It was a couple of weeks before Christmas 2002. We were at the home of a beagle breeder we had contacted to see if she had any puppies available. We thought Lincoln, our first beagle, would benefit from a companion, and our son Gage, then four years old, thought a new puppy would add to the holiday spirit.
Gage was petting a sweet lemoncolored dog that was busy licking his hands and face. “She’s so nice. We’ll take her,” he said.
The breeder smiled sheepishly. “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s our family dog. You came to look at her son. He’s … um … energetic, so I wanted you to get settled before I brought him in. Let me go get him.”
She left the room, taking the sweet dog with her. A moment later, she called: “Here he comes!”
In thundered a six-month old, stocky dog with a big square head, long floppy ears and paws that looked two sizes too big. As he ran past me in a blur, I thought, “There must be some mistake. That’s a basset hound.”
He ran straight to Gage, jumped up and nipped him on the cheek. As the breeder grabbed the dog, her face red with embarrassment, tears welled in Gage’s eyes.
“Are you all right, son?” I asked.
“I think so, but I think he bit me. Am I bleeding?” He was working hard to keep it together.
“No, but you have a red mark on your cheek.” Also trying hard to keep it together, I said to the breeder: “I’m not sure he’d be a good fit for us. We have another beagle at home and a nine-month old daughter. Is he always like this?”
“He’s just a very … um … playful dog. That’s why his original owners wanted to give him back to me. They couldn’t deal with his energy. They are a Korean family and told me, ‘If you don’t find someone to take this dog, we’re going to make soup out of him.’”
I knew the breeder had an excellent reputation for producing smart, healthy dogs. It turns out she was also a crafty salesperson. I seriously doubt that the family told her that, but Gage was sold.
“Dad! We can’t let him become soup. He was just playing when he jumped on me. We have to take him.”
I looked over at the dog. He was definitely a beagle, with brown freckles covering his short, strong muzzle. He was sitting in the breeder’s arms, staring right at me.
“Don’t make eye contact,” I told myself.
But, it was too late. I looked him in the eye, and I wondered at what I saw—not exactly inner peace, but not aggression or turmoil either. His eyes sparkled with what I can best describe as a mixture of longing and confidence. If he could talk, I believe he would have said, “I dare you.” Keeping eye contact with the dog, I said to the breeder, “We’ll take him.”
The look in the dog’s eyes changed a little. There was acceptance and gratitude now. He looked to be saying, “We’re going to have a great run together.”
We named him Sherman and he quickly became a fixture in our family. As most dogs do, he outgrew his puppy energy. But he never outgrew his quiet confidence. Throughout his life, to the very end, Sherman carried himself in a manner that said, “Don’t underestimate me. You’d be surprised at what I can do.”
And so, it became a tradition in our family to tell stories about things that Sherman had done. At family gatherings, we would take turns spinning yarns that always began with, “Remember when Sherman….”
As in, Remember when Sherman had to spend all that time answering questions from the Warren Commission because he thought that the grassy knoll would be a good place to watch the parade?
Or, Remember when Sherman was part of the NASA team that was going to land on the moon, but he got kicked off the mission because he ate all of the freezedried astronaut food?
Or, Remember when Sherman learned to fly so he could help Santa deliver presents on Christmas?
This last one led to Sherman’s true legacy. Each year, he would perform some Christmas “miracle.” Early on, the miracles were, perhaps, a bit fanciful— Sherman helping to make toys the year many of the elves got sick with the flu. Gradually, the miracles became more pedestrian—Sherman ate only half of the cookies we left out, saving some for Santa.
As the years went by, the kids lost both their belief in Santa and their interest in Sherman’s miracle-performing abilities. Until his last miracle, that is.
It was Christmas Eve 2016. Ellie was now 14, Gage 18. They were lying on the couches in our living room. The couches are arranged so that they form a rough “L”. There is a gap between the couches where the sides of the “L” come together. Through this gap, you can see from the living room a small portion of the hallway that runs the length of our house. The rest of the hallway is screened from view by one of the couches.
The kids had humored Kristal and me and we had just finished watching ELF, our favorite Christmas movie. It was good family time, but let’s just say there wasn’t much excitement in the air. Sherman was on the couch with Ellie. He was 15 now, completely deaf and partially blind. He looked forward to his two walks a day, and mostly slept the rest of the time. He was sleeping now.
I woke him, “Come on, Sherman. Not you too. Somebody has to keep the Christmas spirit alive. You can do it! One more Christmas miracle. Fly, Sherman, fly!”
Ellie said, “Dad, leave poor Sherman alone. He’s tired.” Gage agreed, “Yeah, quit bugging him.”
Sherman did look a little annoyed. He slid off the couch and began walking slowly towards the hallway, presumably on his way to a different couch in my office. This was usually Sherman’s way of saying that he preferred to be left alone. One of the kids said, “See what you did, Dad? You shouldn’t have pestered him.”
In truth, I barely heard what was said. I was fixated on the tinkling of the tags on Sherman’s collar. He rarely moved fast enough anymore to cause tinkling. Ellie and I both looked toward the hallway. We couldn’t see Sherman, but we knew he wasn’t headed to my office.
Suddenly, he burst through the gap in the couches. His feet were at least six inches from the floor, his ears floating on air, pointing out from the sides of his head.
Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle.
Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle.
I looked at Ellie. She was smiling and had tears in her eyes. In those eyes, I saw the little girl who once believed in Santa. I looked at Gage. From where he was sitting, he couldn’t see through the gap. But he could see our reaction. He was smiling, and I saw the little boy who, years ago, forgave a nip on the cheek.
Sherman walked slowly into the room, returned to his spot on the couch, and went back to sleep.
We lost Sherman the next summer. As we were waiting in Dr. Violette’s examination room, I made eye contact with him one last time. He was sad and tired, but I saw that old sparkle. If he could talk, I think he would have said, “I told you we’d have a great run.”
We only tell one Sherman story now. Every year on Christmas Eve, one of us will say: “Remember when Sherman flew that one last time to remind us about the true spirit of Christmas?”