Mattie: a study in gentleness


In our bathroom, we have a small unframed picture of a dog with a yellow tennis ball in its mouth and the caption, “Best. Day. Ever”. That was Mattie – minus the ball. She never did quite grasp the concept of fetch, or even catch, for that matter. It did not help that she lived most of her life alongside an A-type, alpha-herder with a Napoleon complex.

Mattie was more interested in just being part of something and not the center of anything. Except love. Everything to her made it the Best, Day, Ever. Sunny outside – best day ever. Rain – absolutely. Peanut butter – best snack ever. Hard floor – best bed ever. Bean bag- seriously the best bed ever. And love? She absorbed it like a sponge – petting, caressing, hugging, and kisses soaked right in.

But more importantly, she radiated a gentle love – unconditional and unwavering. She never asked for anything, ever. She sat quietly. She sometimes leaned against my leg, like she did the first time we met. She was shy of direct eye contact, but when she did meet my gaze, it was all softness and light. Somewhere in there was a very old, very gentle soul.

In the years we spent together, Mattie became my guru. She was the barometer of my emotions and an ongoing feedback loop for where I needed to be. She called me back to gentleness at the end of each work day. She reminded me to take a moment in the sun as we sat on the grass each evening for a belly rub and a sniff of the breeze. In those moments when there was conflict in our home, Mattie reminded me to soften and let go of whatever wedge was coming between my wife and I. Even on those Saturday afternoons in the fall, Mattie’s proximity reminded me that Notre Dame football was still only a game. When she moved away from me in my chair, I knew that I was becoming a little to attached to the outcome of the game.

Mattie makes new friends.

Mattie passed away just a few weeks ago after renal failure. My wife and I made the choice to let her go early on a Friday evening after watching her fade away in the days before. She absence has left a gaping hole in our lives. Each way we turn, there is an expectation unfulfilled. When I wake in the middle of night, I find myself looking for her bed or wandering down the hall to see if she has moved into the spare bedroom to sleep. I look for her face in the window when I leave in the morning or come home each night.

But most of all, I look for her to guide me when my anger arises. I look for the gentleness. It is missing now and I realize how much she kept me anchored these past dozen years. I watch the news and read the commentary, and the gentleness has long since faded away. I closed all of my social media accounts a few years ago. It was too much. Too much casual incivility. Too much of the us/them framing.

It fed my own worst impulses and emotions and there was so little to nourish my better ones. Disagreement led to dissension which led to insult. Even the spiritual or inspirational began to feel like so much posturing. False promises and shallow platitudes.

But Mattie remained steady and gentle and calm. Never wavering from her place. Always present and ready for whatever the next Best Thing Ever would be. She moved in closer just for a hug every morning and every night. We would stop on the way down the stairs to sit for a minute while I wrapped myself around her. If I forgot, she would pause and raise a paw to remind me. It was our time to pause. In reality, it was my time to pause and she was just reminding me how important it was. She reminded me to let in the gentleness, to open my heart, always.

Now I stop on the stair occasionally to remember the gift that she gave me and to practice what she taught me.

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