This week, Mildred’s beloved collie slipped out our back door and ran away. We frantically hoped to find him before Mildred discovered his absence. She had taken a bad fall that morning, and we didn’t want to add to her distress.
“Maybe he’ll come back on his own,” I offered. Dogs do that.
My mother kept reiterating that God must have had a purpose in appointing the event on this day, which, it seemed to us, had already gone badly enough. The runaway dog, one of Mildred’s greatest treasures, crowned the pain of her fall—which we all felt, in a sense—with our panic.
We took turns scouring the woods on the ATV for the dog, hoping we would hear his perky bark as we rounded corners. Nothing.
My mother printed out a flyer for the neighborhood:
“LOST, NICE DOG, LITTLE COLLIE, ANSWERS TO “TIMMY.”
Finally, we gave up. We had to tell Mildred.
Who would like to tell the weakened woman, whose day had already soured, that the wee collie she named after her father, her best companion through many lonely days, had vanished when she wanted him most?
My mother did the deed. Through the baby monitor we keep in Mildred’s room, I heard her say, “I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am.”
The rest of the day Mildred grew quiet, brooding. She thought she heard Timmy’s bark, and was disappointed to find it was only me sneezing in the kitchen.
My mother’s cries to heaven punctuated the day. She paused in the middle of the living room, threw her head back and said, “Dear Lord, why did the dog have to run away today?”
Then, again, she said He must have had some purpose.
So she spooned Mildred mashed potatoes. Put her in clean jammies. We resigned ourselves to bedtime. And no Timmy.
As I sat on the couch reading Jane Eyre—a creepy book, impossible to put down—I heard the bark at the door.
At the sneezy little voice I shot up as if spring-loaded, and ran to see. There, returned from his slipshod day trip—in which he had likely “wasted his substance in riotous living”—stood Timmy.
Of course we brought out our best robes, a ring for his paw, and slaughtered the fatted calf because we had received him back unscathed. My mother, father, and I rushed to Mildred’s room with Timmy. He bounded onto the bed, and we all grinned like fools, too happy to care that our sentiments looked as dated as Lassie.
Old-fashioned neighbor life weighs a lot more than I, in my idealism, used to think it would. In my old, idealistic version I got to be the star, the heroine, the inconvenienced martyr, the rescuer, the noble-minded.
But neighbor life tenders another kind of gratification. You take on another person’s affections. You join in their longing, and, in this case, learn to love their prodigal.