Fiction: A Dog Named Christmas

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iStockphoto.com/Diane Diederich
A dog really is man’s best friend.

I spend a great deal of time looking back now, sifting through memories, pausing over important events in my life. Maybe it’s rare, but there’s no litany of disappointments for me. There are a lot of very good memories, and one defining moment – a holiday that seemed perfect.

I had four boys and one girl. All but one child had moved away. They always came home for Christmas and sometimes for dinners, or to borrow money or tools, or just to sit in the quiet of the back porch with their feet propped up on the rail. The youngest, Todd, was old enough to be on his own, but the immaturity that accompanied his disability kept him home with his mother, Mary Ann, and me.

Todd had a different way of thinking about things. You’d know from looking or talking with him briefly that he was different. He always had his hands in his pockets and never seemed certain which direction he was going. His clothing seldom added up to an outfit, and his hair was punctuated with cowlicks and curls.

Some days, Todd would sit near a herd of sheep for the entire day, just watching. Other days, he’d find a river and follow it upstream, searching for the place where the water began. He never found it, but that didn’t deter him from frequent journeys. Todd also loved to paint, so I never lacked for a fresh coat on the barn. He was not much of a talker, but he whistled from memory every tune he heard on the radio, which was his constant companion. But the one thing that defined Todd’s life more than any other was his relationship with animals. He held them, raised them, loved them and laughed with them.

One December day, Todd came running out to the barn carrying his radio and frantically trying to scribble down a phone number. He then handed me the wrinkled piece of paper.

“It’s for a Christmas dog,” he said.

“Todd, we don’t need another animal around here,” I said, “and most definitely not another dog.” I held up my hand, showing him four fingers, and said, “Four dogs is enough.”

Todd, of course, didn’t understand. He also didn’t understand that we were in the midst of an economic slump that was hitting farmers hard, including me. I was glad he didn’t understand that, but I was worried about keeping what I had, and the idea of an additional expense or responsibility made me shudder.

“It’s just for Christmas,” Todd said, in what came as close to an argumentative tone as he could muster.

I pushed the scrap of paper into my pocket, hoping he’d forget about it. But he continued with his innocent persistence, which wore on you, yet was endearing.

“When are you going to call?” he pleaded as I tried to walk away.

“After supper, Todd,” I said. “I have work to do now.”

“It’ll be too late by then,” he said, his voice quivering. “It will be closed, and all the dogs will be gone.”

His head hung, Todd kicked at the earth with his tennis shoes. I knew he was only moments away from tears.

I took a handkerchief from my front overall pocket and wiped the sweat from my brow. I knew there was no use putting him off.

“Come on,” I said as I made my way toward the barn where the telephone sat.

I dialed the number and tried hard to be patient. Todd’s life was hard; it seemed that every day I had to choose between trying to make life better for him or just accepting that there were things that I wasn’t big enough to change. And like the Christmas dog, the choices were not always easy. I learned to distrust both hope and fear.

While his mother was pregnant, Todd didn’t develop correctly. I could never pronounce the medical condition he was born with, but the doctor asked us to visualize a corridor starting in Todd’s head and traveling through his abdomen. Every organ that touched the corridor was affected. He’d had four operations on his heart and intestines by his eighth birthday.

The fact that Todd, whom we adopted, came to Mary Ann and me so late in our lives sometimes made parenting more difficult. He needed special care, and we were capable of providing it. We felt privileged to have him in our lives, but we didn’t always understand what a special gift he was.

When we accepted Todd into our family, we vowed never to let “I’m too old” or “I’m tired” get in the way of doing what needed to be done for him. I reminded myself of this vow as I dialed the phone.

“Hello, County Wide Shelter,” came a voice from the other end. “How may I help you?”

I wondered what kind of person spent his life working in an animal shelter. Or even more generally, what makes an animal lover? Do they love animals more because they love people less? I cleared my throat to bring my mind back to the task at hand.

“My son is interested in something he heard on the radio about a Christmas dog,” I told the woman from the shelter.

In a tone that sounded a little rehearsed, the woman offered an explanation.

“That would be our Adopt a Dog for Christmas program.”

“Yeah, that must be it,” I said. Then reluctantly, I added, “Tell me about it.”

I looked at Todd and saw that his eyes were beaming. Although it warmed my heart, I already suspected that he’d found a way to finagle yet another dog out of his father.

“You may know that we are a no-kill shelter,” the woman began. “Over the holidays, many of us like to do kind things for other people. Here at County Wide Shelter, we wanted to offer animal lovers an opportunity to extend that holiday spirit to an animal.

