Oct. 26, 2005.
My son Zachary, then 8, had a football game that night. It was a fairly late game, but when we got home that evening, there was a message on our home voice mail from my dad,
"Rebecca, please call me when you get home tonight, no matter what time it is."
My dad had not been feeling well most of the summer and into the fall. My parents had decided not to come through Texas from Minnesota via their annual winter trip to Florida that fall, even though my dad was supposed to drive the tractor for our neighbor fall festival hayride. Though my dad's doctors felt he was just having a hard time fighting off a flu virus, they ultimately decided to send him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester to run more in-depth tests.
"Go somewhere away from the children," my dad said first, and then, "How strong are you, Rebecca Jean?"
He knew the answer to that, of course. I had always been his strong, independent, fearless tomboy who was going to conquer the world. My dad proceeded to tell me he had been diagnosed with a rare and terminal form of cancer, that there was no treatment, and that he had just months to live. I could hear loud weeping in the background as I held the phone in disbelief. My dad? My hunting, fishing, life-loving dad? My dad, who never drank, never smoked, and went on Jesuit retreats every summer to "sort out any junk I've accumulated over the year," who always came home and said, "I'm so clean, you can see right through me!"
With no visible emotion, I hung up the phone and went back inside the house. Steve looked at me questioningly and I only shook my head and said, "Time for baths, everyone!" I had a family to run. Breaking down simply wasn't an option. My kids were too little to understand, and they needed me to maintain normalcy. So I did.
My daughter, Channing, was 5 at the time. Christmas was approaching, and I was trying to keep our lives running smoothly in between my many trips back and forth between Texas and Minnesota. Run my nuclear family here. Run my family of origin there. Stay calm. Keep it together. Everyone needed me. As we got closer to Christmas, Channing became more and more adamant that she wanted a puppy for Christmas. As we had recently lost both of our elderly dogs within months of each other, Steve and I were strongly against this. With the strain of my dad's illness, we did not need a new puppy! But Channing remained insistent.
"I really don't care what y'all say," she told us matter of factly. "I am asking Santa for a puppy for Christmas, and all I want is a puppy. Nothing else. I've been good, so Santa will bring me a puppy!"
Finally, at the beginning of December, I told Steve, "She's not going to give up! We need to find her a puppy!" We had two large, intolerant cats at the time. I knew we needed to bring a small dog into our life, nothing big and wild, because the cats would potentially develop behavior problems. I began to research and came upon a poodle breeder in Northeast Texas. After many emails and phone calls, we met at a designated halfway point so I could see the puppies, tiny toy poodles, for myself. I immediately fell in love with one, and the breeder agreed I could pick him up Dec. 23, in time for Channing's Christmas surprise.
That Christmas was the first since I had children that my parents didn't come spend it with us. My dad was too sick. Everyone felt the void, but I still tried to make it as happy as possible. And the thought of Channing's reaction to her new puppy from Santa kept my spirits up. I wasn't disappointed. I had snuck down to our neighbor's home early that morning and retrieved the puppy. As if on cue, he came out of his little hut as Channing approached the tree. Estactically, she exclaimed, "My puppy! Santa got me a puppy!" And so Nico entered our lives, a bright sparkle during a time of sadness.
After the holidays, I took Nico in for his shots and well-puppy exam. "Did you bring his shot records and birth certificate?" our vet asked me. I pulled out the papers and looked at them for the first time. Date of Birth: 10-26-2005. I felt an odd sensation in my stomach- why did that date bother me? Then it hit me: October 26th was the day I got that horrible call from my father. Just when a part of my life was ending, a part was simultaneously beginning. I didn't know it at the time, wasn't even imagining that a new little life was entering the world, a little life who would provide so much love, companionship abd comfort through many dark days as my dad battled cancer and ultimately lost the following spring.
Obviously, a dog doesn't replace a beloved person. But there were so many times where I needed to not have to act okay for everyone around me, to not have to explain what I was feeling, and Nico provided that reprieve for me.He was clearly meant to come into our lives. Nico, now 8 years old, is a cherished family member who none of us could even dream of not being an integral part of our lives.
Life is full of endings, but it's also bursting with beginnings. Always trust, as I've learned from my own life experiences, that promise and hope will be provided to you - sometimes in the oddest and most unexpected forms, such as a 4-legged angel.