Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"


“How do you heal a broken heart?” The Bee Gees asked that question in a song long ago. It’s a good question and an important one. A question that haunted me most of my adult life, one that drove me to search in universities, books, and life for some kind of answer, any kind of answer for so many years. How do we ease suffering in others, and ourselves? Without realizing it, we develop means and ways to answer that question in our own lives, and our answers take many forms. Some people get inside a bottle to try and heal the broken heart, others visit psychiatrists to receive wonder drugs that promise to dull emotional pain. Some use anger to ward off future hurts, and others sit and stare. The list of coping strategies is long. The armor we put on and the shields we raise to protect our hearts are heavy and cumbersome, but we carry them anyway. After all, we need our armor to live. Don’t we?

My daddy was an interesting and complex man. “Cork,” as he was called was a gifted athlete, and a dead ringer for Tyrone Power. A highly recruited running back, and state champion pole-vaulter in high school, as a young man, the world was his. Then the war came. On the advice of the town physician, Dr. Ellis McGee, Dad volunteered for the Army Medical Corps, where he would be allowed to serve as a medic under Dr. McGee. The enlistment process flowed smoothly along until my father learned he would be required to undergo basic training at a boot camp in Brownsville, Texas. That caused a problem.

“I can’t go,” he said, staring across the table at the recruiter who had signed him up.
“You can’t go?” asked the sergeant.
“Can’t leave my dog,” replied my father.
“You can’t leave your dog?” echoed the Army man.
“Nope, can’t do it,” said my future Dad. “Can’t leave Poochie.”

In those days, my father’s best friend was a 110-pound German Shepard named “Poochie,” a legend in the community. Poochie was famous for a number of feats, including “playing shortstop.” Dad and his friends spent hours trying to throw a rubber ball past the big animal, but his grace and quickness prevented any “hit” from ever going through. My favorite all time “Poochie story” involved the tale of his disappearance.

Dad and several of his friends were walking along the high “Spanish Bluffs” of the Texas Red River on a summer day, when one of the boys picked up a stick and yelled, “Fetch, Poochie!” My dad immediately screamed, “NO!” But the warning was too late. As the stick sailed off the high bluff, Poochie was in the air, eyes fixed on the target. The boys stood in horror as the swift current far below carried the dog to what appeared to be certain death. The last thing they saw was Poochie disappearing around the bend, his head barely above the swirling water, the stick clenched firmly in his powerful jaws.

The family cried for days at the loss of their beloved friend. Imagine their joy when a wet and exhausted “Poochie Dog” appeared on my grandmother’s front porch ten days later…without the stick, but alive.

The legend of Poochie would continue to grow because of that conversation my father had with the Army recruiter.
“I do have an idea, though,” said my dad.
“Well, do let me hear it,” said the other fellow, leaning back in his chair.
“Poochie could go with me,” said Cork, matter of factly.
“The dog could go to boot camp with you?” asked the perplexed military man.
“Sure he could. Having him at basic training would boost the morale of the men, ‘cause everybody loves Poochie. Then when we finished, I could go overseas, and Poochie could be in the K-9 Corps. You need good dogs in that outfit, don’t you?”

And I guess nothing explains the magic of my father like the result of that conversation. They let Poochie go with him. Can you believe that? Poochie went to Brownsville with his friend, Cork. And his presence did boost the morale of the men, my dad went overseas, and Poochie followed.
They were separated most of the time, but the military regularly sent my grandmother information on Poochie’s whereabouts and his good service to America. And my Dad and his beloved friend made it home to Texas both in one piece. How ironic they both survived the horrors of war, only for Poochie to be lost when struck by a car at age fourteen.

My Dad handled that broken heart in a manner that many of us choose.
He vowed never to have another dog. He always had dogs for me, but
he never had another dog. Later, when men spoke of Poochie with fondness and love, my Dad would turn away. This gifted athlete, so strong and fierce at times, perhaps the toughest man I ever knew, could not speak of an old dog. He would look off in the distance, as if Poochie might come bounding to him from the woods. My Dad’s heart never healed. The method he used didn’t work. There is one that does.

I had a dog too. His name was Max. He was a Lab. He was my friend for thirteen years. I lost him to an illness, and like my father, I vowed that hurt and pain would never reach so deeply into me again. I would never have another dog. I had a horse. Her name was Susie, and she was the best horse any man could want. After I lost her, I once again pledged,
“Never again. Never will I open my self up to this again. Best to be safe,
I’m older now, and I can’t keep doing this. No more horses for me.”
And when love died in my life, I made the same vow. “No more. I’m too old for this. I’ve had my share of broken hearts. Best to be alone.”

And so for many years, I lived with no dog, no horse, and no love.
That is a method that doesn’t work. That method, while appearing to help save you from pain, does nothing to heal. The pain just remains.

Then, I met someone who taught me a method that does work. I met Rebecca.
“You need a dog,” she said.
“No, I don’t,” I said.
She got a dog anyway. At first, I pushed him away. I was mad at her and mad at him. He was a big footed, goofy, Lab puppy. I said he was _ Lab and _ idiot. He licked my face, and slobbered all over me. He chewed all my good ropes and cowboy stuff, and dug holes in the ground, and one day, Rebecca said, “It’s time to name him.”
I looked at him for a long time. He was smiling at me.
“How about “Poochie?” she said softly.
“Funny,” I said, “I was just thinking the same thing.”
And then came the horses. There are five now, six cats, and six dogs, and roping steers, and…there is love. That is a method that does work.

James Herriot, the vet who told such wonderful stories shares so many enchanting tales, and none more instructive about how to live than those about his close companions, his best friends…his own dogs and cats. And in each and every one, he describes the good times and the good memories he had of his good friends and the love they shared. Always truthful and realistic, he also shares the loss he felt when they were gone. In every case,
he concludes the story with, “Even though my friend was gone, and my grief was so difficult to bear, I knew what to do. The same thing I tell my patients, and if they will only listen to me, their heart will be healed - to find another companion - to love again.”

That is a method that does work. Whiskey works temporarily, the psychiatrist’s pills will blunt the pain for a day or two, but then you need more, and the dragon is still in the dungeon. Soon, you have two problems, an addiction, and the grief still lies in the back of your mind snarling like an old dog. Drugs don’t do anything to heal the heart, they just dull the mind. Anger just drives others away, depression insures that you will continue to sit there, and feel sorry for yourself, and while you may have justifiable reason to feel that way, that method of coping won’t help you. There is one that does.

“And there is faith, hope, and there is love. There are three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:13

Ain’t it a shame my graduate professors didn’t mention that?

See all Michael’s books, tapes and CDs at michaeljohnsonbooks.com. Look for Michael’s latest release, Reflections of a Cowboy, to be released in the spring of 2004.

Michael heading for the great Sonny Gould

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