“You come by any time after December 22nd, pick out a dog and keep him until December 26th. You feed him and give him lots of attention, and then you bring him back. The dogs that aren’t adopted stay in a four-foot by four-foot steel cage. And at this time of year, I’m sorry to say, there just isn’t much time for our staff to do much more than give an occasional pat to the head.”

I raised my voice slightly for Todd’s benefit and carefully said, “There is no obligation to keep the dog, is that correct?”

“That is absolutely correct,” said the woman.

“Do you have enough volunteers?” I asked, and then quickly realized that the question was most absurd.

“No, sir, there are never enough volunteers.”

I was not necessarily opposed to the idea, but I’ll admit there were many questions running through my mind.

Was this just a scheme for the shelter’s employees to get a few days off for the holiday? How could the dogs possibly know it was Christmas? Wasn’t this a holiday for humans? Would I feel guilty when I returned the dog? And, of course, would Todd understand and accept the transitory nature of the program?

Ultimately, it was one of the times in my life when I took a deep breath and trusted that it would all work out for the best.

I exhaled and said reluctantly, “OK, we’ll take a dog.”

By the time the week of Christmas rolled around, Todd and I were making a game out of the Christmas dog.

“We get the dog on the 23rd, and when do we return him?” I asked.

“Dog goes back on the 26th,” Todd said.

“When does Christmas end, Todd?”

“Christmas ends on the 26th, Dad, and that’s when the dog has to go home, back to the shelter.”

I put my arm around Todd’s shoulder and hugged him.

“That’s good, Todd,” I said. “We’re going to have fun with the Christmas dog, aren’t we?”

He smiled and nodded his head.

My old truck moved toward town at a pace too slow for Todd. Those size-twelve-sneakered feet tapped twice for each beat of the music that played on the truck’s AM radio dial.

Even though he knew how long it took to get to town, Todd kept asking, “How much farther, Dad?”

“Ten minutes, son,” I said. “Do you remember when we take the dog back, Todd?”

“Yes, Dad,” Todd said. “The dog goes back on the 26th. That’s when Christmas ends.”

“Very good, Todd. You know, if this goes well and if we all have fun and get the dog back home on time, maybe we can do this again next year. Would you like that?”

“Sure,” Todd said, looking up at me with a smile, which made me happy that I was doing this for him.

The woman at the shelter, whose name was Beth, wore blue jeans and a dusty green down-filled vest bisected by a long black braid. She reached out and took Todd’s big hand in hers and held it for a moment.

“Pick any one you want. That’s the way the program works,” she said before turning and walking away busily.

This was a very important decision for my son, and I did not want to rush him. I found a bench and read the paper while Todd walked up and down the rows of cages to find just the right companion for Christmas.

The floor had recently been washed, and the smell of chlorine bleach hung in the air along with various animal odors. My ears were filled with the sound of whining, barking and metal dog bowls scraping the concrete floor. I watched Todd – part man, part boy – move slowly up and down the aisles. If there were angels for animals, then Todd surely was one.

Beth worked her way back toward Todd, seeming to like the way he studied each animal. I noticed that she didn’t try to push him toward one of the dogs who was less likely to be adopted. Instead, she offered explanations for each dog’s condition.

“That one has lived in a cage most of his life,” she said. “His owner thought that because he was a hunting dog, it would ruin him to run around the yard.”

Todd kept coming back to a large black Lab mix.

“He’s an older dog,” Beth explained. “You can tell by the gray around the muzzle. He’s quiet, too, not a barker.”

“What’s his name?” I heard Todd ask.

Beth looked on the door for information. When she found none, she just shrugged her shoulders.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess he just showed up. They do that sometimes.”

Todd seemed to hesitate, so I walked toward them. I gently rested my hand on Todd’s arm to get his attention.

“Should we get him out and look him over?” I asked.

Todd didn’t answer, but Beth instantly got the dog out. He stood still while Beth ran her fingers through the gray and black hair on the nape of his neck. Beth then stooped down so she was at the dog’s eye level and stared into his face for a few moments.

The dog had warm green eyes that showed a certain patient wisdom. After sizing him up, Beth placed a collar around his neck, and the dog suddenly became excited, as if he knew he’d been chosen. She led him a few feet one way, then turned and led him back the other way. He didn’t act like an animal that had been in a cage for weeks or even days.

“He minds well, though he seems to have some stiffness in his haunches,” Beth told us.

Todd folded his arms across his chest as if he was a discriminating and seasoned buyer of fine purebreds.

“OK, we’ll take him,” Todd said, pointing confidently at the animal.

“When do we bring him back, Todd?” I asked, to make sure he remembered.

“We bring him back on the 26th, Dad,” Todd said. “That’s when Christmas ends.”

I looked to Beth for reassurance. She smiled and nodded her head approvingly.

