On an early Fall morning in Texas that Hugo was imagining, when the mosquitoes disappear and the dry air teases of coolness to come, he looked around. A patchwork of dogs dotted his landscape. He wondered what they saw as they took in their scenery: a mountain stream inviting them to jump in then swim to shore; a dog park full of their friends waiting to play; damp, earthy woods full of trails and scents of other animals daring them to be caught.
Hugo had sharpened his imaginate skills, as Zippy called them, since he’d arrived. Any scene he wanted, he could call up in an instant now. He could just as easily change it up. Sometimes he was alone, other times all the dogs over here were in the scene. It all depended on what it was. When he was lying in White Rock Lake Park, like he was doing now, he liked to see all the other dogs – this place was meant to have lots of dogs even if their minds might be elsewhere. When he imaginated lying on the sofa with Kaydon, between Simon and Kevin, it was always and only him and none of the others here.
Any time others were in one of his happy places, it didn’t matter where their minds were. They were all content. That’s what this place was all about. So, he was surprised, as he looked across the rugged North Texas landscape, to see one dog rise with great hesitation, and walk with her head down towards the greeting place. He left White Rock behind and returned to here, so he could better see what happened next. As his eyes followed her, he was struck by the hesitancy in her gait. Usually when dogs walked to the greeting place, they ran as fast as they could.
His eyes raced ahead of her, to the greeting place, landing on a man about Kevin’s age when he left him. There was nothing unusual about him. Ordinary in fact – just another person who arrived to greet their companion and walk towards the distant blue-orange sky to spend the rest of forever together.
As the dog grew nearer to the man, her tail tucked down, and she crouched so low she was barely walking at all. He bent down, lifting an arm to pet her. As soon as she saw it, she jumped back, out of his reach.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was afraid of him,” thought Hugo. “But how can that be? This is what we’re waiting for, this reunion.” He knew the dogs in The Grove were different but that was understood. They didn’t have anyone they left behind.
The man watched the dog’s reaction then recognition flooded his eyes. He began wiping tears from his shirt sleeve as fast as they fell, all the while the dog staying just out of his reach.
Bending to his knees, continuing to wipe away the tears, he called the dog’s name. His voice was soft and gentle, breaking and wavering. He looked down at the ground, ashamed to catch her eye. She looked at him, backside wiggling a little every now and then before it stopped suddenly. She did this several times before the man spoke.
“I’m so sorry. I love you. Please forgive me.”
Hugo wondered what he was sorry for, what he could have done that needed forgiveness here instead of when they were both together back there.
She inched closer to him, still near the ground, tail giving away the feelings of fear. With every step, her tail wiggled a bit more while her fear grew. She wanted to be near him while something warned her against it.
Finally, she was within arm’s reach of the man again, and again, he reached out his hand. She froze and pulled her head and hears back, accepting that something bad might happen. He bent down and scratched her head, rubbed her ears, tickled her sides. Her tail started a slow but steady wag, longer stretches this time but still stopping occasionally in case she had to jump away again.
He held her face and found the courage to look in her eyes. “My sweet girl. I’m so sorry. I love you so much. I should never have treated you the way I did. It’s unforgivable and here I am, asking you to forgive me.”
He hugged her close, tears streaming down his face onto her nose, ears, every place his face touched hers. She didn’t resist, didn’t try to pull back. She pulled her face back just enough to look into his eyes. Hugo was transfixed by this new scene. This was not at all how he’d seen it happen before. As she looked in his eyes, her whole body sank into a big sigh. She started licking him on the face, slowly and hesitantly at first, then faster and faster as he broke into a gentle laugh. A laugh of relief. She licked so hard that he fell backward, and she jumped on top of him, entire body wiggling as she continued to lick him. He grabbed her whole body and hugged, holding tightly to her.
While Hugo was admittedly also confused, the overwhelming joy set aside any conflicting thoughts. And yet he didn’t know why he was happy either. He knew something bad was at the heart of everything he had seen and yet what was happening now was so, so, opposite of bad.
After some time, the man let go of the dog, and sat back up. “Will you go with me?”
She stopped licking and looked up at him. She sat, perfectly still, looking into his eyes. He didn’t speak, she didn’t move. He waited for a while before rising to his feet, a dejected look spreading across his face.
