"The Gift" by Dianalee Velie
Suzie just couldn’t learn. Try as she might, Claire could not teach Suzie to heel. Claire sat down on the bench, defeated. Here, at the Oxbridge Hunt Club polo grounds, where the dog obedience classes were held, she watched every other dog go through their obedience routines. But Suzie wanted no part of this. Suzie jumped and clamored all over Claire, licking her face in joyful ecstasy. Claire sighed as she watched all the other proud dogs walk respectfully and respectively alongside their owners. Her head started to ache with the thought of how much she had spent on these lessons. After the final parade around the field, the class was dismissed, doggie treats were handed out, and the trainer came over to Claire and Suzie. Claire looked up with resignation at the trainer as Suzie playfully tugged at her leash.
“You want me to give it a try, Claire. Suzie knows you’ve given up. You’ve got to reinforce these lessons at home. She’s really very smart.”
“Sure,” Claire smiled. “Be my guest.”
The trainer hooked Suzie to her leash, walked a few steps, tugged the leash, and issued the command. Claire held her head in her hands, trying to ignore the building laughter she couldn’t help, as Suzie sat down and refused to budge. Looking forlornly at Claire, she broke free of the trainer and ran to Claire’s lap.
“Oh, sweetie, you don’t like this, do you? But Mommy loves you anyway. You make me smile. I always feel better when I’m with you.”
“You’re reinforcing bad behavior by rewarding her with kisses and hugs, you know.” The trainer tried to be forceful but the sight of the two rolling around in the grass broke his staid demeanor.
“Any chance I can get a partial refund?” Claire asked between wet dog kisses.
“Not likely, but I’ll see what I can do,” he mumbled before he packed his gear and left.
“Come on Suzie. Let’s go home! I’m starving. Time for din-din.”
The Reverend Claire Fitzsimons, Pastor of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, known to all her friends as Fritzy, went home to prepare for her sermon and make dinner. Her headaches were getting worse. Countless MRIs showed a non-operable tumor around the stem of her brain. No one knew, not her parishioners, not her family. Well, what was left of her family. Her husband and son had been in the first tower. Everyone said she needed a pet after her long grieving period and Suzie was a gift from her dearest friends. Dear Suzie. Not the brightest pup from the litter but what a sweetheart.
Claire finished a bowl of lentil soup and put on her reading glasses to work on her sermon. Two painkillers would make her drowsy but not for about an hour. The theme of her sermon: Love conquers all/Believe in miracles. Suzie lay snoring quietly at her feet. Feeling the pills begin to work, she put down her pen and snuggled Suzie’s neck.
“Oh, sweetie, why can’t you at least learn to heel?”
Suzie licked her hand rapturously and followed Claire up to bed, lying beside her on the pillow. When Claire awoke the next morning, she felt something different. Maybe, a new spring in her step, or an energy long forgotten. She couldn’t be sure. She must have gotten a good night’s rest. She felt great. A heavy fog seemed to have been lifted. Suzie was waiting by the door wagging her tail and jumping up and down, impatient for Claire to put up the coffee and take her for her walk.
Suzie wiggled and squirmed trying to play while Claire tired to put on her collar and leash. Mission finally accomplished, the walk went as usual. Suzie tugged and pranced making it debatable as to who was walking whom.
“Oh Suzie, if you could only learn to heel, I would be so grateful.”
Suzie suddenly stopped and looked up at Claire with a studied look of inquisitive yearning and then bounded forward, pulling the leash out of her hand. Claire ran after her ending up in the playground at the end of the street. Stopping at the edge of the park to catch her breath, she was surprised to find she was not even winded. Walking over to Suzie, who was now resting her head on the lap of one of the mothers seated on a park bench, Claire began to apologize profusely.
“Oh, please don’t say another word,” Constance Smith smiled, petting Suzie weakly. “I love animals but can’t have one because...” Two tears made their way slowly down Constance Smith’s cheek. “You know, Reverend, my leukemia has come back and I am having treatments again. I thought I had this licked. Peter wants a puppy so badly,” she said, pointing to a little blonde five-year-old, climbing the colored rocks on the climbing wall.
Suzie snuggled closer, laying her head between Constance Smith’s knees.
