When I was a boy I always wanted a dog. But I was allergic to most animals. My mother is terribly afraid of snakes so that ruled them out. Fish did not interest me. My brother had a newt as a pet but it also left me rather cold; a common reaction to newts. All my childhood I wanted a dog.
As I got older, I grew out of most my allergies and by my preteens I was okayed by the doctor to have a pet. But, alas, there was no dog forthcoming. But it didn’t really bother me that much. It was the norm not to have pets in my house and so I guess I never really expected to have one. But all that changed when I was fourteen.
Down the street from my house were some cheap duplexes that were usually rented by young couples. The yards to these duplexes were quite large and were adjacent to some woods. During the spring of my fourteenth year a young couple named Gene and Suzanne lived in the duplex with the largest yard. They let us use the yard as a softball field and daily for months the whole neighborhood would gather to play softball. Often Gene and Suzanne would join us. We had such wonderful times as the days began to warm and the afternoons lengthened.
Gene and Suzanne had a dog named Mona. Early in this great spring of softball Mona had a litter of puppies. Many were given away. One or two were lifted by passers-by, but Gene and Suzanne kept the runt. They named her Rita. Rita, from the very beginning, was a special dog.
Often I would go down to the duplex and play with the puppies on the carport and often just sit and watch their shenanigans. The puppies lived in a small box and would often be found napping there. At intervals they would pile onto the carport and begin to wrestle and play with each other. Rita
would usually be the ring leader. The playing would be full force for a while but the puppies would soon tire and one by one slip back into the box to nap. Rita was always the last to return to the box. She was also never able to light for long. Within minutes of settling into her corner of the box she would suddenly sit up and give a yelp and a whine that would alert her brothers and sisters that enough rest had been taken and it was time to start another round of play. She would rouse the whole litter back onto the carport for more play and tomfoolery.
As the days progressed and the puppies found new homes the litter got smaller and smaller and Rita was left with only her mother as a playmate. Mona was a gentle mother and raised Rita well in the canine arts. But she would often tire of Rita’s boundless energy. Often I would notice Mona leading Rita off into the woods for some exploring. Within a few minutes Mona would appear but without Rita. Mona would find a nice spot in the yard and curl up for a nap. A half hour or so later Rita would pop out of the woods and spy her mother as if to say, “There you are, I was looking all over for you.” I suspect that was Mona’s strategy all along; only by loosing Rita in the woods was she able to get any rest.
As Rita grew, and as our softball spring ambled into summer, she became one of the joys of our afternoons. She was always in the laps or arms of the players waiting for bat. She enjoyed the games as much as we did for they provided even more friends to play with. We were willing pawns for Rita’s continual craving for fun and excitement.
But as the summer wore on it became clear that Rita wanted something more, she wanted a home. Gene and Suzanne, though great friends, were not the most diligent in caring for their animals. Rita seemed to understand that she could have more. She was a dog with a mission: Where was the place that she could call home.
Rita began making the rounds in the neighborhood. She went to each house and checked it out. Were the people friendly? Were there other pets? Would the accommodations and levels of care make her feel loved and welcomed? Of course, it is quite a stretch to think that a dog could be so logical, but let me assure you, Rita was no ordinary dog.
When Rita got to our house she stayed. We did not take her in. Sure, we would sit on the front porch and wuzzle her. We would even occasionally give her a meal. But we did not take her in. Still, she stayed.
She slept on our porch and lawn for weeks. If it began to rain she would curl up under a bush next to our front porch but she would not leave. Each morning and afternoon we came over the porch she was there with a wagging tail and bright eyes. She was always polite but it was becoming quite clear that she had chosen our house as her home.
My mother, much to my surprise, came up with the idea first. She suggested I ask Gene if we could buy her. One day, as my friends and I were standing with Gene contemplating yet another lazy softball game, I asked him if we could buy Rita. “Where is she now?” he asked.
“At my house,” I replied.
“Why don’t you go ahead and keep her there,” he said. My eyes widened and I jumped nearly a yard off the ground. My friends and I forgot the game and ran to finally let Rita into the house and fully into my family’s life. Rita was ours...or, perhaps it is better said, we were hers.
Rita had a tail that rarely stopped wagging. At times I would walk by a piece of furniture and hear a steady tapping. “What is that noise?” I would ask myself. I would look under the bed or behind a chair and there was Rita wagging her tail just at the sound of my footsteps.
Rita also cared for us when we were sick. Occasionally my mother would get a migraine headache and would take to the bed until it passed. Rita would crawl up under the bed and whimper in mourning. The epitome of Rita’s care came when my mother suffered a bout with breast cancer. Rita spent hours through many dark, painful, sleepless nights in the lap of my mother. When my mother would go into the hospital for treatments we always called and let Rita hear her voice. Rita never failed to kiss the phone receiver in response. Years later I discovered that the patron saint for cancer
victims is Saint Rita. Of course, I guess we knew it all along.
Just as Rita grew up and moved on from her family, so did I. I left the house to attend the University of Florida. When I would come home for visits, Rita was there to greet me. It was in college that I learned the most profound lesson that Rita had taught us.
One afternoon I was in my dorm room reading in my Bible. At the time I was working through the Gospel of John and was up to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the reading we heard this morning. My method was to read a short passage and to mark any words that intrigued me and to look up their Greek meanings.
As I read I was struck by Jesus’ words concerning worship. Jesus spoke of worshiping in spirit and truth. It was quite clear that the issue of worship was a major concern for both Jesus and the Samaritan woman. They seemed to be preoccupied with the subject. I looked up the Greek word hoping to better understand what the New Testament had to say about worship.
I couldn’t believe it. I was actually insulted. The lexicon I was using noted the Greek word was a combination of two words, one of which meant “to kiss, like a dog licking a master’s hand.” How could the Bible liken my worship to a dog? What an insult. Surely we are not dogs at the feet of God, surely we are worth more....
Then it hit me. Rita had often licked my hand and my heart had often been warmed by the touch. Yes my worship of God was like that of a dog and a master. For as much as I loved Rita and as much as she trusted and depended on me, how much more does this speak of God’s love for me and my utter dependence on Him? Rita was many things to us. She was a companion, a friend, a care-giver, a joy. But most of all she was a witness of God’s love.
© 2020, Tom Thoeni