We had brought our own leash and collar, which we slipped over his head. After we filled out some paperwork, we left and walked toward the truck in the crisp winter wind.

“Well, Todd, do you want to name him?” I asked.

“Already did,” he said, taking me by surprise.

“You did?” I asked. “Well, what did you name him?”

“I named him Christmas,” Todd said, then jumped into the back of the truck, with Christmas following his lead.

I looked at Todd and the dog and said, “That’s a good name, Todd. That’s a real good name.”

I generally preferred not to have dogs in the house, but with Christmas, it didn’t seem worth arguing over. I helped Todd find an old bowl for water and figured that Christmas could eat enough table scraps over the holidays to make a food bowl unnecessary. Todd also found an old blanket and placed it carefully on the floor in the living room near the fire that warmed the house on cold days.

That evening, December 23rd, the other children and their families began arriving for our annual Christmas dinner. Christmas, the dog, was not much into formal introductions. He stayed on his blanket and extended a lazy paw for each greeting. His wide, bushy tail swept across the floor, showing that he enjoyed each introduction.

During dinner, Todd explained the Adopt a Dog for Christmas program. All of my daughters-in-law thought it was the sweetest thing they had ever heard. My sons just grinned, and I knew they were thinking, “Dad sure got suckered in on this one.”

To retaliate against those all-knowing smiles, I continued to punctuate the dinner conversation with the question I’d been asking Todd for weeks.

“Now don’t forget, Todd,” I said, “when does Christmas end?”

Todd looked down at his plate, and then said, “Well, Dad, Christmas ends on the 26th. That’s when Christmas has to go home to the shelter.”

I smiled and nodded my head confidently at each of my sons. My smug confidence was quickly eroded, however, by the blank expressions on the faces of the women at the table. Soon my sons were looking at me in disbelief. Anxiety welled up in my chest. Why was I feeling like the bad guy here? Trapped? Cornered? I had a real problem on my hands.

I was trying to do something nice for Todd and Christmas. Now it seemed that if I didn’t let Todd keep the dog, it might be me who was sent back to the shelter. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there silently and allowed the others to carry on the conversation, which inevitably made its way back to the dog.

Christmas occasionally pulled himself up from his royal throne and ambled around the dinner table for kind words and pats on the head, as well as scraps of meat and other delicacies. There didn’t seem to be any effort to teach the dog manners. Every woman at the table took her respective turn at adoration, starting with my daughter, Mary, an accountant. Holding Christmas’ head in her hands, she began talking in a way that made me feel even worse.

“Why, Christmas, I do believe you are the most handsome, kindest dog I’ve ever known. Why in the world would anyone put you in a shelter?” she said, looking up at me. Then, incredulously, she asked, “Why was he in the shelter?”

“No one knows. The woman at the shelter said he just showed up,” I said, then changed the subject. “Say, Mary, I have a couple questions on my taxes this year.”

“Well, you know, Dad,” Mary said. “I’ll bet the Adopt a Dog for Christmas program expenses are deductible. Do you think anybody has checked to make sure he’s had all his shots? Maybe you should do that for him. I’ll bet the vet would come out tomorrow if you called now.”

Christmas gently licked Mary’s hand as if showing his deep appreciation for her concern.

Soon the boys were taking turns talking to Christmas, having a lot of fun at my expense. Mark, my oldest son, a carpenter who had married his high school sweetheart and now had three boys of his own, undoubtedly felt it was his duty to make sure the boys were not outdone by their sister.

“Well, old boy, this could be your last Christmas in front of the fire. Why don’t you just take this turkey and go eat it,” Mark said. “I’ve got lots of turkey dinners left in my life,” he added, handing Christmas a large piece of turkey.

Thomas, the third oldest boy, speculated that at Christmas’ age, a change of environment could be stressful and that I’d have to be careful in moving the poor dog back to the shelter. Carl, the second oldest, was blessed with a quiet nature. He only felt the need to emphasize each of his siblings’ observations with a wide grin.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but it seemed that each time the subject of the dog came up, every man, woman and child looked at me. Todd, of course, understood none of the subtleties of the conversation, he was just pleased that his dog was commanding so much attention.

Even Mary Ann, my wife of forty-three years, seemed to be offering me very little support.

“I can’t remember when Todd has found something he has enjoyed more than taking care of this dog,” Mary Ann said in a voice I knew to be short on negotiation.

I was not prepared to give up, though, so I said, “Yes, Mommy, and when does Christmas end?”

There was a long pause, and then she folded her napkin and rather resolutely placed it on the table, which meant more than the fact that she was finished with dinner. At least to me, it did, anyway.

“I’ve heard the reverend say that we should act with generosity and kindness every day, not just on Christmas Day,” she said, picking up her napkin and wiping her mouth firmly, as if to remove any unkind words or thoughts that might reside on her lips.