Claire crumbled a little inside. This was the hardest part of her job as an Episcopalian priest, listening to the pain of her parishioners and wanting to offer them so much more than she had to give. She knew personally what grief and sorrow were and knew the rocky path one had to follow. She always prayed for divine guidance to help these families more than she knew how.
“Your dog is really and angel like you. She is so sweet.”
“Well, sweet she is, but also untrainable. I’m afraid we just failed doggy obedience. I can’t even teach her to heel. That’s why she’s here; she darted away pulling the leash right out of my hands. You know you’ll be in my prayers, Connie. If there is anything else I can do, please let me know.”
“I will, Reverend. I so appreciate all your kind words. Your dog, Suzie, is really so sweet, though.” Constance got up rather slowly and called for Peter.
“Time to go, Peter. Come say hello to Suzie.”
Peter hugged Suzie who licked him and kissed him and toppled him off his feet.
“Easy Suzie,” Claire cried trying to put Suzie’s collar, still attached to the leash back on.
“Say good-bye to the doggie,” Constance encouraged Peter. “We have to go now.”
Claire walked back home with Suzie in the lead as usual. Climbing up her front stairs, she began to dread today’s MRI. Hopefully the tumor had not grown, but the last visit had shown an increase in its size and an increase in her headaches had also been noted. The headache, though, was miraculously missing today.
Three hours later, Claire walked home from Doctor Chandler’s office jubilant and confused at the same time.
“No trace of the tumor,” the doctor had said. “None at all.”
He sent her for some more blood work, but couldn’t explain a thing.
“I just don’t know,” he kept repeating. “I have heard of these things happening but never have witnessed anything like it.”
Claire could not wait to get home and call her sister. Suzie greeted her with jumps of joy that Claire did not reprimand.
“So what if you never heel. I love you just the way you are.”
The next day Claire was committed to make her hospital rounds. If Suzie were more obedient, Claire would have loved to bring her along to visit patients.
“I have to do my hospital rounds and then I am coming right home, Suzie, and we are going for a long walk. I love you, sweetheart.”
Claire’s first visit was to Connie Smith, who was to undergo another round of chemotherapy. She found Connie sitting up in bed, crying with her husband beside her. This did not look good.
“Oh, Reverend, it’s so good to see you. Something amazing has happened. I have been tested and retested. My blood counts are normal! There is no sign of my leukemia. It’s a miracle. I’ve been healed. Your prayers and the prayers of all my family have been answered.”
Something clicked in Claire’s brain. A bolt of light shot through her heart as she hugged Connie.
“Oh Connie, miracles do happen. I will see you Sunday in church then. Take it slow and easy.”
Claire finished her visits in the hospital faster than usual and quickly hurried to the head nurse’s desk to ask about laws regarding visiting pets. Lots of rules, too many rules but she would have to work with those constraints.
She ran most of the way home, throwing her arms around Suzie as soon as she walked through the door. She put Suzie’s leash and collar on and walked outside.
“Heel,” Claire said tentatively.
Suzie stopped in her tracks and looked at Claire, then pawed the ground and lay down.
“I know, sweetheart, you already did.”
Upon hearing those words, Suzie jumped up, jubilant, and ran in circles around Claire until they both collapsed in a heap of laughter and woofs.
“We have a lot of work to do, you and I, Miss Healer, and I hardly know where to begin. Let’s go heal!”
About the Author: Dianalee Velie is the Poet Laureate of Newbury New Hampshire where she lives and writes. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and has a Master of Arts in Writing from Manhattanville College, where she has served as faculty advisor of Inkwell: A Literary Magazine. She has taught poetry, memoir, and short story at universities and colleges in New York, Connecticut and New Hampshire and in private workshops throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Her award-winning poetry and short stories have been published in hundreds of literary journals and many have been translated into Italian. She enjoys traveling to rural school systems in Vermont and New Hampshire teaching poetry for the Children’s Literacy Foundation. Her play, Mama Says, was directed by Daniel Quinn in a staged reading in New York City. She is the author of five books of poetry, Glass House, First Edition, The Many Roads to Paradise, The Alchemy of Desire, Ever After and a collection of short stories, Soul Proprietorship: Women in Search of Their Souls. She is a member of the Vermont Branch of the National League of American Pen Women, the New England Poetry Club, the International Woman Writers Guild, the New Hampshire Poetry Society and founder of the John Hay Poetry Society. Learn more at her website: