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Dog and human share quest for a friend to greet at sunrise


For the longest time, our dog couldn’t find a friend. She’d spot a likely candidate at the park and whirl like a dervish, stop for a play bow, whirl the other way and bounce at him in pure invitation. Overwhelmed, the other dog would avert his gaze and move on.

After two years composed mainly of such disappointments, Sophie finally met Brava, an Australian shepherd who loved to run and spin as much as she did. They’d cover the whole park at sunrise, galloping through puddles, taking turns chasing and eluding, going up on their hind legs with their paws around each other like lady wrestlers. Sophie leaped like a reindeer every time she caught sight of Brava waiting for her.

Paradise lasted a year, and then Brava’s people moved to Massachusetts. Sophie waited patiently for two weeks while I diverted her, actually driving all the way to a different and far more hilly and liberally scented park to avoid the familiar empty one. Eventually she began looking at me oddly when I opened the car door, and then came the morning she refused to jump in.

Sensing what was coming, I pocketed the car keys and allowed her to drag me all the way to the neighborhood park. She sniffed every inch, desperate to find some trace of her friend. Then she sat down in the middle of the ball field with her back perfectly straight, her paws neatly together in her best good-dog pose, waiting.

I lasted two minutes and broke. Kneeling in front of her on the frozen field, I said slowly, deliberately, repeatedly, “Brava’s gone to Massachusetts. She’s not coming back.”

Sophie tilted her long nose into the air and started barking. Loud, angry, staccato barks, relentless. Freud would have called it catharsis. When she started to sound hoarse, I touched her cheek and said again, more softly, “Brava’s gone.” She dropped her head and, without another bark, headed home, pausing every few yards to look over her shoulder at the park where she found a friend.

She doesn’t drag me there anymore, but we both eye every dog we see, looking all over again. Why her quest has captured my heart, I’m not sure. No, that’s a lie. I know perfectly well that her loneliness is my own from childhood, waiting and waiting for the friend I could trust with my wildest thoughts, fondest dreams and deepest fears. One day I realized with a pang that I ought to turn to Jesus. “What a friend we have in Jesus,” the hymn insists -- and I did think often about him being lonely on the cross, and loving everybody no matter what they did to him. But the plain truth was, it’s hard to worship someone and confide in him at the same time.

A few weeks ago I watched a special about Canterbury Cathedral on cable, listening to an Anglican priest chatting about his friendship with Thomas à Becket. They’d “become quite close,” he said in his melodic British accent, adding that he believes it’s important in this life to have mystical friends as well as real ones.

Delighted at the prospect, I chose mine immediately, the way I used to pick out the 10 albums I’d order if my mom let me join the music club. Julian of Norwich. Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Carl Jung. Simone Weil. Dag Hammarskjold. I smiled fondly at each name, eager to imagine our cups of tea by the fire.

Then my mind hit a brick wall. How could I be friends with people so superior, so profound, so disciplined? I couldn’t spill my pathetic little guts to them, not unless it was in a confessional. And compare notes about life? We’d be comparing Muzak to Mozart.

It was the Jesus problem all over again. We put these figures on pedestals for a reason, I told myself. We need our gods and heroes and archetypes to stay remote, their lives unsullied by too much information, their beauty on a pedestal so more of us can be inspired.

Or was I just being immature, hiding from my inferiority, denying my heroes’ ability to accept and enjoy the rest of us, resisting their complexity because I didn’t particularly want to hear them fret or stew? “Jesus wept” is powerful, but a few more details and I’d be depressed right with him.

How different our relationship would be, if I felt as close to Jesus as I do to my best friend from high school. I’d goad him into confiding his worries, keeping the balance and symmetry that marks a true, evenhanded friendship. I’d tease him about his callow arrogance, rebelling against his parents and staying behind to teach at the temple. I’d remind him he didn’t deal quite fairly with Mary Magdalen, any fool could see she was in love with him and he let her dangle, offering such tender friendship she couldn’t possibly turn away for a more mutually satisfying relationship with somebody else. My heart would burn for his loneliness at Gethsemane, but with that roller-coaster jolt you feel when you’re afraid your best friend’s about to make a serious mistake.

If we were really friends, I’d open up more fully, and I’d -- terrifying thought -- relax. I’d recognize the playfulness of his parables, the moments of gentle irony. I’d run circles with him, and gallop through puddles, and look forward, with every fiber of my being, to the next sunrise.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001