The uncomfortable feeling I had in my chest was growing worse. I tried to think of a response, but I knew none of them would work, so I simply hung my head and finished my dinner quietly.

Perhaps I was beaten and there was no use fighting it any longer. It wasn’t so much that I really cared about having another dog. When you already have four, what difference would one more make? I cared that my son and I had made a deal, and I wanted him to stick to it. I wanted Todd to learn to be more like an adult and less like a child. Adults try to keep their promises, even when they become uncomfortable. They have to learn that things can be good without being forever. And it also seemed that everybody was missing another important point: For the Adopt a Dog for Christmas program to work, families shouldn’t feel pressured to keep the animals. I knew that if I kept Christmas this year, I wouldn’t be back to the shelter next year, or any other.

After dinner, a parade of neighbors, family and friends began their annual trek through the door with cookies, candy, pies, cakes and small wrapped boxes. The women seemed to lead the parade, followed by the men. It was a Christmas ritual I could’ve done without that year. It wasn’t the train under the tree or the doll in the cradle that brought the visitors to the back room, it was Christmas the dog.

My son Mark showed no mercy for me as he led the parade of visitors to Christmas’ throne.

“I want you to see something really special, Hank,” Mark told a neighbor, looking up and grinning at me. “This is Christmas, Todd’s dog.”

Hank was an eighty-eight-year-old dairy farmer who was sharp, fit and worth a lot of money. He was a shrewd businessman and had no time for any animal that did not lactate for human consumption.

“You’re a fine old boy,” Hank said, with the authority and wisdom that only age can bestow, then bent down and scratched Christmas’ belly.

All heads in the room nodded in agreement. Todd smiled, and I suspect that I frowned.

“What’s wrong, George? Don’t you like Christmas?” Hank asked.

Todd, bless his heart, came to my rescue.

“No, Hank, Dad likes Christmas. He helped me get Christmas. He helped me pick him out from all those dogs needing a place to go.”

I decided a change in tactics was necessary. There was something in what Todd said that turned over in my head until it stuck. I rubbed my chin, and the idea hit. Hallelujah! Salvation had come. I changed my perspective and stopped seeing myself as the villain. Todd was right; this was my program as much as it was his.

I walked over to Christmas and took a sudden interest in the finest of animals.

“Best dog I ever had, Hank. Shame of it is … he isn’t ours. Like Todd said, the animal shelter in town loans them out over the holidays,” I said.

Hank nodded and smiled, just as I had hoped he would.

“You know, Hank, I’ve got the phone number in the kitchen. They’re open until noon tomorrow; I bet you could get a dog, too!”

Hank sprang to his feet and shuffled backward in horror.

“Oh, no. We’re way too old for dogs,” he said, taking hold of his wife’s arm. “Jean, we’ve got lots of stops to make, we’d best be moving on.”

“Don’t be silly, Hank,” I said. “It’ll just take a minute to grab the number.”

As I headed toward the kitchen, I glanced at Mary Ann and Jean. Mary Ann’s countenance was angelic. She looked at me with eyes that reflected deep respect. Then she lost her composure and tears began to fall.

“This is the most wonderful thing you’re doing, George,” Mary Ann said, her voice quivering.

Jean pulled away from her husband of 64 years and walked toward me, her eyes beaming with loving kindness.

“Yes,” Jean said, turning to face her husband. “We’d love to adopt a dog, too.”

Hank had become pale and stiff. His tired face suddenly showed every bit of its eighty-eight years.

“Well, honey, I think it’s a wonderful idea … but at our age?” he said, taking hold of his wife’s arm again.

Jean peeled his fingers from her arm and glared at him.

“Yes, Mother,” Hank stammered, “let’s get the number.”

I put my arm around Hank and patted him on the back.

“You know, Hank, I’ll bet Todd would help you pick out your dog, if you’d like,” I said.

I looked around the room for Todd, but he wasn’t there. Each of his brothers, however, seemed to be smirking, knowing exactly what I had done to poor old Hank Fisher. They relished his misery. But I didn’t like it that they were having so much fun at the expense of others.

“You know, Hank,” I said, “if all of us adopted a dog, or at least made a couple of calls to our friends, we just might be able to clean out the shelter for Christmas. What do you think, Hank?”

The bait was set. Suddenly, there was not one, but three, hard strikes as my daughters-in-law buzzed around making arrangements for their Christmas dogs. And in the background, all the children were pleading with their fathers.

Not wanting to leave a margin for victory, I scanned the room again and found the son who had shown the least mercy toward his father.

“Mark, perhaps you should consider adopting three dogs – one for each of your boys,” I said.

