On June 18, 2009, I drove to Randolph, Mississippi, to look at a litter of golden retriever puppies.
It was a fun experience. There at the gate were several puppies and a mama dog fighting for attention. They were puppies, and golden puppies to be more specific, so of course they were cute. Every last one of them. But there was one puppy in the back corner of the pen who refused to leave the large bucket of water set out for the dogs to drink from. He was wet and muddy. And for whatever reason, I knew that was MY dog. So I wrapped him in a towel, dried him off, and drove back to Oxford.
I named him Trapper because my dad had a golden retriever named Trapper. I didn’t actually know until this year (9 years after the fact!) that the original Trapper was named for Trapper John McIntyre from M*A*S*H* – I knew it was one of my dad’s favorite shows, but to this day I’ve still never seen an episode. So that was neat to learn.
But in a lot of ways, that puppy that refused to get out of the mud to come greet me along with his brothers and sisters was who he always was. Golden retrievers are sociable and friendly, and Trapper was no different, but he was always content to do his own thing, especially if it involved mud or water. A couple of weeks before he died, he ran off for an hour or so. It never really bothered me when he ran off, because he always came back, but when he finally came running back to the house, he was covered snout to tail in thick, black mud. He looked almost like a black lab. Dad and I laughed a lot about that.
I didn’t think we were going to lose him until the day before we did – I wasn’t ready at all. But the night before, I started looking up quotes about golden retrievers. I found one, I don’t know who said it, or what the context was, or a single other word this author wrote or said, but this one stuck out to me:
“The face of a golden retriever feels like home.”
That was always true for Trapper. I think, in many ways, he was a gift of God’s providence. I got him right as some hard things started happening in my life – I was finishing up college without any direction, realizing a lot of my friends had graduated and moved on, and I think that was right about the time when I started to struggle with the idea of “home” and what that meant and where it was. But something about that dog felt like home. Everywhere we went – from Oxford, to Jackson, to Brookhaven, to Tuscaloosa – felt like home.
So, it’s weird. I have close friends. I have a wonderful wife and an amazing son. My family loves me. But whenever things went south – and that was often – there was rarely a time when a stiff drink and Trapper asleep at my feet didn’t provide at least some solace in otherwise hard times.
Last week was rough. He got sick really quickly – he lost nearly 20 pounds in just about 2 weeks. His liver was failing. He was losing blood, but not bleeding. Still don’t know exactly what happened. But I lost him on November 8, 2018. My last few minutes with him were special – I can’t pretend to know what goes on in the mind of a dog, but I sat down with him. He looked up at me, then rested his head in my lap. I think he knew. I think he was at peace. Again, I can’t know for sure, but I think the last thing he heard was me thanking him for everything and telling him I loved him.
I said this when Maggie died, and it rang even more true for Trapper. I don’t understand all of God’s gifts, or His goodness. I don’t understand our relationship with dogs. I don’t understand why they’re man’s best friend, or why I feel weird admitting that a dog was among my best friends.
But he was, and so I sit here with my son and our 3 year old golden, Beau, with a piece of my heart missing. We buried that piece of my heart in my parents backyard, next to Maggie and with his tennis ball – the two things he loved the most in this world.
The Bible is silent on whether or not our pets have souls and go to heaven. I’m definitely not saying that they do, but I take some comfort in knowing that they might. We asked one of my seminary professors, himself also a dog lover, if our pets went to heaven. He said he didn’t know, but animals were present before the Fall, and so we have every reason to expect they will be present in the New Creation as well. And so whatever our relationship with our dogs looks like unaffected by sin, I look forward to seeing it.
And so I’ll end this thing with a few pictures. Two from the hospital room, and one that has Trapper and Maggie, running ahead of me in a field at the golden hour, doing exactly what I insist on imagining them doing together, right now.
Rest easy, Old Man. You are deeply and painfully missed.