when the romance of missions crashes into reality…

Our journey to the edge of the world…on a Rocket

ImageThis is my friend Rocket. I asked God to give my family a companion to help us struggle through the roughest season of our lives as we moved to a remote island in the Pacific. We knew nobody in town, had no friends, no co-workers, no acquaintances, and did not understand the culture or language… so God sent Rocket.

And just so you know what I’m talking about, when I say we were alone…I mean absolutely companionless. When I deployed to foreign countries in the military I was always surrounded by friends and service members whom I trained with. When I moved from city to city because of work, the only thing I had to worry about was finding the nearest Albertson’s or 7eleven. Friends were inevitable. I didn’t have to worry about learning how to act appropriately in a culture alien to me or get used to eating a different type of food just to connect with people on a superficial level. When families in America relocate to another State, they move into neighborhoods, apartment complexes, or buildings with other people who speak their language. Even many overseas diplomats still work with Americans at a field office and few Peace Corps workers arrive to their allocations without the help of fellow volunteers. For better or for worse, my family did something unique to our profession. Most missionaries nowadays, especially in our organization, do not move into a cross-cultural situation without co-workers.  It is a difficult endeavor. Whether or not that was the best thing for us to do is all water under the bridge now. The fact remains: God called us to pioneer a brand new location on our own and He knew we needed a little help.

ImageFortunately (maybe?) my dog has made me into a sort of infamous celebrity out here.  People refer to me, not by name, but as “that peculiar guy who talks to his dog” or “that crazy man who commands his animal to sit in front of him so he could give him a hug.” Rocket was very friendly and affectionate. Most dogs out here are not used to being petted so if you try, you may lose your hand. Rocket was addicted to human touch. People were drawn to that. Our gate became the entrance to a petting zoo with only one animal as the main attraction. Eventually it became natural for visitors and passers-by to greet Rocket like any other human or to come and see him…just him, not me. All of our friends and acquaintances talked to him like they talked to babies. In America, that’s not unusual. In a provincial culture that rarely names dogs and often acknowledges them purely for their function as guards, that is bizarre. Many would even bring food gifts to our gate. I still don’t know any other animal in the Philippines who has received that kind of treatment and love from an entire neighborhood.

He was the largest canine anyone had ever seen residing in this provincial town. When he walked down the street, proud and tall, chest sticking out, the other dogs would literally run away with a drawn out yelp. Our neighbors told us that they felt safe whenever Rocket stood watch at the gate. People we barely knew were aware of the slight differences in his barks. They knew what types of people were friendly and those that may have been a threat based upon his tone or volume. Once, our neighbor ignored a suspicious bark Rocket was making because he was too tired to investigate. The next morning he realized that all of his tools and construction materials had been stolen. He truly believed that Rocket was trying to warn him of thieves. The dog became a legend after that. My black Labrador retriever also made a fierce name for himself as the predator that killed chickens that entered our yard…and didn’t eat them. People thought that was the most psychotic thing an animal could do. He seemed to kill for fun. Of course no one had bothered to read up on the disposition and natural tendencies of a “bird dog.” A group of men watched him chase a chicken who got so scared that it flew…actually flew…to the top of our second story rooftop.

ImageThe most powerful legend associated with his name was the day he was run over by a tricycle. It was going full speed carrying so many passengers that riders were relegated to standing on the back bumper. The driver didn’t slow down when he saw Rocket. He hit the dog with the most horrific thud and howl I had ever heard. The vehicle clunkered away. I scooped up my bloodied dog and grabbed three of my friends, and we sped to the Capitol to save his life. We found a veterinarian whose experience did not stray outside the confines of livestock care. She couldn’t do much to help so we made a circuit, visiting hospital after hospital to get him X-Rayed and treated. We were a spectacle to the nurses, doctors, and patients. I went to pharmacies and experienced the embarrassment of purchasing supplies for a dog. He lived. The following day I noticed a mangled tricycle being repaired at the shop next to our house. It had apparently hit a dog but the mechanic insisted that the driver must’ve crashed into a tree because of the damage. Of course, the driver wasn’t there. He had his friend drive it to the shop. The dog seemed invincible. People believed Rocket was made of stone. The town also realized just how far I’d go to care for the animal. They recognized him as part of our family.Image

And I won’t get started on Rocket’s nightly walks. It’s a strange activity townspeople had only viewed on television.