Hank immediately understood the magnitude of my catch. His eyes sparkled with mischief as he slowly looked down at the carpet.

“It’s not good for a boy to feel left out,” Hank said. “Particularly it being Christmas.”

At times, I must admit that it’s hard for me to leave well enough alone. This was one of those times.

“Mark, if you like,” I said in a humble and sincere voice, “I could send the vet down the road to your place to make sure your three dogs are up on their shots, too, when he leaves here.”

By ten o’clock that night, things were slowing down. Everyone had headed home, but I knew the holiday season was long from over for my children. The next two days, they’d be busy putting together toys and making final preparations for Santa’s arrival. I tried to imagine the conversations they were having on the way home, and a small tinge of guilt came over me.

I knew the grandchildren were carrying on incessantly about their Christmas dogs. It inspired me the way children shifted focus so easily from what they wanted and hoped to receive to the type of dog they wanted to help over the holidays. They would discuss breeds, age and temperament, and then everyone would agree that there was no finer dog at the shelter than Christmas. They would just do their best to choose a dog. Because, after all, each dog deserved a nice home for the holiday. I could also hear each of my sons asking their children the same question I kept asking Todd – “When does Christmas end?”

What Todd started was turning out well. Getting the children and grandchildren to focus on something besides themselves seemed to make them happier. And the Christmas holiday was turning out to be more meaningful for all of us.

While Mary Ann was carrying the remaining tumblers of half-consumed soda to the kitchen, I went to check on Todd. He had fallen asleep on the couch, and Christmas was sleeping on the floor, his back to the fire and his legs stretched out in front of him. Normally I would have let the fire die out, but instead, I threw on two more logs. I bent down and patted Christmas on the head.

“Well, old boy, we had quite a day, didn’t we? Do you have any idea what you and Todd started?”

Christmas tilted his head up and opened his sleepy green eyes. He looked at me, and I’ll be darned if his lips didn’t curl up into a smile. His tail began to sweep lazily to and fro, and his tongue licked the palm of my hand. I had to admit he was a good old dog.

“Well, good night, Christmas. We’ll see you in the morning,” I said, turning off the lights and putting a blanket over Todd.

“Mary Ann,” I said, “I’m going to bed.”

As I headed up the stairs of the old farmhouse, I heard her call, “I’ll be up in a few minutes, George.”

She said my name pleasantly, with an affection that I’d almost forgotten she held for me.

After I had brushed my teeth and hung my jeans on the hook, I pushed my boots under the bed. Then I turned out the light and climbed into bed. I was just drifting off to sleep when I heard footsteps – quick and spry. Then suddenly Christmas jumped up on the bed and licked my hand.

I leaned up and asked, “What in the world are you doing up here, old boy?”

His tail thumped rhythmically and he felt warm against my legs. I slipped back down into the bed and decided I was too tired to make him move. What did it matter if he rested there for the night? I would be true to the program, and I’d be the best dog host I could be.

I had fallen asleep by the time Mary Ann came to bed.

“George?” Mary Ann whispered, nudging me awake.

I came out of my not-too-deep sleep, leaned up on my elbow and said, “Yeah, what is it?”

“And when does Christmas end?” she asked.

“Why, on the 26th, of course,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

She didn’t respond. She simply pulled the covers around her shoulders, giggled softly and rolled over.

When I came downstairs the next morning, Todd was on the telephone.

“How many are left?” he asked, struggling with a pencil, numbering each line on a piece of paper from one through sixteen. “Wait a minute, I’m writing it down.”

The person on the other end of the line waited more patiently than I expected. Clad in jeans and his red Converse tennis shoes, which he would never let us throw away, Todd leaned over the table with the phone in one hand, a pencil in the other. He began by putting a description of each dog on the ruled pad. I looked over his shoulder as he wrote in his crooked scrawl on the first line, “Husky, six, girl.”

I began to roll my eyes at Mary Ann, but she placed her finger over her lips and said, “Shhhh!”

Christmas was beneath Todd’s feet, his tail sweeping across the floor in three-quarter time. You would have thought the dog was born under our back porch; he was completely at home.

I shook my head. This was going to take all morning, and I figured the shelter’s employees had other things to do than to talk to Todd. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer.

“Here, Todd, let me talk,” I said, taking the phone, pencil and paper. “I can write a little faster.”

It was Beth on the other end. She went over the inventory of adoptable dogs with me as I made out the list. I assured her that we might be able to help, but that I couldn’t make any promises about emptying the shelter by the end of the day.

After I hung up with Beth, I turned to Todd and said, “You think about where each dog might go, and I’ll do the chores.”

When I was done with the chores, I went back to the house. Todd was trying to match up the dogs with prospective placements. He was up to line 14, and although his writing was still legible, it was quickly deteriorating.

