I have always known that people miss each other. I know that longing for others has the potential to change our emotional and spiritual states of being. What I didn’t realize was that animals often suffer the same plight.
The backdrop to my newly learned insight: After fourteen years of raising our children, my wife and I were about to experience all three of our children being away at camp for the first time in our marriage. We love and adore our children. Really we do. But, as they grow into adolescence, they can sometimes be a complicated and blessed handful.
In the week leading up to the camp departure, Murphy’s Law ran rampant. Our kids’ nerves about leaving (one of them for the first time) caused more sibling fighting than usual. Beating deadlines at our respective jobs caused us tension. And, alas, my wife broke her foot, putting her on crutches, when our first week together was to be a long awaited bike trip. You can imagine the emotional state in the house. But, we were good. Especially, Lauren. Indeed, she was ready to make lemon-aide out of lemons.
There was just one more responsibility with which to deal. We had to drop off our nine-month old, black lab (Kobi) for a week of boarding and some more training to help him stop from his insatiable instinct to steal food from every possible surface.
Kobi is a character. I’ve had labs my entire life. In fact, I don’t know of any breed of dog more loving. We just bid farewell to our first family dog of fifteen years a couple of years back. And, so we brought Kobi to our home this past winter. Every family member is smitten by him, except for yours truly. I love the dog. But, not like everyone else. Perhaps, I’m not over the first.
The day before we were to leave, Kobi got a terrible case of something called, Kennel Cough. This is a fairly severe, very contagious (to other dogs) bronchial infection. We could no longer send the dog for training with other dogs. We quickly switched gears and hired a loving dog-walker to come live in our home for a week. We got the dog started on antibiotics and the vet told us that everything would be fine by the time we returned a week later.
Off we went on our adventure. There were tearful goodbyes with the kids at camp, but my wife and I were on our way to experience this new stage of life. Life was sort of grand. We were worried about the kids and their adjustment. Indeed, we started to get some tearjerker letters from one of our children. We figured the kids needed to healthily grow without their parents and we talked it through.
And then we figured, we should check in on the dog. The reports were horrible. The cough continued; he was lethargic and, most concerning and completely out of character, Kobi refused to eat. Lethargy, I got. Nasal, I understood. But, him not eating was befuddling. This dog came into the world hungry. He eats before he loves. My complaint about him was that he would always prefer a treat than to snuggle with his owner.
The vet told us he wanted to see him again. He started him on another round of meds and still, no change. The cough stopped, but he wouldn’t eat and more, he stopped wanting to leave the house. At this point we really started to worry. Perhaps, the dog was not simply going to pull through this episode.
“Perhaps, he is depressed”, our dog walker suggested.
I am a dog person and I love animals, but even this was too much for me to take in.
“No, really”, she continued… “My reading and experience have taught me that dogs, especially puppies, can get incredibly scared and lonely the first time their owners leave them. In their minds, all they can process is the idea that they will never see you again.”
My wife bought in right away. After all, the bronchial infection was now gone, but Kobi refused to move, eat or go for a walk. Sure enough, others through social media concurred and reported similar stories of their dogs falling out of sorts because of how much they longed for their owners.
The proof was in our arrival home. Kobi, who wouldn’t move or eat, came charging at us; a furiously wagging tail, kissing and licking like there was no tomorrow. And, sure enough, he ate like he had never seen food before. In these first couple of days home, he will still only easily walk a few houses down the block. He seems not to trust that it will all be okay. But the more love and assurance we give him, the more he seems to be like himself.
A summer of lessons for sure. If we thought we had any control over our lives, we were reminded again about how we plan while the cosmos laughs. And, we seem to create a home of sensitive souls. Not just children, but also an animal who seems to count on the love as much as the rest of us.
That’s the thing about love. It fills us up and binds us, but also breaks our hearts when we are away from it for too long. It is healthy for all of us to know we can depend on ourselves, but it seems ever more imperative to fill in the spaces for our living beings with our most valuable and effective asset: love and soulful connection. Maybe John Lennon was on to something when he and his mates filled our cosmic soundtrack with the words: “All you need is love”. I wonder if he knew that “all” really meant all… dogs also!
Matthew D. Gewirtz is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey. He is the author of The Gift of Grief: Finding Peace, Transformation and Renewed Life after Great Sorrow? (Random House). A strong advocate of social justice, Matt Gewirtz is a founding executive committee member of the Newark Coalition for Hope and Peace, an interfaith organization of Jews, Christians and Muslims that is committed to ending gang violence in Newark. Matt Gewirtz strives to find joy and meaning in his daily life and is committed to helping do the same for others. His greatest joy comes from his wife, Lauren and their three beautiful children.