(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, September 26, 2015)
MUKONO, UGANDA ✦ Our dog, Zak, is a fine-looking German shepherd with a deep bark and a good name. (I mean, if your name is all you can ever fully own, surely that’s true for dogs too.)
He’s wary of strangers and, I suspect, would give his life if called to. He has a funny relationship with his food, never uses his doghouse, (preferring our back door), and loves rolling in the morning dew.
He’s patient with us, his family, with me, his master, even as he must wonder where I go for so long. But I’m back from my family’s annual Canadian stay. And now, back from his morning run, Zak is happy as ever.
Sure, he’s exercised by others here when I’m in Hamilton, but it’s not the same. At least I’d like to think that Zak thinks this. Judging by his smiling eyes, his panting, his long, dripping tongue, it must be true. He’s content.
The sun has just risen. We’re on the front lawn, under royal palms, trees I planted after arriving here 10 years ago. They were as tall as me. Now they’re 40 feet high, full of birds and other life, well-soaked in Uganda’s rain and sunshine, casting shadows that mark time and cool Zak.
Near the trees are a pair of soccer nets, a gift for my son, also 10, also grown greatly, even as his sisters have. This is our yard, a space we all enjoy, where Zak guards attentively even when the cats saunter and lope past him.
As I often do, I talk to Zak. I ask for his day, his whole life, to be blessed. I rub his tummy. He responds with that quiet dog talk, unaware (I’m assuming) that dogs in Africa don’t always have it easy. (A nearby American friend buried his shepherd in his front yard — it was poisoned — digging at night to hide the worst from his children.)
There are monkeys around and, for now, Zak doesn’t care. But the truth is he’s chased a monkey or two. He gets himself all turned around in the nearby expanse of bush, his beautiful, black coat full of burs, his keen eyes half-blinded by other crap he runs through, unwilling, and, I suppose, unable to find home.
I know Zak well, though, and love him, and, of course, always go and find him.
So while I appreciate Zak’s good name and faithfulness, I learn more from his monkey-chasing ways. Because who doesn’t run after the odd monkey, distractions that have little to do with the good life? I do.
Then, like Zak, I hear my master call my name. In my quieter moments (quiet moments are easier to find in Africa), sometimes I even hear warnings. Maybe you’ve heard them too, those sad regrets, laments echoing from people who’ve chased one diversion or another for entire lifetimes.
‘I wish I’d had the courage to live true to myself, not just what others expected.’ Or, ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’ Or, ‘I wish I’d kept in touch with friends.’ Or, ‘I wish I’d have reflected more.’ Or, ‘I wish I’d have done more to leave something behind.’ Or, simply, ‘I wish I’d allowed myself to be happier.’
Life, real life, is in the small pleasures. The simple moments. The empty spaces. This is what Zak seems to say, even while he’s now sleeping.
This is Zak, son of Zeke, born at a medical-mission hours away in the middle of Uganda’s bumpy nowhere, fittingly-enough on my wife’s and my wedding anniversary. During public addresses, I especially like to introduce him in the family photo — “This is Zak, a good Mennonite dog, you see, wearing his black.”
So when my family’s African adventure eventually ends, will Zak move with us to Canada? Or will Zak, the good dog, be just as happy in his great African space and sunshine and guard duties for others in this home?
I try not to worry about such because tomorrow, you know, always brings enough worries of its own. Today, though, I have brought Zak to Canada. Here, for you. Isn’t he something? A dog with something to say. To anyone with the time to listen.