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Lessons From Rosa

“I love because I love,” wrote St. Bernard of Clairvaux. “I love in order that I may love.” How appropriate that the mystic shares a name with a dog breed.

As a Christian, I know that love is a gift to be given with no thought of reward. But I confess I’ve tended to love those who love me back and are kind to me—an inferior variety of love that Jesus relegated to “tax collectors.” I’ve always admired dogs because they love with abandon, not expectation.

That is, until I met Rosa. We arrived at the shelter, amazed that this cute puppy wasn’t adopted at its last event. Yet here she was: four white paws and a natural dark-chocolate eyeliner that made her look inexpressibly soulful.

“Why did her sister get adopted and not her?” I asked. The woman who runs the place speculated that it was because this pup did not scamper up to people with a plea to “love me” on her face.

Indeed, she ignored us. She preferred to munch on the phone books in the shelter office. I sat on the floor and waited. Eventually, she crawled into my lap and began chewing on the buttons of my coat. I was besotted.

Rosa quickly proved herself the smartest dog I’ve ever had. For example, a dog confronted with two tennis balls will usually puzzle over which one to choose and switch back and forth. Rosa takes one in her mouth and uses it as a tool to push the second along. If she had language and opposable thumbs, she’d be holding my leash.

A Rosa by Any Other Name

My husband thought our smart, independent dog should be named for a strong woman— Joan of Arc or Marie Curie. We’d had her less than a day when Russell tried to dislodge her from the seat she’d chosen. Calm, immovable, she looked at him as if to say, “Certainly not, young man!” He named her Rosa, in honor of Rosa Parks.

Russell got to name the dog as a concession. I was the only member of the family who wanted another dog after our sweet, old Spotty passed. Russ and I would soon be empty nesters, free to travel, if we didn’t have a dog. But I couldn’t live without one.

I’ve been told that as a baby I learned to roll over to reach my crib’s edge, where Prince would stick his long collie nose in and give me kisses. Doggie love had warmed my entire life, and the world was unbearably cold without it.

Though I’ve adored each one, I’ve always been more on the receiving than the giving end with my dogs. My Dalmatian got me through my first battle with cancer. One day, Cu placed his head exactly where it hurt and howled. For humans, “I feel your pain” is just an expression. When Cu was separated from me, even by a baby gate, he would have what seemed to be an asthma attack. His younger sibling, Spotty,was similarly attached. This 75-pound lap dog learned how to open the bathroom door so that we’d never be apart.

A Little Aloof

Dog lovers often get branded as big-hearted, which gives humans too much credit. You don’t risk your heart loving a dog. A dog is a sure thing. Rosa, I was certain, would be my new best friend. My care for her was an investment that would pay off one day, I figured.

Rosa has certainly always wanted me around. If I left her alone, she protested by chewing something, such as prescription eyeglasses. Yet she had little interest in sitting in my lap. In fact, she gave me the hairy eyeball when I took up too much space on her sofa.

Rosa allowed me to pet her when she was in the mood, but it didn’t rock her world. Mostly, she stared at me, not with gooey-eyed adoration, but like a discerning collector sizing up a painting that’s probably overpriced.

Rosa preferred the company of other dogs. When I took her to the dog park, she was gleeful: running, rolling in the dirt, growling, and yipping with the pure joy of being a dog. The dog park was fun for me, too, because I got so many kisses and nuzzles—from other people’s dogs.

This is not to say that I received no affection from Rosa. After months of being one of Rosa’s people, I emerged from my probationary period. Increasingly, I’d find her lying outside the door whenever I emerged from a room. Occasionally, she’d jump on me when I returned home. But it was brief, dignified.

You might think I’d cherish Rosa less than those dogs who were so devoted. But I loved her without reservation. Maybe that’s because I have a lifelong habit of being crazy about my dogs. Or maybe I was thankful for the unique gift this standoffish mutt gave me: the chance to be a dog myself, which I would argue is the chance to be a better person.

Dogs don’t keep ledgers. They always expend more than they receive and never consider themselves the poorer for it. The world would be richer if people could master that method of accounting. With Rosa’s help, I began moving in that direction.

A Promise to Love

“O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek . . . to be loved as to love.” That’s from the Prayer of St. Francis. About 10 years ago, I received a lovely stone St. Francis statue for Mother’s Day. It’s graced my garden through the worst weather New England can dish out. Recently, I was sad to see some chipping on the statue. I blamed Tropical Storm Irene. When I mentioned it to my husband, he smiled.

“Not Irene—Rosa,” he said. “I caught her chewing on it.”

What kind of dog vandalizes a St. Francis statue? I thought. She looked up at me with those bright eyes of hers.

“What am I going to do with you?” I asked.

But I knew the answer, of course. I was going to love her. I gave up any hope that Rosa would ever be the kind of affectionate pet my previous dogs had been. But in that moment, I found unexpected joy. She was mine to love— and what more can anyone ask?

Miles to Go

I thought that was the end of my and Rosa’s story, but another storm hit. My cancer recurred. Within a few months, I’ll have had more procedures than I can remember, including an 11-hour operation and chemotherapy that seems to make every molecule in me hurt. I’ve also received unexpected kindnesses that have touched me and made it all bearable.

No one has been kinder than the dog curled into my hip as I write this. On the horrible day of my diagnosis, I sobbed in my husband’s arms. Rosa jumped up between us, planted her forepaws on me and looked long and deep into my eyes. Then and there, everything changed. She has barely left my side since. When I was in the hospital, I’m told she kept vigil at the window. My son calls the dog “Mom’s nurse.”

Rosa is not yet 2 and still a very active dog. I used to walk her up a long mountain path every day. She’d give me pointed reminders beginning about an hour before walk time. She stopped that when I got sick. Snuggles and kisses became her full-time occupation. She does not even remind me when dinnertime is coming. Rosa asks nothing but to comfort me.

Is there some well of compassion in this dog that was stirred by my illness? Or has Rosa, like any good teacher, simply realized when a struggling student needs a break from the hard lessons? I cannot explain the change in my pup. I am less inclined to look for explanations than to express gratitude. I’m using my heart, not my brain, to navigate a canine reaction that I never could have mustered before Rosa.

When I imagine being well again, my thoughts fly to our afternoon walks. I want us to climb our mountain together again. Rosa deserves to chase squirrels like the young, healthy dog that she is.

I want to run, too, without worrying about what’s around the next corner. I want to live the way a dog does—bravely and completely. I hope we have miles of adventure ahead of us. There’s no telling, of course. But this I know: every step I’ve walked with Rosa has been a blessing.