The other day, my friend did me a favor and approached a Filipino military commander to see if someone in the unit would be willing to shoot Rocket in the head. They refused. And local law enforcement told us it was illegal for them to put him down but that I could do it myself if I found a civilian with a registered gun. A neighbor has a large caliber pistol that hadn’t been fired or cleaned in years. They warned that it may explode upon depressing the trigger and would certainly “blow Rocket’s head completely off” if functioning.

Sedation, barbituates, potassium…proper dosages administered via catheter in a clinic lying on an exam table. No, I live on a remote island in the Pacific. Maybe if I acquired the drugs myself? They call euthanasia an art and a science deserving of proper technique. Could I go through with it without botching it up? Carbon monoxide poisoning by sticking him in a drum, sealing it up, and connecting a hose into the exhaust of our car; or holding his head in a bucket full of water for a while? What do you think? Or how about what the local vet suggested. Sending him to the buffalo butcher. Did you know that pigs, buffalos, sea turtles, and dogs scream longer than you would expect when you use a machete to end their lives? I do. Hitting him in the back of the head with a shovel or bat? I guess I’m not man enough to do that.

Rocket had canine distemper. It has a high mortality rate, but the dog was so strong that his body’s deterioration could not stop him from living. And no, he did not get vaccinated…again, we live on a remote island. As a dog’s body suffers from this virus, their immune system gets weaker. So he developed a pneumonia that he valiantly fought off. Over the next few weeks after the initial onset of symptoms, Rocket grew weaker and weaker. He started to have seizures that would send him tumbling to the floor. His eyes produced green discharge that had to be cleaned every hour or he couldn’t see. Distemper affects the neurological system. His brain seemed to be pulsating…throbbing. It could have been because other muscles near his skull were involuntarily contracting but his temples started to sink in after days of throbbing. His eyes receded into his head with each throb. His eyelids weren’t even touching his eyeballs anymore because they were so far back. He no longer had fat to pad his bones. We force-fed him baby cereal. But after a week he eventually started eating solids again. He was so hungry but his body could not process food properly. If you placed a bowl of boiled chicken and white bread in front of him, he’d gorge on it like he hadn’t eaten in days. Then he would pass out. If he got up to change positions or go outside, he would crash into the wall and end up on the floor. He struggled like an old, senile, blind dog.

A few days after getting back from Manila, Rocket was so excited to see me that he tried to get back into a routine. He limped over to his leash and happily heaved his body down the street. After a few days, I thought he was getting stronger. But one night he collapsed on one of our walks. I carried him home. We tried again the next evening. He didn’t make it past the corner. And finally he couldn’t even get up off of his bed. He couldn’t use the bathroom either. I tried to support him in the back yard so he could poop and pee. It had been days since he went despite all the food he was consuming.Image

His cries of pain were unbearable. The once booming voice of a valiant guard dog was reduced to a screeching yelp of a dying animal. But his yelping signified more than just pain. He was calling for me to sit with him, to stroke his head. If I left the room, he would cry. I started to sleep next to him on the floor of our kitchen next to his mat. Because he grew blind and probably even deaf, he often did not know if I was still in the room with him. So whenever he would howl for comfort, I would wake up and reach my hand to touch his paw just so he would know that I was still there. At 3am, my exhaustion just could not keep him comforted the way he wanted. So I eventually had to just sit next to him, his head on my lap, stroking him for hours on end. I haven’t had rest in a long time.

