon, local children were sneaking over to visit. The youngsters’ fears were forgotten in their excitement to see Lassie and Laddie. One by one, the mothers and fathers stopped by to see what kind of dogs had so enthralled their kids.

The woman slowly built up trust and the children became regular visitors to her little ranch. After a time, she was able to enlist a few of them to help her to brush the burrs out of a collie or two. It became a privilege to sit brushing and petting the collies, as the woman read stories to them all. Before they knew it, children were learning to read. Their parents would sometimes stop by, lingering to watch. After a time, they began to speak with the woman. Slowly, in a more relaxed way, they began picking up information that helped them to grow a little more food or manage their stock a little better or even understand what better hygiene practices could do for them.

Now the woman could do what she had always dreamed of – and she finally had a home. The collies had become her ambassadors.

By the time the woman entered my life, the two collies had done this kind of work for nearly thirteen years. That year, Laddie, had finally died. The children were heartbroken and old "Lassie" was depressed and had a hard time getting around without her partner. The woman felt her work was beginning to unravel. So, after praying about it for a week, she had confidently come to the states to find another collie; a working collie. A big sable male.

I brought my beautiful Peter to her. She gathered him up in her arms, as he eagerly licked her face in the way that all collies do. He was pure, pure love.
And as I watched them I knew.  He was not mine anymore. Peter was going to Mexico. He had work to do, and I had to let him go.

Within the hour she had her new puppy kit, dry food, his favorite toys and Peter. I waved a good-bye with tears in my eyes and tried to let them both go in peace.

I will never say that this was an easy to do.  I still miss him, even after 30 years. But the story didn't end there. Far from it. Sometimes we get a little glimpse 'behind the curtain' of destiny and it changes you forever.  

LOOK FOR PART TWO OF  The Gifts: A true story. 

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