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Nearer My Dogs to Thee

WEB Beagle Dog 001

Kris Cardenas

John Zmirak - published on 05/13/14

What I learned about God and redemption from rescuing and caring for dogs.

The following is a meditation on the theology of dog ownership, which John Zmirak penned some years ago. He reprints it now in honor of Franzi Zmirak, who died this past weekend at the age of 16.

A loyal friend to man, and enemy to kitty-cats, Franz Josef Zmirak was for five years the adjunct co-mascot of Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, where he inaugurated each writing class and every public lecture, introducing such luminaries as Thomas Howard and Philip Lawler with 15 minutes of racing back and forth and trumpeting, before they were permitted to speak.  He leaves behind his father, John, his sister, Susan Zmirak, a large collection of damaged designer shoes owned by his mother, Faye, and an array of water-damaged wood floors throughout the Northeast.  He will be missed.  He will never be replicated.

“Don’t like the weather?” they say here in New Hampshire. “Wait five minutes.”

As summer comes, our polar clime becomes instead bi-polar. Four times this week, the day has turned almost instantly from brightness and balm to lightning and sheets of rain–then back again–several times. The sky is alternately black and blue, as if the weather had been punching it in the face. The lightning knocked out my circuits today, while the crackling of the thunderclouds sent the wimpier of my two beagles into a full-bore panic attack.

Little Franzi cowered against my leg, buzzing like those massagers they use at old-fashioned barber shops, until I scooped up all 40 lbs. of quivering hound and laid him next to me in the bed. I actually had to cradle him like a child–albeit a bow-legged, pigeon-toed, stinky, fur-covered child with an IQ of under 25 whom you have trained to defecate outdoors. (It’s best not to admit this when Social Services comes knocking, FYI.)

At first glance, Franzi seems like a cuddly, pokey, Dog Lebowski who yawns through most of the day as if sedated. Susie is my meth-head. During storms, she dashes back and forth across the house as if to chase the lightning, and barks back at the sky. In New York, she’d crouch at the window seat like Lee Harvey Oswald, daring little old ladies to walk past my ground-floor apartment. Then she’d unload a series of sharp, staccato barks which could cause a cardiac arrest.

Susie also fancied herself the neighborhood censor; whenever she’d spot some poor drunk stumbling home at 3 p.m. from one of the dingy bars near my old block, she’d lay into him like a scolding wife. Up here, she has taken to sounding off at passing cars. Thank God there aren’t very many. I think she’s running them off.

Susie is the lean and elegant huntress who grew from the whirring puppy someone brought me in a shoebox, and she has spent most of her waking moments since January 2000 chasing critters, chewing up bloody butcher’s bones (which she will only eat on the couch), and howling almost continuously. Of course, I love the sound, and have always encouraged it, so that now when I say, “Sing!” she lets out a long and poignant “A-r-r-r-r-r-r-o-o-o-o-o!” And then goes on doing it, sometimes for 30 minutes. Too bad it never occurred to me, back when she was a puppy, to invent a command for “Quit it!”

Likewise, I was just so charmed by the way she’d pounce like Tigger on every visitor’s chest and climb up to lick his face, that I missed the chance to instill the signal for “Down!” Her breath reminds me of that summer in New Orleans when a friend spilled Vietnamese fish sauce in the car. But the look of fanatical love—pure, absolute, and indiscriminate—in those sharp brown eyes makes it hard to push her down: Like the angels gazing on the face of God, in one of Giotto’s frescos. You learn to hold your breath.

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