Did Jesus Find My Lost Dog?
In the summer of 2015, in the wake of a long overdue decision to officially separate from my husband and file for divorce, I drove across the country with my Saint Bernard. The trip was uneventful until I got to Tennessee, where I stayed for the weekend with old friends I’ll call Jenna and Rob. It was here where I lost the dog.
I didn’t personally lose her. Phoebe broke out of a doggie daycare while I sat in an evangelical Christian church outside Nashville, where a rock band played power ballads about “the awesome, almighty father” and hundreds of congregants waved their arms in the air as though reaching out to touch the heavenly spirit. (They’d probably disagree with the “as though” part.) When the service was over, I stepped outside the church and discovered multiple text messages from my husband saying to call him immediately.
“Total disaster,” he said on the phone, nearly breathless. “Phoebe escaped, and they took her collar off. She has no tags. She’s been missing for almost three hours.”
I bolted back inside the church. Jenna and Rob were in the chapel, chatting with some potential partners in a subscription box juice company they wanted to start up.
“Phoebe got loose!” I sputtered. “We have to go!”
They stopped their conversation, and we ran through the parking lot and piled into their Range Rover. The church was on the outskirts of town, surrounded by country roads. Nonetheless, we immediately hit standstill traffic. Every church in town was letting out. It was Sunday rush hour.
“Don’t worry,” Jenna said. “We’re going to find Phoebe.”
I phoned the doggie daycare. It was a rather backwater operation I’ll call Paws ’N Play, the only place open on Sunday. The young woman on duty, who had promised me the dogs were never left unattended, told me that Phoebe appeared to have rammed through a wooden fence and escaped. There had been no sign of her for hours. Apparently they’d removed her collar. What? Why? (“It’s just our policy,” she said.) They’d tried to call me several times but couldn’t get through and so finally called my husband, who, out of sheer habit, I’d put down as an emergency contact. He hadn’t been able to reach me either.
“Cellphone reception in the church isn’t so great,” Rob said.
I resisted making a crack about Jesus switching to Verizon. You may now applaud me for my maturity.
Jenna believed then, as she does now, that End Times were upon us and that Barack Obama was almost definitely (or at least entirely possibly) the anti-Christ. Still, Jenna was (and remains) one of my dearest friends. We’d met more than a decade earlier when I was living in her home state of Nebraska, a place to which I’d moved from New York City for no tangible reason and to which she’d moved back from Southern California to take care of her ailing mother and escape a chaotic marriage. I’d lived in Nebraska for a few years before I met Jenna, and meeting her changed everything for me. She was an intoxicatingly charismatic and engaging friend. After leaving my own chaotic romantic relationship, I lived in a spare room in her house for several months. We spent countless hours standing in her kitchen drinking wine and eating Thai food off the counter, so absorbed in our conversation that we literally forgot to sit down at the table.
Jenna’s belief in the Rapture had come a few years later, though she’d always been a sucker for the apocalypse. The day after the September 11 attacks, I went over to her house, and we sat on her screened-in back porch while she expressed in rather convincing terms the likelihood that the events were the lead-up to the second coming of the prophet. Months later, after I’d moved into Jenna’s house, my dog Rex went after a squirrel and jumped straight through the screened-in porch, leaving a hole twice his size. He then proceeded to spend the next day clawing and gnawing the rest of the screens as though they were made of dehydrated lamb lung. Jenna was gracious about the damage, though I made sure to have it professionally repaired.
Every time I knelt down to clean up a puddle, Phoebe seemed to be making another one somewhere else.
I bring up the subject of pet damage because there was a strange symmetry between that long-ago incident with Rex and the circumstances leading to Phoebe’s escape from Paws ’N Play. Those circumstances were this: On the fourth day of my cross-country drive, I arrived at Jenna’s place in Tennessee and, within minutes, Phoebe began a process of systematically urinating on nearly every rug in the house. First she trotted upstairs and peed on the brand-new jute carpeting in the media room. Upon noticing this, I rushed to clean it up, hoping it might not be noticeable. While I was doing this, Phoebe ran into the luxurious guest suite where I’d put down my suitcase and peed on the carpet. By then, I had no choice but to go downstairs to confess to Jenna what had happened. While I was apologizing, Phoebe walked into the living room and peed on a $9,000 oriental rug.
Later she’d hit the hallway runner, another oriental rug in the dining room, and the sweet white sheepskin rug in Jenna’s little girl’s bedroom. Admirably forgiving at first, Jenna became less so with every subsequent “accident”—I hesitate to use that term since Phoebe clearly knew what she was doing—until she was nearly hysterical. I was both hysterical and mortified. The house was a newly built 7,000-square-foot manse in what was apparently called the French country style. There were voluptuous white sofas, expensively upholstered fauteuil chairs, eight-foot-wide faux-rustic chandeliers. The house was Jenna’s canvas, her pride and joy, always in flux and never finished. I dashed around with a roll of paper towels, though it proved to be a surreal game of whack-a-mole. Every time I knelt down to clean up a puddle, Phoebe seemed to be making another one somewhere else. I finally grabbed her and tossed her outside, though this only invited relentless scratching at the glass doors and the inevitable prospect of further property damage.