Pacing about the room, I considered putting a stop to this matchmaking. Perhaps this was getting out of hand. Having been placed in an uncomfortable position with this dog myself, why was I doing the same thing to my family and friends? It was not a good feeling.

I went into the bathroom to wash my hands and get ready for breakfast. I stared into the mirror and wondered about the right thing to do. The man I saw in the mirror didn’t know either, but he could smell sausage and biscuits cooking and coffee brewing. The sound of silverware and dishes being placed on the table told me that breakfast was about ready. After forty-three years of marriage, I still marveled at the way Mary Ann made breakfast come off the stove at the exact moment I turned the spigot off at the old sink.

Mary Ann and I sat down to eat breakfast, but Todd ignored his food. He was back on the phone with the shelter, trying to get all the details together on the dogs. It appeared that Todd and Beth were becoming friends.

“Yes, I named him Christmas. … Un Unhuh. … He’s right here by my feet. … We’re going to find a home for each one,” Todd said.

“Todd!” I couldn’t help interjecting. “Don’t tell her that! Maybe a few, but probably not all of them.”

“I gotta go,” Todd said. “My dad and I have lots of work to do.”

He hung up the receiver and smiled. I had never seen him happier. I hadn’t planned on spending my day finding temporary homes for dogs, but now I was ready to get into the spirit of Christmas.

“Todd,” I said, “bring the pad over here, and let’s start matching the dogs up. Mary Ann, will you call these people and tell them about their dog, and ask when they can pick it up? Don’t give them an opportunity to object or even think about it.”

I noticed signs of protest on her face, so I added, “This is a family project, you know, and we need your help.”

I then directed my attention to Todd, who was slumped over in an old aluminum chair that had been a fixture in our kitchen for more than forty years.

“Todd, what do you think about old Hank? A dairy farmer doesn’t need a dog that barks a lot. Something older and steady, maybe?”

Todd looked up and down the list until he saw the perfect match for old Hank. He scribbled Hank’s name beside an entry then turned to me.

“Good choice?” he asked, pushing the list across the table to me.

“None better,” I said. “What we need now, Todd, is a ‘closer.’ Somebody who can make the deal happen, someone with unparalleled powers of persuasion, someone who will not accept no for an answer.”

I turned abruptly toward my wife and said, “Mary Ann, call Hank and Jean, and tell them their dog is a twelve-year-old black-and-tan male coonhound. And tell them that he likes all cows, but prefers Holsteins.”

Mary Ann, it seemed, was getting into the spirit as well. She moved toward the phone and resolutely put her fingers into the small oval holes of the dial.

“Jean, this is Mary Ann. How are you this morning? … Beautiful day, isn’t it? … Is Hank done with his milking? … Sure glad you guys came by yesterday. … Say, Jean, we were just talking to the shelter, and I guess they have a coon dog over there that still needs a home.”

Mary Ann paused momentarily, and then went for the sale.

“Are you and Hank still interested?”

There was a long pause, and Todd and I began to wonder.

“I’m sure George and Todd could pick him up for you,” Mary Ann said, “and take him back, too.”

I moved closer to Mary Ann so I could hear the other end of the conversation. Jean seemed to be trembling, perhaps near tears.

“Well, we don’t have any dog food, and we’re going to be gone an awful lot of Christmas Day,” Jean said.

I whispered to Mary Ann to tell Jean that we would buy the dog food.

She pushed me away and turned her back to me.

“I understand, you and Hank being at that point in your life and all. Why, if you talk to Hank and he changes his mind, you give us a call. … Merry Christmas to you, too.”

Todd looked up at me stupefied.

“Dad, I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t old Hank want a dog for a few days?”

I searched hard for a good answer, but I couldn’t find one that Todd would accept. It wouldn’t dawn on him that most of us just get tired of giving.

“I don’t know, Todd. Maybe he has too many cows,” I said.

I knew that response was a fill-in-the-blank for most of us. If it wasn’t too many cows, it was too many kids or too much work. The point was that there was seldom room at our inns.

There were two more calls that didn’t go well either. I was beginning to wonder if our plan was going to work. Perhaps my reflection in the mirror should have told me to leave it alone for now. But Todd would have none of that approach.

“Mark will take the dogs. … I know he will,” Todd said. “Call him.”

I called Mark, but it seemed he wasn’t home. We were all surprised and pleased to find out that he was at the shelter picking up three dogs, one for each of his kids.

By two o’clock in the afternoon Christmas Eve, we had placed twelve dogs. We were down to six, when a television truck pulled into the driveway. I’d seen it at the courthouse with a big “5” on the side and the satellite antenna on the top. I figured it was lost.

