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Mastiff puppy on a walk

Photo by Dan Ciminera via this Flicr license: Click here for license

For most of my life, I was confused about what love really is. I thought I knew when I was younger, but I was wrong. I learned how quickly my own feelings toward others could go from total euphoria to totally cold and shut off. Is that love? That we flip a switch and *poof* it’s gone?

I have experienced glimpses of love, both in moments of giving it and moments of witnessing it or even receiving it, but I think what we call love is often not love at all, but a rush of feel-good endorphins, and like any chemical high, it eventually goes away, leaving you feeling the pain of its absence and craving more of it.

Before my spiritual awakening and for some years after, the romantic love I experienced in my life wasn’t love at all, but an addiction or unfilled need that another person met for me for some period of time. I had romantic relationships that grew into real love long after they ended, but I really don’t think I had ever experienced love itself while in a relationship with a man. I know a lot better now what it is and what it is not.

In fact, I really think a fundamental problem in the way we view love, at least in the West, is the idea that love is a feeling. Loving is a verb, not an adjective. “She’s such a loving person.” I’ve said it about people many times myself. What does this really mean? One who loves?

A true act of love, to me, requires continuing to accept and nurture someone when the other person isn’t acting particularly lovable. It is only during these moments that you will actually know that you love someone, and they will know they are loved. It’s when you actually love someone in spite of themselves. I have definitely had the experience of truly being loved. It’s pretty great.

One of the greatest moments of love I ever witnessed wasn’t between a parent and child or two lovers, but between a girl and her dog.

The girl was my sister, Jennifer, and the dog was her 120-pound mastiff, Bubba.

Bubba was a lot of dog to handle. He was smelly, for one thing. I gave my sister kudos just for being able to deal with that aspect of him on a daily basis. He also slobbered something fierce. I’m talking huge slimy stuff hanging from his jowels. Constantly! And this slime had a terrible odor. Bubba was gentle, and sweet, and had no idea how big he was.

I remember when I met him for the first time. Jenny was in graduate school, and Bubba was about 8 weeks old. Already, he was the size of a beagle. I decided to take him along for my jog. After two or three minutes, I felt a tug on my leash. He was lying on the ground, too exhausted to continue.

I understood then that Bubba would actually make quite a good apartment dog, even with his size. He also didn’t bark. Well, rarely. If Bubba barked, he really had something to say.

Later Jenny moved to Iowa City, and lived in a second floor apartment. In this apartment, her bedroom had a southern exposure. Every night, when it was time for bed, Bubba would follow Jenny into her room and go to sleep on his doggie bed on the floor next to hers.

In the morning, the sun would come up, and the light would come through the window and streak across the hardwood floor at an angle, leaving a dark shadow between his bed and the door to the rest of the apartment.

Bubba was so confused by this. He seemed sure that the shadow was some sort of mysterious black hole that opens to a bottomless pit while in the depths of REM sleep, a certain path to some awful dog place at the center of the earth, and if he so much as touched it, he would fall in. He was terrified of it, yet, it never occurred to him to simply sleep in the black-hole-free living room.

After staring at it awhile and realizing there was only one path to the food dish, he would stand up on his enormous legs, and finally work up the courage to jump over that hole and make it to safety.

He would leap, legs flying.

And by some miracle, every morning, by gosh he would make it!

A few years later, Bubba got very sick. I think by this time, he was six, which by big-dog standards is quite old. Jenny took him to the vet college at Iowa State University and learned that he had advanced stage colon cancer.

I felt so sorry for my sister. She was faced with an awful decision, and finally she made the decision to euthanize him.

She called me on a Friday and said it was scheduled for the next morning. I was living in Chicago at the time and so got up early the next day and drove to Iowa City.

I was running a few minutes late, and pulled up to the vet clinic and ran inside, hoping I hadn’t messed things up. They already had everything ready. It was all happening too fast from my standpoint. There was no time to adjust.

Within just a minute, the doctor talked us through what would happen. Jenny was stroking Bubba’s head and we all began to cry. She leaned down and kissed him on his slobbery, smelly, beautiful face.

And in that moment, I witnessed one of the greatest acts of love I have ever experienced. Concerned not with the heartache and grief she was about to experience herself, but instead, in making sure her dog left this world knowing for certain how treasured he was, my sister leaned down to Bubba and said gently in his ear, “I love you I love you I love you love you I love you I love you I love you …”

And then he was gone.