Phoebe spent the next two days attached to her leash, which I carried with me throughout the house and on every excursion we took, including to a shopping mall, where I strode around with her with enough confidence that no one kicked us out. (It’s amazing the places you can take a big dog if you just walk in without asking permission. For better or worse, this seems one of the few forms of unalloyed self-confidence I’ve mastered.)
It was there, in that church, sitting in a folding chair and watching the newly saved plunge into the water like targets at a carnival dunking booth, that I began to sob uncontrollably.
Still, Sunday loomed. On Sunday we were going to church. When you visited Jenna and Rob, that is just what you did, not because they were out to convert you—or at least not me, whom they’d given up on long ago—but because church is such a big part of their lives that not going would be like visiting an artist friend who had a show up at a gallery and not going to see the exhibit. Phoebe couldn’t come to church, of course, but nor could she stay outdoors since the 12-acre property wasn’t fully fenced. (The garage had also been eliminated as an option, not just because it was 90 degrees outside, but also because it contained gym equipment that Rob feared would be peed on.) So I located a doggie daycare, got up early to drive Phoebe there before church, and congratulated myself on my problem-solving skills.
The church had a rock band, a Jumbotron video screen, and a chamber off to the side of the stage with a see-through water tank designed for baptisms. That morning, at least two dozen people, mostly adults, lined up to be dunked in the water, usually by a loved one or a church leader. They wore shorts and red T-shirts bearing the name of the church. Each baptism was displayed on the Jumbotron, and the congregants shouted “Hallelujah!” after each one. The rock band accompanied the whole procession with a pattern of pleasingly rolling chord progressions.
And it was there, in that church, sitting in a folding chair and watching the newly saved plunge into the water like targets at a carnival dunking booth, that I began to sob uncontrollably.
As a non-sobber, this was alarming. Also rather physically painful, since in trying to keep it a secret, I bit my lip and clenched my jaw hard enough that the quivering turned into subtle muscle spasms. Maybe it was a kind of emotional sugar crash brought on by the ear candy of the band’s ’80s-style soft-rock modulations, which were something like a cross between a regional production of Godspell and a Richard Marx concert. Or maybe it was that four days earlier, I’d driven away from my marriage and the city I called home for the past 14 years, which is longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life.
Or maybe it was that for as long as I’d been in that marriage and city, I’d known Jenna for even longer.
I was also still maintaining the pretense of not crying, mostly because I didn’t want Jenna to get any big ideas about my being touched by the spirit of the lord.
Of course, I’d known many other people for even longer than that. But there was something about sitting in church with Jenna, humiliated by the damage to her rugs yet drenched in her forgiveness, flummoxed as always by her politics but proud (even smug) at how we both managed to look past our differences, that made me weep in a way I hadn’t in years. Which is to say that for the first time in years I was weeping about something other than the bedeviled state of my marriage.
You’d think that realization would be enough to get me to stop, but the opposite occurred. To my continued dismay, crying about something non-marriage-related spurred a relief that seemed to double in on itself and cause yet more crying. Even though I’m generally a non-toucher, I spontaneously put my arm around Jenna, and she pulled me in and held me as though I were a child. She told me she loved me. She brought to this statement her signature ability to diffuse a heavy situation or erase awkwardness, which is to say she said, “Love ya.”
I said nothing back. I was too choked up to speak. I was also still maintaining the pretense of not crying, mostly because I didn’t want Jenna to get any big ideas about my being touched by the spirit of the lord.
An hour later, reeling in panic over Phoebe, I was cursing Jenna under my breath as she prayed in the Range Rover.
“Any word yet?” my husband texted me.
“Stuck in church traffic,” I wrote.
“I am so upset right now,” he typed. “I can’t believe this has happened.”
Jenna called the local police and filed a missing dog report. She provided a physical description and added that Phoebe was “very well groomed,” which admittedly sent a surge of pride through my foaming anger and terror. Then she called her friends from church and told them to keep an eye out for Phoebe and also to pray. She reminded me that the pastor had just talked about trusting in a higher power and that I should have faith in the Lord and also in the fact that this was a very nice town full of caring people and it wasn’t like Phoebe would just be stolen or anything like that.
“I can’t believe this,” I said over and over again. “I just can’t believe it. She’s going to get hit by a car. Or someone might shoot her. She has kind of a mean-looking face.”
“I’m going to pray for Phoebe,” Jenna said. “I’m going to pray for Phoebe right now.”
My husband texted again. He’d said he’d just checked back with Paws ’N Play again and was told that Phoebe had been spotted by the train tracks.