A woman I recognized from the news came to the door. She introduced herself and asked if she could talk to Todd and me for a few minutes.

“We’re doing a story on the Adopt a Dog for Christmas program. I understand your family has been involved.”

“Yes,” I said. “Please, come in.”

We sat on the sofa by the fire. She talked to Todd and shook Christmas’ paw, and then she turned to the camera and told the audience that the shelter was staying open late that night. If people wanting to help were fast, they, too, could adopt a dog in time for Christmas.

At six o’clock that evening, Todd, Christmas and I watched the news together. Around seven o’clock, after we’d had dinner, Mark and his children showed up. Everyone had seen the news, and they were all kidding Todd about being a television celebrity. He seemed quiet, though, and I thought something was bothering him. I assumed it was just the excitement.

Half an hour later, while Mark’s children were talking about the adopted dogs that were camped out in their backyard, Todd stood up and left the room. I waited a few minutes, and then followed him into the kitchen. He was sitting at the table with his hands folded in his lap.

“What’s wrong, Todd? Do you feel all right?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m OK,” he said. “I was just wondering if all the dogs were adopted.”

I was wondering, too, so I said, “Let’s call Beth at the shelter and find out. I bet she’s still there.”

I dialed the number and after several rings was about to hang up when Beth, out of breath, finally answered.

“County Wide Shelter, Beth speaking.”

“Hi, Beth, it’s George and Todd,” I said. “I guess you know we were on the news?”

“Yes, I know,” Beth said. “And, George, we placed all the dogs that were here this morning. Right after the news aired, our phone began ringing off the hook. That friend of yours, the old guy?”

“You mean Hank?” I asked.

“That’s him,” she said. “He took two!”

I laughed out loud and hollered, “Hank took two dogs!”

“Thanks for everything, George,” Beth said. “You and Todd did a good thing.”

I remember feeling a little embarrassed because I wanted Beth to know that I had nothing to do with it. I turned away from the receiver, but spoke to Todd in a voice Beth could hear.

“I think they found a home for all the dogs. You did good, Todd.”

His face beamed. I was just about to wish Beth a Merry Christmas when her voice returned on the line with a slightly disappointed tone.

“Well, George, I said we found a place for all the dogs we had this morning. But we just had one show up – a female,” she said, and then paused. “You don’t have to tell Todd, though. I can come back tomorrow and feed her. It’s OK – I don’t want him to think he let us down. I know he tried so hard to find a home for all of the dogs.”

“Can you wait half an hour longer?” I asked.

“George,” Beth said, and then paused for a long moment. “I think she’s going to have puppies.”

Orion loomed in the south. We could see deer in the meadow beyond the house, and we could hear a hoot owl’s cry from the barnyard. But what I remember most about that night was the excitement that lingered in the cold winter air. Something special was happening in our corner of the universe. The gifts would have to wait.

Mary Ann, Todd, Christmas and I were crammed in the cab of the truck. We were headed to the shelter to get the last unadopted dog in Cherokee County.

Mark and his boys stayed behind to fix up a place in the barn for the dog. They dragged heat lamps out of the garage and rummaged through the house for old blankets and bowls.

“Maybe we should just go into the shelter business,” I joked as we pulled out of the driveway.

Todd seemed pleased with the idea, and I added, “I’m kidding, Todd. The shelter doesn’t get paid for keeping the dogs. Animal shelters are not a business.”

He looked confused, so I continued, “They’re like a charity. No one pays for keeping the dogs. The dogs don’t have owners to make payments.”

Todd looked puzzled, and I realized I had gone too far.

“The dogs don’t have homes,” I said. “That’s why they’re at the shelter. Do you understand?”

Todd was quiet. The only thing he knew about the shelter was that it kept lots of dogs. It never occurred to him how or why the dogs were there.

Finally he sorted it out and asked me, “Why don’t the dogs have owners?”

“It’s hard to say, Todd. Some people get a dog and it just doesn’t work out. Some people have to spend lots of time taking care of themselves, and they don’t have anything left to share with an animal,” I said, and then added, “But you’re not like that, are you?”

“No,” he said slowly.

“I admire that about you, Todd.”

It was at that moment that I figured out what made someone an animal lover.

“Dad, what will happen to Christmas when we take him back?” Todd asked slowly.

“He’ll stay at the shelter until somebody is able to make room in their life for him.”

“How long do you think it will take?” he questioned.

“The good ones go quickly, Todd. Maybe you could help Beth find a home for him. And you can go into town and visit him in the meantime.”

Todd didn’t say a word, and I had no way of knowing if what I had said made any sense to him.

When we arrived at the shelter, Beth was pleased to see us, but she was surprised by the size of our entourage. She quickly led us down a corridor of empty cages. At the far end of the row, we found the most recent addition, and last remaining guest of the shelter, a female dachshund named Lilly.

