Returning from the fall clergy retreat I heard the same chorus. Normally, I would have said, “Nothing. There is nothing to bring back from the Baptist retreat center,” (except the little soaps from the room, but it doesn’t feel right to take those from the Baptist retreat center.) But this time, THIS time, I had the greatest gift of all to produce when prompted by their eager question. THIS time I said, “Well, I brought you this … puppy. “
“A puppy! A puppy!” Screams of delight ensue, even when the puppy is more closely examined and they make note of the fact that they can see her ribs and count the vertebrae in her spine. “She can’t stand,” I say. “There is something wrong with her back legs and she has a nasty cut on the back of one leg.” The puppy whimpers and tries to drag herself closer to the children crowding around her. “OOOO, she is sooooo sweet!” my youngest squeals. “Can we keep her? Can we keep her?” All three clamor. “It depends,” I say in a gentle, measured tone. “We don’t know what’s wrong with her yet. She is pretty sick. We are going to have to take her to the vet and see what he has to say about her.” “But then we can keep her, right?” “We’ll see,” I say, knowing that the moment I pulled the car over and plucked her up from the side of the road less than a mile from the retreat center that, of course, we would keep her, that is, if she made it.
“Let’s go, then. Let’s take her to the vet,” Joseph, my son, says with authority, taking on the role of the injured puppy’s protector, gingerly wrapping her in a baby blanket and lifting her up. “We have to name her,” the children say. “Maybe we should wait,” I say. “Why?” They ask. “Guys, she is very sick. She may not make it.” I hate to speak this truth but it would be worse not to be honest about such a real possibility. “She’s going to be OK. I know she will!” chimes in Jessie, my middle child, the trusting and optimistic one of the family. Names are discussed between children and quickly they come to consensus: “Minnie.” “Yes, Minnie.” “I like it.” Huh? All three agree? Within minutes? That never happens. Ever. “Ok, Minnie. Let’s take Minnie to the vet.”
Round one with the vet: The puppy is severely dehydrated. She will need to spend a few nights “in hospital” in order to receive IV fluids and treatment for a whole host of parasites. She will need antibiotics for the nasty cut on her back leg. It is evident that there is something wrong with her back legs, what exactly is yet to be determined. Results from the Parvo test will come back tomorrow. The vet warns that she is very sick. A positive Parvo test might be the news that seals her already tenuous fate. We go home, without the puppy, and wait.
Round two with the vet: Good news, the Parvo test comes back negative! She is eating and responding well to IV fluids. All the staff says she is very sweet. Our entire household is eager to have her home.
Round three with the vet: “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is she is responding well to fluids and medication. The bad news is that both her back legs are badly broken. She will likely need surgery to fix them. I will consult with the veterinary surgeon in Charlotte and let you know what she says.
Round four with the vet: The puppy does need surgery on both legs. The Charlotte surgeon can do it. Estimated cost: around $3,500. “Can’t she just limp?” I ask in my pastoral voice. “No, I’m afraid not. If you decide not to do the surgery, she will need to be put down. Think about it and let me know later this afternoon.” The vet is kind, but unwavering. I talk to my husband. She is already the most expensive free dog we have ever had. It doesn’t feel right to even consider spending this amount on a stray dog when such a sum would feed a lot of hungry children or pay for AIDS medications for those in desperate need of it. I plan to tell the children the sad news.
As soon as they get home from school they ask in unison, “How’s Minnie? Can she come home today?” Gulp. I tell them the news: she needs surgery. It will cost a lot of money. “How much?” Joseph asks. I tell him. “Well,” he says, “we have no other choice.” I am thinking that he knows we must put her down, but instead he says, “We have to get her the surgery.” Gulp. “I can give you all the money in my savings account,” he offers. The others say that they will give what they have, too. Surely that will get the job done. What other choice do we have? I call the vet. “Don’t put her down. We’re still thinking.” We decide to pick her up and at least have her home for the weekend. (I do this knowing that there is no way on God’s green earth I will have her home for the weekend and then take her back on Monday to be euthanized. I do this knowing that I cannot afford $3,500 on dog surgery.)
Round five with the vet: I take Minnie (although I am still calling her “the puppy” just in case) to a rural, mostly large animal vet for a second opinion. He concurs. She does need surgery. They can do it Monday morning. It will cost around $1,000. What a deal! I wince a little at the cost, but sign the papers and leave her yet again at another vet. I go home and tell everyone the “good news.” I still can’t believe that I am doing this. I was the one who stated emphatically that when our old, fat Lab came peacefully to the end of her days, we would not soon be getting another dog. I was sick of fur and flea management, etc. I am now about to have an injured, bandaged, not-yet-housebroken puppy in my house. Have mercy.
Round six with the vet: I get a call before noon on Monday. “Pastor?” “Yes,” I say hesitantly. No one calls me “pastor.” Who is this? It is vet #2 (three if we count the Charlotte surgeon). I am sure this is bad news. I am sure he is calling to tell me that the puppy died in surgery because she wasn’t supposed to be out until late afternoon at the earliest. “I have good news!” The vet is cheerful. “I took more x-rays and this little dog is starting to heal. She doesn’t really need this surgery. If you take her home and limit her movement, she should be fine in a month or so. She’ll limp a little and her legs won’t match, but really, other than that, she’ll be fine. You can pick her up today if you’d like.” I am stunned. I pick up the children after school. In unison, “How is Minnie? How did she do in surgery?” This time I really do have good news. “We’re going to get her!” I am shocked by my level of excitement. “We are going to get Minnie, right now!”
Minnie is fine. She is running and jumping on furniture and completely, totally well. Not even a limp. She has brought much joy to our house and some destruction as well. My son tells me that I have turned into that crazy dog lady I said I’d never be. “Are you listening to yourself?” he’ll ask as he giggles uncontrollably. No one is more surprised by this than I. We call her “miracle Minnie.” Jessie frequently says, “Minnie, you fell in a tub of butter when Mom picked you up from the side of the road.” Joseph says that perhaps we should have named her “Grace.”
I will never, ever, have a better answer to, “What’d you bring us?” than the near dead, wounded puppy I brought back from Winnsboro. She reminds me that sometimes the gifts God puts in our paths don’t look that much like gifts at all. They are broken. They may cost us something. We might be unsure if they are worth keeping at all, and yet, through grace and patience and child-like faith, they become the source of irreplaceable, inexplicable, unexpected joy. Minnie also reminds me that even when we are utterly abandoned, hungry, broken, and scared, we might be moments away from “falling in the tub of butter” of God’s providence and care. Miracle Minnie, indeed.
Jill Duffield is pastor of Tirzah Church in Waxhaw, N.C.