Many years ago, I was sitting on the couch with my dog and my daughter. It was early, terribly early, and I was reading in a quiet triptych which would become increasingly familiar as the years passed: me, nestled into the arm of the couch, cradling my coffee and balancing my books; an infant, in this case my oldest child Kira, snuggled up next to me, playing with toys or just watching my hand dance near her eyes; and Eli, our family mutt, posted up on the other end of the couch, curled into a ball, asleep.
This morning I was working through the first book of Samuel, and soon began reading aloud. My daughter didn’t require much attention at this phase—she needed touch, a toy or two, and voice. What better voice, I thought, than one speaking the word of God?
And so I read the third chapter to her, a chapter that begins, “Now the boy Samuel ministered to the Lord before Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days….” As the passage progresses—a passage about the call of Samuel, a passage wherein Eli the prophet teaches Samuel how to listen and hear and respond—I read the name “Eli” aloud eleven more times.
It took me a moment to notice that my own Eli was awake, that he was watching me, eagerly straining his floppy ears to understand what he thought I was trying to say to him. Even after I noticed, for some reason I was unreasonably slow to realize why; remember that it was early. It was probably the end of the chapter before I put it together, before I understood that my dog, like Samuel, had heard the call of his name, that he had arisen from sleep to respond to his master’s voice—ready to do what was asked, ready to go where he was sent. He thought I had a job for him to do.
I watched him in stunned silence as he thumped his tail, then I scratched his ears and told him to go back to sleep. I wondered: am I listening like that?
At first I thought that Eli’s allegiance to our mornings together had to do with his wanting to be near me, but I was soon to discover that it was more about the babies. One day, when Kira was just a few months old, I peeked into the nursery to check on her nap and noticed Eli curled up under the crib, taking his own rest. Thereafter, he napped with her every day. Next I caught him set up alongside her on the floor during play time, and then nestled beneath the feet of my wife while she was nursing. These actions, too, became ongoing. Once I placed the baby in a safe spot on my bed for a moment as I was getting dressed, and instantly Eli leapt up on the bed to be alongside her. I paused for a second, wondering if I should shoo him to the floor in the interest of my child, but he looked at me with such contented verve that I decided against it. I moved some pillows so he could settle in, and left him to his duties.
We had three babies in less than four years, and Eli acted this way with each of them. He followed Kira from room to room as she learned to sit up and crawl and walk and talk, this until my first son was born and allegiances shifted. The process repeated with him—naps, nursing, moving, speaking—and then when my second son arrived Eli again made a transition to the new baby.
We never trained him to behave in such a manner; we never rewarded his actions. Rather, Eli implicitly understood that the arrival of an infant in our house indicated some sort of fundamental change. Something of value and fragility had entered his orbit, and he had a job to do—not because we told him so, but because he was attuned to the hushed oblation that is caring for a newborn baby. He learned his role by listening to the rhythms of our house, the urgency of our actions, the tenderness in our voices.
He was called into vocation by his love for and attention to us.
Much has changed since this time. My fourth child was born nine months ago, but Eli passed away several years back—his final job sadly unfinished. We have a new puppy, and the baby loves watching her. But it isn’t quite the same.
Now my older children come out during those quiet morning hours, lugging books of their own. They argue over who gets to sit on the couch with me; we have to maintain a complicated system of turn-taking. They remember Eli, of course, even the youngest, who is now five. They, too, love the puppy, but enough stories of Eli persist that it feels safe to say he won’t be forgotten.
What they don’t appreciate—what no one else may ever understand—is that every time one of them pulls up on the couch with me, every time my blanket is stolen and my books disturbed, I remember those mornings from long ago when Eli and I guarded those babies together. So much has changed, and yet here I am—still on this couch reading, still trying to listen.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant hears,” the boy Samuel is instructed to say to God when next he is called. Would that we began every day with such a prayer.
If my dog could do it, maybe I can too.
Jay Wamsted is currently in his thirteenth year of teaching math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines—including Little Patuxent Review, Mathematics Teacher, The Southeast Review, and Qualitative Inquiry. He can be found online at Mockingbird and River Teeth. In addition, his 2017 TEDx talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust” recently posted to the TEDx YouTube channel. He and his wife have four young children, and he rides his bicycle to and from work just about every day.
Psst, check out On Having a Baby in the Age of Climate Change.
Just read this essay and enjoyed it. I
Remember visiting my daughter’s house and her ten year old dog coming
Our. To greet me on each visit. He
Just recently passed and it was hard
For my family. We can learn a lot from
Animals. Great read!!😊
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April 30, 2018
Something about the memory & loyalty of the animals we invite into our lives is truly inspiring.
I read somewhere that their short life spans are a small grace to us, enabling us to grapple with death in a quasi-safe space. I know we felt that way, at least.
Thanks for reading!