Story by Ernie Ward, Illustrations by Allison Flagg
[Editor’s Note: This FICTIONAL story was created by Dr. Ernie Ward and inspired by a compilation of individual events from his amazing veterinary career. We hope you enjoy this heartwarming tale.]
“It’s too darn cold to go out for a walk! Now lay down and quit your whining!”
Even Jerry was shocked by the ferocity in his voice as the echoes of his outburst bounced throughout the empty house. His old Labrador retriever, Gunner, lowered his tired head and slumped back to his spot near the heater. Gunner had started whining and pawing at the door about an hour ago, begging to go outside. Jerry could tell from the twinge in his knees that the icy Christmas rain and northwest wind was only getting worse. Pretty soon he’d have to get out of his old recliner and take Gunner out or risk waking up to a mess. He winced as he imagined Debra’s voice calling to him, “Jer, poor old Gunner’s been cooped up all day. Now you get yourself up and take that baby outside.” What he wouldn’t give to hear her nag him just one more time.
The end had come much too fast. There were so many things he hadn’t said, needed to say, that now would never be spoken. Why had he insisted on being so stubborn? Why did he find it so hard to tell her he was sorry? Why hadn’t he told her he loved her more often? As he lowered his head and began to cry, a familiar warm nose nudged his knee.
Jerry looked down and there was old Gunner giving him the most loving look he’d seen since Debra passed. Gunner licked at the old man’s knee, exactly where the aching was. Jerry reached down and ran his hand through his best friend’s fur. “Alright, boy. Let’s get our oilers on and get you outside.”
Gunner did a happy dance as Jerry pulled on his faithful pair of orange oilers from his final shrimping days. Jerry hooked on Gunner’s leash and cracked the door to gauge the weather. Before he could open it further, Gunner burst through, leaving Jerry empty-handed, staring into the dusk at the unexpected energy from his thirteen-year old Lab. “He must’ve really needed to go,” Jerry joked to himself.
As soon as he stepped into the frigid air, Jerry knew this would have to be a short walk. As he headed in the direction Gunner had bolted off in, he thought of the times he and Debra had made this same walk. He remembered Gunner once hightailing it during a hurricane and Debra refusing to come inside for almost an hour until the young Lab returned. Jerry wanted to give Gunner a tongue-lashing for running off like that but Debra would have none of it. She was always the caring one, the smart one. Had he told her how good and kind she was? How much smarter she was than anyone he knew? Had he made her happy?
After walking about five minutes, Jerry saw Gunner up ahead. The old hound seemed to be digging up something. All the rain from the past four days had washed up Lord only knows what—probably a dead squirrel or a deer carcass. Whatever it was, Jerry was about to give this mongrel a darn good talking to.
As he approached Gunner, the graying Lab looked up at him with what struck Jerry as sheer bliss. He couldn’t describe it other than the dog appeared incredibly happy, like he’d just seen…
“What in the world have you got there, boy?” Jerry looked down at the raw earth and didn’t see any signs of a deceased animal. Gunner backed away and bobbed his head for Jerry to take a closer look. Curious, the old man bent down on creaking knees and began digging in the shallow hole. Gunner began barking excitedly. “Settle down, boy! What have you found?” Just then Jerry’s fingers felt something smooth and hard. As he carefully uncovered the rectangular object, it looked like an old picture frame. He carefully tucked it in his waders and Gunner bounded back to the house.
When he got to his porch, he gingerly removed the frame and brushed off the mud. It looked like it still held an old faded picture. He took it inside and Gunner jumped up and began yapping at the photograph. Jerry put on his glasses, took the picture over to his reading lamp, and clicked on the light. Jerry gasped and began to tremble. Staring back at him was a much younger Debra holding Gunner as a puppy flanked by a much younger Jerry. He vaguely recalled the picture. What he didn’t recall was the way Debra was looking up at Jerry. She had the most peaceful, joyful, and content expression. At that moment Jerry knew his wife had been truly happy. He understood Debra had loved and been loved. And he owed that peace to old Gunner and a cold Christmas rain.
Love is a force that transcends space and time. Love appears in the most unexpected ways at the most surprising times. Love heals and gives life meaning. Take the time to tell the people in your life you love them this holiday season. Merry Christmas.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.