“I understand sweetheart. I had no right even to ask you after the way I treated you back there. You’re happy here and you deserve it. I love you.” He turned away from her as the path toward the blue-orange sky opened. She sat motionless as he looked one last time at her, then began walking to the distance.
Suddenly she barked at him. He stopped and looked back at her as she ran to him. Once she was even with him, she rubbed against his side then sat down. The man beamed. Her wagging tail dusted the ground. And they both knew they were ready.
“OK girl let’s go!” Though for different reasons, neither could contain their relief. They both started running towards the horizon, the grass erasing signs of the trail as they grew smaller against the backdrop of the distance.
Hugo sat there stunned, not knowing what he’d just seen. So, he was relieved to see Zippy walk up.
“What did you think of that?” asked Zippy.
Hugo tried to find words, which were slow to arrive. “I, I don’t know what that was at all. I don’t know what to think.”
Zippy let the silence between them float around. It wasn’t uncomfortable. They’d grown so used to each other, talking, not talking, sleeping, waking, dreaming, imaginating that silence was simply another part of their togetherness.
At last, Hugo realized, Zippy must know what was going on. “What happened? I know you’ve seen something like this before. Tell me what it was about.”
“You know how sad you thought it was that the dogs in The Grove died without anyone who loved them back there, and no one they loved or belonged to? What you saw was almost the opposite. They died loving someone who loved them but couldn’t show it. They showed the opposite. They mistreated them. Kicked them. Tied them up in the backyard. Never showed the love they felt deep down for them. Their dogs, when their time came, arrived here remembering all that. Over time, they grew happy again and remembered what it was like before it was bad.
“Then just like for all of us, their person shows up. They never stopped loving them, even when they grew afraid of them. And they’re faced with a choice. ‘Do I, can I, forgive them, extend grace, show compassion when little or none was shown me?’ And do you know, every time I’ve watched this scene play out, it always ends up like today?”
“I don’t know,” Hugo sighed. “If Kevin or Simon ever treated me like what you described, I don’t know that I could be as forgiving.”
“I know what you mean but here’s the thing. Of course, neither you nor I have ever been through this situation. What I see every time, is how they look in each other’s eyes. The dog sees something they didn’t see before. The person sees something they knew was there the whole time but didn’t cherish. Grace is extended, redemption gained.”
“And that happens every time?” a doubtful Hugo persisted.
“Well, yes but there’s something else. Not all those people make it this far. Sometimes they never arrive. The dog then hangs out here or moves to The Grove for the rest of forever, wherever they want to go. So, I think the ones that make it here found mercy and grace before they got here, and it’s affirmed by their dog when they look in each other’s eyes and find what they’re looking for, what they need.”
It hadn’t occurred to Hugo that not everyone would arrive to greet their dog and walk up the path together. Yet, looking at that dog earlier, he realized that if that’s how she had turned out, not every person deserved to reunite with their dog.
“But still,” he continued, “how could she forgive a person like that, who treated her so badly?”
“I don’t know Hugo. I really don’t. The best I can make of it, it’s like when we arrive here. We were hurting, or frail back there. Maybe we couldn’t walk anymore, or we peed or pooped ourselves, or couldn’t eat. Something was wrong with us. And when we arrived here, the pain, the suffering, whatever it was, was gone. And we were whole again. I think it’s like that with the people, only sometimes with more going on in their heads than with their bodies. When they arrive here, those that do arrive, they’ve left all that behind too, so that they’re whole again just like us. And that wholeness opens the path to forgiveness.
Now that was a lot to take in and Hugo was going to need some time. Then a thought popped into his mind, a worrying one.
“What if Kevin doesn’t ever arrive?” Hugo asked Zippy.
“Oh, he will. He treated you well. He treated other people well, and he asked for and received forgiveness when he didn’t,” Zippy reassured Hugo.
‘Hmmm, OK. I need to think about all this. What a day. What a complicated and confusing day.”
“I get it, Hugo. I think the more you see it happen, pieces of it start to make more sense. I’m always here to talk about this stuff with you, you know.”
“I know, and I’m grateful for you, Zippy,” and Hugo meant that more sincerely than anything else he’d ever said to him.
And he was also grateful for Kevin. He knew that when he saw him arrive, whenever that will be, he will not hesitate, not slouch, not pull back. He’ll run as fast as he can, jump up in his arms, and lick him until he, Zippy and whoever else may join them, are ready to walk up the path as the grass grows back in behind them.