Otto is a widower in his 70’s who lives alone in a small house on a cul-de-sac a block away from me. His yard has a few spindly shade trees and a cluster of rose bushes that blaze into gaudy jewels each spring.
I know very little about Otto. I know that he is an avid walker and appears to have a serious case of arthritis. I see him at Sunday Mass now and again, always sitting at the back of the church, his rosary beads pouring from his hands.
When I first met Otto about 10 years ago, a perky, golden-furred dog trotted alongside him. When I bent down to pet her, she threw herself on her back and wiggled in ecstasy while I stroked her stomach. Beaming, Otto told me she was a Corgi named Becky.
Whenever I’d see the twosome out walking, the routine was the same. Otto and I would exchange pleasantries about the weather and the latest happenings in the neighborhood, while Becky waited patiently. When it was her turn for attention, I’d bend down and scratch her ears while she wagged her tail so hard that she nearly fell over.
Otto and Becky were a familiar sight in the neighborhood, until one day I spotted the old man walking alone, without a leash in his hands. When I inquired about Becky, he gripped his cane and choked up. He told me the dog had died suddenly and that his grief over the death had nearly killed him. I ended up in the hospital, he said hoarsely.
Touched to the core, I groped for words, uttering a few clichés of sympathy before we parted company. After that, whenever I saw Otto walking along without his companion, I would stop and inquire about his health. He assured me he was doing fine, but it seemed a light was missing from his eyes.
Before too long, I was out walking and saw Otto rounding the bend holding a leash once again. Tethered to the leash was a reddish-brown dog, the same breed as Becky. When I stopped to admire the animal, Otto proudly introduced me to Dexter, whom he’d adopted from a rescue center.
The dogs were the same breed, but I quickly noticed that Dexter lacked Becky’s feisty personality. Although the dog’s tail had been wagging as he walked along, when I bent down to greet him, the poor animal cringed and then froze, as if bracing himself for a blow.
I think someone beat him when he was a puppy, Otto said, shaking his head sadly. He also confided that he was worried because the dog was having trouble adjusting to his new home. His appetite was lagging.
A few weeks later, I saw Otto and Dexter again. This time, though, Otto was jubilant as he reported that the dog was eating heartily and polishing the bowl. When I praised Dexter for his newfound appetite, he perked up his ears as if he understood me, but when I tried to stroke his head, the poor animal cowered once again.
Otto knows very little about me. I think he’s aware that I live nearby and that we both attend the same church. He also sees me making the rounds of the neighborhood regularly, but he doesn’t know that I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.
And he doesn’t know that I was swept into a maelstrom of despair.
What’s the point? I’d wonder, as I surveyed the vitamins I’d taken religiously for so many years and the array of health foods stashed away in my cupboard.
What’s the point? I’d wonder when friends assured me they were praying that my next doctor’s visit would show no signs of the dreaded recurrence.
I was afraid to hope. I figured that by keeping my expectations low I’d spare myself the agony of disappointment if my condition suddenly worsened.
Then one day recently, I was glancing out the window as Otto and Dexter were rounding the bend, and I felt a sea change in my soul. Watching Dexter straining at the leash and Otto squinting into the sun, I had to ask myself a question.
I wondered what might have happened if Otto had fallen into a pit of despair after Becky’s death. I imagined myself in his place saying, I’m not getting another dog. I’m too old to put myself through that kind of heartache again.
And then I envisioned Dexter still waiting in a holding pen at the rescue center.
Even though the terrible things that were done to Dexter evidently remain deeply rooted in his memory, I believe Otto’s devotion will heal the wounds. And I also believe that, in some small way, the miracle already is happening.
When I saw Otto and Dexter the other evening, I bent down to pet the dog’s furry head and I am sure that I detected the slightest flicker in his tail.
I think I would tell the children in the catechism class that hope rescued Otto and hope is redeeming Dexter. I would also tell the children about my hope: that the love of Otto and Dexter for each other ultimately will redeem me.