The image seemed upsettingly perfect. Phoebe, a stocky, tanklike animal whose snub-nosed, mushy face and red-rimmed eyes gave her the air of a sad, out-of-shape prizefighter, had been rescued two years earlier from a backyard breeder in the desert. The prizefighter reference is no accident. About a year after my husband and I adopted her, she began getting into fights with other dogs, altercations in which she never managed to inflict any damage but occasionally emerged covered in her own blood. She never registered any pain or discomfort, though following one such incident she did plant herself down on the grass so stubbornly that my husband had to pick her up and carry her across three baseball diamonds. (Upon seeing our car in the parking lot, Phoebe spilled herself from his arms and sprinted toward it as though chasing a gazelle.)
All of this is to say that running along the train tracks, lost and frightened, seemed like a kind of situational set point for Phoebe. Never mind that for all her redneck origins, she was now the kind of dog whose owner was so committed to her well-being that 1) there would be no question as to whether she would move across the country with that owner in the wake of owner’s divorce, and 2) there would be no question that this move would require the owner to drive for five days in a 15-year-old Volvo station wagon rather than spend five hours on a plane with the dog underneath in the cargo hold (an unthinkable scenario given the dog’s temperament). Never mind that this dog’s owner had purchased, specifically for this trip, a collar with the name “Phoebe” and relevant phone number emblazoned in giant type as a precaution against this very situation, a situation the owner had regarded as the worst possible thing that could happen on this drive.
Never mind any of it. As I sat helpless in the back of the Range Rover, I could only think that Phoebe’s best days were behind her. That was to say, her days with me were behind her. It seemed inevitable that she would never be found. And if she were to be found, there was no question that whatever home she lived in thereafter would be nowhere near as loving or pampering or needs-meeting as mine. Never mind that I was taking her to an apartment in New York City.
“I’m going to pray for Phoebe,” Jenna said. “I’m going to pray for Phoebe right now.”
Jenna closed her eyes, bowed her head and whispered something I could barely make out.
“Jenna is praying for Phoebe,” I texted my husband.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he wrote back.
Five minutes after Jenna prayed for Phoebe, my cellphone rang. It was the local police dispatcher. Phoebe had been located and was safe. The people who had found her phoned the police just after Jenna had phoned in the description. They were waiting at a nearby elementary school.
Rob turned the car around and headed toward the school. Phoebe was sitting on the front steps with two friendly looking women, one of whom was gripping the ruff of her neck, where her collar should have been. Phoebe was dirty, the white portions of her fur blackened with mud, but otherwise fine. The women were a mother and her college-aged daughter. They’d been driving home from church when Phoebe ran into traffic on a busy street. The daughter, who was driving, slammed on the brakes. This was no stray, they said. This dog belongs to someone. Then they followed Phoebe as she ran farther down the street and into the schoolyard, where somehow they managed to corral her.
I fell all over myself thanking them. I offered to pay a reward, which probably insulted them. I got their names and email addresses with some kind of intention to write or send a gift later. It turned out that Jenna knew some friends of theirs through a church connection even though they didn’t go to the same church. Jenna stood there talking with them for at least 10 minutes while Rob and I sat in the Range Rover with Phoebe, whom I was holding close in the back seat even though Rob was worried she would scratch the leather seats. I snapped a photo of her, dirty and collarless, and texted it to my husband. I couldn’t believe we’d found her in one piece. It seemed like a legitimate miracle. “Jenna prayed for Phoebe and then we found her,” I wrote.
“OMG,” he wrote back.
Through the windshield, Rob and I watched Jenna as she talked and talked, absorbed in conversation and losing track of time just like she had when we stood in her kitchen eating Thai food all those years ago. He groused about her taking so long. He said something about how she never stopped talking, how she just let time get away from her while she talked and talked. Finally, she wrapped it up and got in the car.
“Okay,” I said to them both. “You win.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Jenna said.
Then I made the kind of joke you can’t make with a lot of people.
“You set that whole thing up, didn’t you? That was a big play to make me into a believer.”
“That’s right,” Jenna said without missing a beat. “All a setup. Good one, huh?”
Nearly six years have passed since then. In that time, my divorce was finalized and my father died. Phoebe had a good life in New York City, not to mention all the other places I took her. She was the star of our upper Manhattan neighborhood, a fixture in my office in the English Department during a stint at the University of Iowa. She even attended the Women’s March in 2018 in New York City. After a long period of medical struggles, Phoebe’s hips gave out, and I had to do her the kindness of putting her down.
A year later, a pandemic wrapped itself around the world with such a chokehold that it sometimes feels like End Times. Jenna, who has since become an ardent Trump supporter, recently told me that she’s been taking firearms training classes and now sleeps with a pistol next to her bed. The Rapture still hasn’t come, but Jenna tells me it could happen any day.
I still live in New York City, where I have a new dog. Over the years, I’ve told Phoebe’s lost-and-found story dozens of times. It’s the only time I ever use the word “miracle” in earnest.
To commemorate the two-year anniversary of “Species of Grief,” the essay I wrote for GEN about my late dog, Phoebe, I thought I’d recount an incident that happened with her six years ago.