Do Hard Things. Allow them to shape your gratitude.

The night before my family adopted the 10-week-old German Shepherd/Chow Chow puppy, the bully-of-a-neighbor kid jumped our wood fence and did damage to the backyard. (And I think, maybe, our toy poodle.) We went to high school together and started out as friends, but he made a turn for the worse and began saying mean and hateful comments about me. I grew more and more afraid he would hurt someone in my family. It was a terrible time.

words + photographs JULIE JOHNSON

My parents, my nephew and I went to the pet store to buy a sucker fish for Chris’s aquarium. It was Mother’s Day, and we left with a working fish and a big, squirmy puppy.  

We named him Bear.

You know how people say sweet things about sweet, rescue puppies, like how they are grateful to have a forever home and just want to make you happy?

Bear wasn’t one of those rescue puppies. Or dogs. My brain is jamming trying to form one cohesive sentence about him. When my mom would discipline him, Bear would turn on me, and I’d receive the brunt of his frustrations. When it was time to return to college courses in the fall and I was no longer around during the day, Bear would ignore me when I came home. If anyone in my family showed care for another animal, Bear would disappear to the absolute other side of the yard. He’d move as far away as he could from the whole lot of us, moping and pouting and refusing treats. When he felt it was time for his daily walk, and I wasn’t ready, he’d nip at my fingers and start jumping like a kangaroo. Once when we were running, I tripped over him. Knocked us both to the ground. I began to get up only to find Bear was already standing, ready to fight. During the 2007 ice storm, Bear figured out if he didn’t go potty in the backyard, I’d take him for a run. With icy limbs falling around us like bombs, we hightailed it to a clearing on the other side of our property. He was overjoyed; I thought we were crazy.

We had a bench on the deck. Bear took over ownership. He would sit on it, looking around. When I went outside and sat beside him, he’d jump down and move somewhere else. Sometimes, he’d pretend he was interested in an unknown movement. He would also get up and move when I’d sit down beside him when he was lying on the floor. If anyone in my family gave him a Bear hug, he would oblige, happy or not, except for me. I’d almost be close enough for a hug, and he’d casually walk off like no. big. thing.

But I loved him every second of every day. And, though it might pain him to say it, he loved us. So well.

A drawing of the Bear, given to me by my nephew, Chris, who was maybe 10 at the time.

Two months before his 16th birthday, on a Saturday, Bear ate a yummy supper and was super excited for his evening walk. We went around the neighborhood, slowly as always. I rarely rushed his walks; they were his favorite. Because he wasn’t able to see or hear very well, he spent his nights in my room. Once in awhile, I’d throw a pillow his way because he snorrrred.

That night, he woke me up, restless. I finally rolled out of bed and took him outside. He stumbled going up the hill. Once back inside, he fell, but it was more of a collapse. I knew something wasn’t right, and as the hours went on, I knew he wasn’t doing well. I didn’t expect him to make it to morning.

But there he was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. His spark didn’t last long, and my mom and I took him to an emergency vet. He sprawled on the floor when he wasn’t anxiously pacing. The veterinarian gave him a quick check and said she couldn’t find anything visibly wrong. She could order tests to see what was going on, “but,” she said, “his eyes tell me a different story.” She explained how his eyes said it was time.

My mom left the decision up to me: tests? Or do we forgo tests and euthanize him?

When Marley & Me came to the theaters, my family saw it together. At one point in the movie, I turned my head because I could not watch the decisions being made. I couldn’t watch the solutions being considered. Instead, I prayed to the Lord He would never, ever allow that to be part of Bear’s story. I never, ever wanted to be presented with that question. I never, ever wanted to make that decision. I never, ever wanted to do that hard thing.

Yet there we were.

On a Sunday morning.

With the best dog in the world.

Reality was, I knew Bear had arthritis. He tore two ACLs and had surgery on both. I knew he stumbled and fell more often than he should. I knew he couldn’t be as active as he wanted. I knew he hated making bathroom messes inside, something he didn’t even do as a puppy. I knew something was going on inside his head because there were visible changes to its shape. Reality was, deep, deep, deep, hidden away deep, I knew.

“He’s been too good to us,” I said to my mom. “It would be selfish of me.” My words trailed off because how could I say the thing?

Years later, I continue to miss this ornery, loveable Bear. Yet, I’m thankful I did the hard thing of choosing him over me. I’m thankful I was given years to love him while he aggravated me.

Each of us had done the hard thing. In the November issue, we share stories from friends and neighbors in southwest Missouri who used the hard thing to shape their gratitude. Brooke Rathbun left. Katrin Scott took her next breath. Jessie Smallwood sang a song of praise. Read their stories and share in their gratitude.

In addition, Grace Lee writes how three bracelets provide her significant reminders about God: He is faithful to her, devoted to her, and He is the God of the storm.

Philip Herzog reminds us how important great leadership is and how its return on investment is well worth the price.

Dr. Kathy Wingo introduces us to our neighbors in Cuba and shares with us how they are reverent, real, resilient and resourceful.

Plus, we revisit our 2021 artisans, share showing details for National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at Gillioz Theatre, brag on the Big Rainbow tomato from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, and provide a resource for safely disposing prescription and non-prescription drugs.

— Julie

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