Had I been in the States I would’ve taken him to the vet and scheduled a day for him to be euthanized. If I were in the States I would’ve just borrowed a friend’s hunting rifle and taken him out back or to a secluded place to shoot him. But we live on an island where everyone in my town knows every move we make. And if anyone found out that we had intentionally killed our dog, our reputation, even our relationships, would’ve been hurt if not destroyed. Killing an animal for purposes not pertaining to survival or for food is a taboo thing. Many believe that to end a dog’s life is to play God. A dog can’t tell their masters that they’ve given up on life. And the concept of ending suffering does not jive out here. Suffering is a way of life. It is the hand that God has dealt. Many can only eat one meal a day. Some eat every other day. People that have cancer don’t get treatment. Fishermen who have blown their arm off by the dynamite they use continue living in pain without medications until they die a few days later, or in one case, a few years. Divers that have been hit with decompression illness will suffer the rest of their lives as 24-year-old stroke victims. So to tell someone that we have a responsibility to end suffering, is a concept reserved for people of another world.

ImageI once suggested euthanasia to a Filipino friend and they berated me with phrases like, “Don’t you trust God?” “Don’t you have faith?” “You’re supposed to be a spiritual person!” Others believe so heavily in karma and curses that to kill Rocket would bring bad luck to the community, not just my own household. If someone got sick the same day that Rocket was put to sleep, then it would be our fault. If someone died anywhere near our vicinity the same day we killed Rocket, we may be blamed for that death.

A retired veterinarian working for the agricultural department tried to help me. He looked Rocket over and told me to keep him alive by feeding him and giving him water and administering antibiotics. When I finally decided that Rocket needed to be put down, I called him and asked if he could do it. He would not. Neither would the official veterinarian employed by the government. Fortunately a friend in Manila connected me with a vet that decided to walk me through putting him to sleep.

Caring for the sick and dying is not foreign to me. I’ve spent the better part of a decade working in health care. In the military I was a Navy Corpsman, trained in combat trauma medicine. I’ve administered too many immunizations and started an uncountable number of IVs. I worked as a certified surgical technologist and as an EMT. I spent a lot of time as a nurse’s aid as well. I emphasize that because (this is my pride speaking) it is the aid that has to do all the menial, dirty work. Changing diapers, caring for catheters, treating bedsores, lifting patients to the bedside commode and holding them up as they defecated…all the degrading duties. And as an aid I’ve been there for many a patient’s last breath or violent cardiac arrest. When it came to caring for a deceased individual, I was the one who cleaned up the bodily fluids and waste that pour out when all muscular functions have been lost. I got used to gathering cherished belongings and carting the bodies to the morgue.

Within 24 hours of my talk with the vet in Manila, the medications arrived. I picked it up at the Capitol. I had errands to do, classes to teach, and I knew that at the end of the day, I had a beloved dog whose suffering needed to end. Close to midnight, I called my friend over for emotional support. I talked to the vet over the phone for final instructions. My wife came down from putting the children to bed. I lined the vials of medications on the table and prepared the syringe and multiple needles. Even though I spent years in healthcare, setting IV’s, giving shots, bandaging wounds, I did not have it in me to place a catheter into Rocket’s vein. Fortunately, there was a way to do it intramuscularly. But for that, I needed to overload his system with an incredible amount of poison. I took Rocket’s face into my hands, gave him a kiss and told him that he fulfilled his duty of loving a family that needed it so badly. I stroked his head one last time. My friend, Tom, kneeled at Rocket’s head and petted him gently. Amy spoke sweet words into his ears and stroked his torso. I went to his leg and injected the first syringe…

ImageRocket’s breathing finally calmed down and the wheezing disappeared. His rib cage gracefully rose up and down. Every breath he took before being sedated was a violent gasp of air. Now, Rocket was finally able to sleep. It’d been days since he could lie down like a normal dog and close his eyes. After a few more minutes I continued on with the rest of the vials. Rocket looked peaceful. He was actually resting, breathing normally, if for just a little while. And before his world went black before him, Rocket was receiving the comfort he had been yelping for. The three of us pet him and spoke to him for a good while before leaving Rocket to just rest there on his mat at the foot of the stairs. The poison would eventually stop his heart, but he could still rest for a while before it happened.

