I was walking to the entrance when I heard the bark and inevitable crash against the screen door. A long nose poked above the bottom grill, as Bethany came out to greet me. She was laughing, because Micah's excitement at a guest always made you smile. In my case, it helped my stomach stop churning as I walked into my girlfriend's house. It was my second time meeting her parents, and try as I might, I was still nervous. They had been friendly and welcoming the first time I'd come over, but I was still nervous, because I sensed that Bethany would be someone special to me, and these were her parents. Getting older hadn't erased the time worn traditions of the past, or my understanding of the importance of your partner's family on a relationship. Micah didn't seem to notice, as he jammed his nose into my legs and waited for me to pet him. He was a medium sized dog, a lab and poodle cross with short black hair. He had long floppy ears and paws that seemed a bit big for him. Best was that permanent grin on his face and lolling tongue, and as I bent down, he made a slobbering attempt to lick my chin. It seemed as if he was asking me if I would be his friend. I rubbed behind his ears and thought, I'll be your friend, pal. I stood up as her parents came into the room, and he bolted back down the hallway to say hello to them. They too were smiling, and he looked back at me as if to say "See, you're welcome here, Steve. Don't be worried."
He was right. There was no need to be worried that day or any other. I was welcomed into the family in a way I had never known, as Bethany and I moved through the stages of our relationship, from dating to girlfriend to fiancée to our wedding day. Through it all, with all the warmth I received from her family, Micah was always the first one to greet me, even as he greeted everyone else, and remind me that I was always welcome. Every time we came to the door for a visit, he would run down the hallway, barely able to contain himself, his tail wagging so hard that his whole back end would move. And if you bent down, he was more than willing to give you a sloppy kiss. Through it all, I never thought of him as my wife's dog or her parents' dog, although both were true. For me, it was much simpler than that.
Growing up in Ethiopia, where dogs are not kept as pets, my wife's parents promised their kids that when they moved back to Canada, they could get a dog. The kids held them to that promise, and when they finally chose one, they decided on a big, floppy eared puppy whose heart murmur made him something of a health risk, and much less likely to be adopted. They named him Micah. The adjustment of moving from one country to another was difficult, as it always is, especially for teenagers. Micah helped ease that transition. His boundless energy and affection grew, and his love for people seemed to know no bounds. If there were two groups of people in different rooms, he would often shift from one room to another, unable to decide where he should be. And if everyone happened to be in the same room, as would happen on Christmas, he would lie in the center of the room or hop up on the couch, completely content. He was always happy to be with people, regardless of the circumstances. And if the conversation halted, he was always there to remind us all to relax and enjoy one another, that there was always a reason to smile.
In the church we call it Creation Care. In politics, we call it Being Green or Environmental Advocacy. We name it because, well, humans name things. And over the past twenty years, some things have changed. Most people realize we shouldn't be clear cutting rainforests, that recycling is necessary, and most of us understand that the climate is changing. These are all good things, but it says something about our society that we need names and organizations and policies when it comes to looking after the world around us, and recognizing all living creatures as God given gifts, as personalities worthy of our attention. Some people say that it wasn't always that way, but a quick look through history dispels that notion, although our massive population increase and industrialization have made our ecological footprint much bigger. For me, it isn't about returning to some mythic past. The real question is the state of my own heart. Sometimes, I am just being selfish. Sometimes I don't want to care, because caring hurts. Micah always helped remind me that it was worth it to care, that tomorrow could be a good day, and that love covered a multitude of wounds. And sins.
I've never followed the accepted creed that older means wiser. Never really counted the difference between a sixteen year old and a sixty year old. When I was a youth worker, it often became a point of contention, because the accepted wisdom was (and remains) that a forty year old adult has more to offer than a child. Or that a person has more to offer than an animal. I still don't believe it. For me, it was always about what one did. Loyalty, faithfulness and love always seemed to be God's stamp, his ideal, and whoever exemplified those characteristics were the ones I wanted to follow, the ones I wanted to model. In this, it was never about who could help me achieve greater status or help me reach my goals, but who would be there when they were needed, who would truly be a friend.
I have a lot of memories of Micah. This past summer my wife and I took him for a walk across the street to the school ground. We'd brought a Frisbee, and most of the time he couldn't decide whether to chase the Frisbee, roll in the grass, or come over to us for some more pets. We laughed the entire time.
I remember the way he would sit on my feet when I was petting him, as if afraid I was going to move. I remember the way he would leap up into my wife's lap when we visited, though he was much too big to be a lap dog. I remember the way she would hold him, and how he would purr in his throat, something he had learned from his old friend, Sunshine (a cat), who had passed away three years earlier and had been one of Micah's closest friends. His burst to the door when someone came over was legendary in the family, as was his inevitable welcome.
For me though, my greatest memory is that second time at my wife's home. Crouching down as he slobbered a kiss on my chin, and hearing the question he asked every newcomer to the household.
"Will you be my friend, Steve?"
I'll be your friend, pal. I'll always be your friend. I love you, buddy.