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A farfetched story of love and grief


Marilyn drew her Home Show talk to a close with one last anecdote about service dogs. As soon as she finished, a plain-looking woman approached the stage flanked by family members and an off-duty cop. Her brown hair was graying; her nondescript features were tense with worry. She introduced herself in a rush, then blurted an odd question: Had the next speaker, an obedience trainer named Debi, brought a golden retriever with her?

Marilyn peered down at the woman, trying to fathom the situation. Into the silence, this woman, Paula, poured a preposterous story. She said that when she divorced, she had to move to a small apartment, and Debi, the dog trainer, agreed to keep Paula’s beautiful golden retriever for her until she got back on her feet. Paula said that when she was finally able to pick up Sunny and bring him home with her, she raced to Debi’s house. She’d missed her dog desperately, that smooth broad forehead, those velvety understanding eyes.

She said Debi wouldn’t give him back. Paula questioned, then argued, then panicked. The next time she went back, she took police officers with her but they couldn’t do a thing. She had given Debi the dog’s kennel papers, because Debi, a photographer, often used sweet-faced Sunny for photo shoots. He’d become quite a celebrity, his picture all over kibble bags.

Paula told Marilyn she was at her wits’ end. She’d hoped Sunny would be with Debi tonight. She was ready to grab him and run, if she had to. Marilyn, a calm woman with a clear and orderly mind, listened politely, not sure she really believed this frazzled stranger. She looked around for Debi, but Debi had vanished without giving her talk. Shrugging, Marilyn said a kind goodbye and left herself.

She did call Debi to ask about the situation. Debi said Paula was crazy, she told everybody this hysterical tale about Debi stealing her dog, Lord only knew what she’d do next.

It was easy to believe.

But almost two years later, on a steamy Saturday morning in August, Marilyn was teaching a class at a veterinary clinic. Debi came in sobbing: Her golden retriever had multiple tumors and needed to be euthanized. Marilyn knew Debi only slightly, from local dog events, but her heart went out to anyone who was grieving. She offered to make the arrangements for Debi, and Debi nodded convulsively and left.

That autumn, Debi and Marilyn got to know each other better, and they decided that, as two dog experts, they should share office space. Debi was funny and charming and smart, and she seemed like an ideal colleague. One thing did make Marilyn wonder, though. She was still teaching at the cramped clinic while they looked for office space, and she kept seeing Sunny’s ashes, waiting on a shelf. She reminded Debi several times, and Debi kept saying she’d get there.

By Christmas, they were sharing office space, and Marilyn was rapidly learning that Debi had another side. Wary, she started laying down ground rules, watching Debi’s behavior more closely, wondering whether to stay and how far to trust her. Then the thought struck her: What if that crazy lady was telling the truth?

That January, she called the vet. He’d given up and sent Sunny’s ashes back to the crematorium.

Marilyn went there, paid for them herself and brought them home. She told Debi, but Debi made no move to pick them up or reimburse her. In February, Marilyn decided to try to find Paula. She remembered that Sunny’s breeder was a friend of Paula’s, and she remembered the name of the breeder. One phone call later, she had Paula’s number.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Paula gasped. “Thank you so much!”

She came the very next day. Marilyn hadn’t expected her so soon, and wasn’t home. Her teenage son let Paula in and handed her the urn.

He later told his mom that the lady held the urn close to her chest and sobbed, and he felt so sorry for her, he didn’t know what to do.

By then, Marilyn had moved out of the shared office space and severed all connection with Debi. She figured she’d never know the truth about the dog. Both women claimed, in almost identical words, that Sunny had been like a child to them. Debi’s friends insisted that Paula had given her the dog outright, and by the time she returned -- years later -- his home was clearly with Debi.

Marilyn was through jumping to conclusions. But she couldn’t forget the image of Paula hugging that urn close. Why hadn’t she listened more carefully that first night, instead of dismissing Paula’s story? Because Paula wasn’t funny or charming or confident? Because she told a farfetched story, a painful story she couldn’t bolster with objective proof? Because it was simpler to doubt her? In retrospect, she hadn’t sounded crazy at all. She’d sounded like a woman on a mission.

Eight years later, still haunted by her failure to pay attention, Marilyn called Sunny’s breeder again. She wanted to find Paula, apologize to her, and listen with her whole heart.

Paula was dead. She had died at 51, from complications of diabetes, explained the breeder. “She had Sunny with her to the very end,” the woman added softly. “He was a great comfort to her.” Marilyn thought she meant in the sentimental sense, until she continued: “Having those ashes meant someone had finally believed her.”

The more farfetched the story, the greater a gift someone’s belief is. Look at Christ.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 6, 2002