The next day Tom and I dug a grave in the backyard. We gathered the kids and a couple of neighbors and we held a short but very sweet ceremony. Rocket was laid into the ground. A few friends even came by to offer their condolences…as if my dog were a human. But as our neighbor said, “I’ve never talked to an animal as if they could respond back. Rocket was different. He was like a friend.”

There was a commotion at the funeral home next door. Someone had just died. Later we found out that a truck had been in an accident with a tricycle full of students. I can’t imagine the kinds of stories people would have thought about us had we not euthanized Rocket in the cloak of darkness within closed doors.

Killing is not a natural thing for humans. We kill because we have all fallen into the diabolical scheme of Satan. In Genesis chapter 2 we discover that Adam had dominion over everything on earth. After falling into sin, the once perfect relationship he had with God and with the earth became marred forever. So now, we must experience blood and gore just to survive wars or to eat a meal, and until recently, just to get clothed. Often, we inflict death to end the suffering a sinful world relentlessly produces.

Last night after teaching class, I pulled my motorcycle to the gate. Rocket knew the sound of my engine’s rumble versus others. He’d pop to, scramble for the entrance, and sit excitedly wagging his tail until I parked. Then he’d follow me in and out of the house as I unloaded all of our computer equipment. He’d station next to his hanging leash, almost unable to control his excitement. Then we’d walk the neighborhood at about 10:30pm at night. I used to hear stories of this mysterious police officer that patrolled the streets in the dark, protecting the people with his black beast. It took me a month to realize those very real myths were actually about Rocket and me. I sat on my motorcycle for a few minutes, engine still rumbling, trying to cope with a new routine…no dog patiently waiting hours for his friend; no moments of hiding treats under mats for him to find; no more entertaining the neighbors with performances of “sit” “stay” “lie down” “kiss.”  And no more walks in the cool island night with Rocket, giving the neighbors a sense of safety that only superheroes can.

ImageI’ve learned a lot about God, about suffering, and about love through my experience with Rocket. Some people believe that dogs are just animals. . Do animals have souls? Depends on your theology, your hermeneutical abilities, and command of Biblical Hebrew when studying Genesis or Psalms. But for me, I can’t possibly believe that an animal with the ability to love is soul-less. This is what I told my son: “Animals were created by a wonderful God. He is a God who values and considers all of the things he made and even called them good“. Mathew 10:29 says that even a sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without Him noticing. Whatever the fate of animals after this life, I hope I fulfilled my role as a steward of God’s great, living resources. Amy reminded me that there would be a day with no more tears or pain. Isaiah Chapter 11 talks of a day when lions and lambs would lie down together. Maybe I’m getting too emotional or going through unnecessary grief…oh well. This is my story.

We got Rocket when we moved into San Andres, Catanduanes. Like a mysterious sojourner, he left our household at an appropriate time during our transition back to the United States. God blessed us with a companion to help us through this season of life and to teach us more about love – something we often take for granted.  Thank you for that Rocket. Thank you for showing us how to love well.

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2 responses

  1. Linda Mitts

    Dear Edwin and Amy, The posting of Rocket was touching, heart-braking for those who love our pets. Even after this very beautiful sharing, I thought about how so much like I Corinthians  10 your lives exemplify; not causing others to encounter a stumbling block and to be weak.   The very fact that you, having the ability but more so, the restraint in giving Rocket an ‘easy’ way out is a tribute to your lives and the lover you have for your neighbors.

    Thank you for sharing in the hope of our Lord and Savior.

    Blessings, Linda

    March 13, 2014 at 4:19 am

  2. Matt Hassett

    Thanks for sharing, I feel for you guys losing such a loyal family member. The unconditional love that our dogs show us is something for us to strive for ourselves. I have no doubt God brought Rocket into your lives for great purpose and also took him out of it for a purpose, although much harder to comprehend. I sit here teary eyed reading this feeling your pain and preparing for a similar struggle with our faithful companion of 10 years Zeke who was recently diagnosed with cancer. In the end God is faithful and we will continue to rely in Him in getting us through.

    March 14, 2014 at 5:24 am

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