“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” –Dr. Brene Brown
After Billy left home, I rode his old 10-speed bike every day. The gold frame was too big and the saddle was too high, so braking was never an option. I became very good at the jumping dismount.
My dog Chester was my constant companion. A scrambler of a canine, he always ran along beside me. For three springs straight, we larked around the neighborhoods of that East Texas town.
Chester was sweet and unruly, like the thorny blackberries that turned and twisted along the banks of Upshur County. My father, now gone, often pulled the car off the side of the road so I could pick them.
￼Sometimes, Biffo, Chester’s dog-son, joined us for our bike rides. He was also Chester’s dog-brother. But, let us not speak of such scandals in a sad dog story.
At the end of our rides, Chester loved to swim in the creek across the street from our farmhouse. At night, he stretched out on the porch and rested until morning.
One day in the spring of 1981 (I know it was spring because the dogwoods were blooming), Chester and I set out for a ride. We’d just passed the wall of honeysuckle next to my piano teacher’s house when a German Shepherd came off his porch and pierced Chester’s legs and ripped chunks out of his back. I escaped unharmed, but Chester was badly injured. For days (I don’t know how many, but so many), he laid on a palette in the living room next to our old Gulbransen. On the piano’s music desk was a copy of Dottie Rambo’s If That Isn’t Love. Every day, Dottie kept watch over us.
He left the splendor of heaven
Knowing His destiny
Was the lonely hill of Golgotha
There to lay down His life for me
If that isn’t love
The ocean is dry
There’s no stars in the sky
And the sparrow can’t fly
If that isn’t love
Then heaven’s a myth
There’s no feeling like this
If that isn’t love…
We had no money to take Chester to the vet and his wounds became infected. Every day, when I got home from school, I poured peroxide on his bites. I found an old metallic tube of salve in the medicine cabinet and squeezed it onto his wounds until there was nothing left to squeeze. I shoved aspirin down his throat. I prayed. And, worried.
I worried that my cures might kill him and my prayers might not save him. I did all that I knew to do to help him recover. I was 13.
Eventually, Chester got better. He returned to his scrappy self and our bike rides resumed. My father praised me for saving him.
And, then, a few months later, the man down the street ran over and killed Chester. I watched from the porch as he tumbled under the wheels of the utility truck and landed in the ditch. My father carried him to the porch where he died.
“How can he be dead,” I cried. “There’s no blood.”
“He’s all busted up on the inside, Jenni.” My father’s voice misted, retreated.
We cried as we carried him into the backyard. We buried him under a stand of loblolly pines.
Later, I noticed a small, reddish-brown bloodstain on the porch. It was the same color as the tips of the dogwood blossoms. In East Texas, church-goers say the brown tips on the petals are symbolic of the crucifixion, the blood of Christ. I prayed Chester would be resurrected, but I knew better. And, every day, I walked by the bloodstain on the porch until time and rain washed it away.
The man who ran over my dog barreled down the street every day; morning, noon and night. He had no regard for Chester who chased him like a warrior angel. Every day, I yelled and pleaded from the porch for my dog to cut it out, but neither he nor the man in the truck ever slowed down.
That was the only vehicle Chester ever chased.
I mourned Chester but was glad I could stop worrying about him being killed. He was dead. It was over and done.
I wished it had been Biffo.
After Chester died, I stopped riding the 10-speed. I twirled my baton in the front yard morning, noon and night. Every time the man in the utility truck barreled by I smiled and waved, but he never looked my way. I wanted his forgiveness. I was sorry we were poor. Sorry we had an ugly house. Sorry we made him kill our dog.
In the years before and after Chester’s death, many things busted me up on the inside. Through the days and years, I tumbled underneath the locomotive of life. One after another, the days, over and done. My brokenness filled me in equal measure with love and shame. The love was God, a radiant splendor. The shame was lethal, the chief currency of my fallen world.
As the love carried me higher, the shame pulled me under. When people stood in front of me, hurting me or laughing at me, I smiled and asked for their forgiveness.