Mary Ann opened the cage door, her maternal instinct in full flower, and scooped Lilly up before Todd and I could even make an introduction. Lilly eagerly licked Mary Ann’s face, and it was clear that they were going to be pals.

Todd and Christmas were the first victims of Mary Ann’s newfound friendship with Lilly. They were displaced to the back of the truck, where they huddled beneath a blanket to protect them from the cool night air as we headed home. In the cab of the truck, Lilly sat on Mary Ann’s lap with a minimal amount of fidgeting.

I remember feeling that I’d let go of something that I had mistakenly believed was important. It wasn’t necessarily a bad feeling; in fact, there was a sense of relief that came from letting it go. I felt more connected to myself and my family than ever before. I was doing things that I would ordinarily not encourage, let alone do myself.

It was a carefree evening. Mary Ann and I hummed along with the Christmas tunes that played on the radio, and we both felt truly happy.

When we pulled into the driveway, we could see light in the barn. We knew Mark and the boys were ready for our Christmas guest. We passed the house and went directly into the barnyard.

“Hello,” Mark called out as we entered the barn. “Come see what we’ve done.”

They had made a box with lumber and lined it with straw. A heat lamp hung from the rafters, and they had placed old towels in the corner of the box.

Mary Ann stepped over the sides of the box and gently placed Lilly on the bed of towels.

Mark’s youngest son suddenly looked up with tired eyes and asked, “Dad, can we open presents now?”

Mary Ann lifted the boy into her arms and said, “It’s time.”

I don’t remember any of the presents that I gave or received that year. Truth was, I seldom gave or received anything that was truly needed. It was late by the time all the presents were opened and the children were loaded into the car.

The next day brought us a holiday that I would always remember.

By two-thirty in the afternoon of Christmas Day, Lilly had given birth to four puppies. Todd, Mary Ann, Christmas and I made hourly trips to the barn to check on them. When Beth heard the news, she drove out to see them, and Todd took great care showing her each puppy.

I could tell she was impressed with Todd’s ability to handle animals, and she pulled me aside later and whispered, “George, after Christmas, call me. I’d like to discuss Todd with you. We might have something of interest to him.”

Beth seemed to linger, and I realized why when I saw the news truck pull into the driveway again. They were here to do a story on the puppies, which now were also part of the Adopt a Dog for Christmas program. It would air on both the six o’clock and ten o’clock news.

One of the reporters took a picture of us holding the puppies. She later autographed it for us, and it still sits on the table beside my bed. When the news crew was finished with us, they went down the road to do a segment on Hank Fisher. It seemed he was doing just fine with his two dogs.

Later that night, Mark’s children called to tell Todd of the happenings of their adopted dogs, and Todd, in turn, updated them on the puppies. Mary Ann warmed up leftovers, and we relaxed after we ate. Just before we were ready to turn in for the night, Mary Ann leaned over and kissed me softly on the cheek.

“Merry Christmas, George,” she whispered.

I held her tightly, not only because I loved her dearly, but also because I wanted to hold onto the moment.

“Merry Christmas, Mary Ann.”

“George, what are you going to do with Christmas tomorrow?” she asked softly.

I took her hand in mine and said, “I don’t know.”

At that particular moment, I could not explain that what I wanted to give Todd was a gift even more important than a dog. I didn’t know how to explain that the gift with the most love cannot always be wrapped or delivered. I didn’t know if Mary Ann could accept that some gifts are not given but withheld. Just then, I knew exactly what I had to do, I just wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

The next morning, I woke to a bright, clear day with frost on the ground. Todd was already in the barn when I went out to do the chores, and Christmas, of course, was with him. Todd was sitting in a lawn chair holding one of the puppies in his hands.

Todd, Christmas, Lilly and the puppies all had come together on a small farm. For a moment, they were a family. I didn’t have the strength to tell them that it couldn’t last. I simply turned around and went back to the house.

After breakfast, Todd said, “I called Beth, and she’s going to come out and help us with Lilly and the puppies.”

I looked over the paper at him and said, “That’s good, Todd.”

“Dad,” he continued, “about Christmas …”

“Yes,” I said, suspecting what was next to come.

“It’s the 26th, and we have to take him back,” Todd said in a matter-of-fact way. “That’s the way the program works. You bring the dogs back on the 26th.”

I looked at Mary Ann, and I knew she was fighting back a flood of tears, but only a few small ones escaped. I stood up and put my arms around Todd.

“That’s right, Todd,” I said. “That’s how the program works. And it’s a good program, isn’t it?”

Todd smiled, patted Christmas on the head, snapped the leash onto his collar and headed out to the truck.