For a brief time when I was about five, my family had a dog. His name was Snoopy, which confused me because Snoopy was supposed to be a black and white spotted beagle and our dog was a solid brown dachshund. I was a fearful child, often irrationally so—among other things, I had a phobia of the number four—and I was afraid of Snoopy.
My memories of early childhood are like isolated bursts or blossoms—vivid, discrete units, often lacking context or continuity, floating in an amorphous plasma of not understanding what the heck was going on. I don’t remember petting Snoopy or pouring his dog food or watching him snuggle down in his dog bed, but I do remember swinging on my swingset while he ran back and forth on the ground below, under and around me, barking and barking. Given time, I would have realized that his barking was playful, not menacing; I would have stopped being afraid of him, picked him up, carried him around with me, kissed him between his eyes. But he lived only a short time after we got him. In another blossom-burst of memory, I am outside with my sister and her friends, and my brother is hurrying down the sidewalk towards us, holding Snoopy, who is bloody and yapping in pain. He’s been hit by a car. This is my last memory of him.
Snoopy never slept with me in my bed or cuddled with me on the sofa. I didn’t push him around in a doll stroller or dress him up or feed him treats. I hardly knew him. But his small memory stayed firmly lodged in my mind. As I grew older I thought about him a lot. I felt bad that I hadn’t played with him. I desperately wanted him back—not merely as he had been, but as he should have been throughout the years I should have had with him. For years after his death, I would sometimes lie awake, thinking about this dog I had barely known, and crying.
Some years later, when I was about ten, I lost a stuffed animal—also a dog, bafflingly named Tubels. Some classmates and I had put on a short play for reasons I can’t remember. It was set in a pet store, and I’d brought some toys from home to stand in for animals that weren’t being played by classmates. The play was a rousing success, a credit to me as actor, director, and playwright, and I felt triumphant as I left school, carrying my stuffed animals in a basket. For some reason I was being watched by some after-school babysitting lady that day, a thing which almost never happened in my entire childhood. And somewhere between school and the babysitter’s house, Tubels was lost.
I mourned a long time for that stuffed dog. For a while I actually hoped and prayed that he might somehow be found again and returned to me. Lying awake in bed (again), I mentally replayed the walk to the babysitter’s house. I imagined Tubels falling out of the basket and rolling into a gutter, and me walking away, distracted by post-play euphoria, not paying attention. Sometimes I altered the scene in my mind so that I noticed he was missing, turned back, and rescued him, or never dropped him, or got picked up at school by my mom along with all my animals, safe in their basket.
Maybe I was more obsessed with loss than is usual for a child. The memories of lost inanimate objects, even those of little intrinsic value, remained sharp with me for years. Usually there was guilt involved, as with the plastic ring I took to preschool after I’d been told to leave it at home. Another girl tried to take it and spuriously told the teacher I had stolen it, and the teacher confiscated it from me without due process and put it in a can on a high shelf, from which it was never returned.
Eraser-Mate pens, introduced in the late seventies, were the bane of my sixth-grade existence. I’d always had bad handwriting; my hand cramped easily, and the whole process of putting words on a page was so painful and frustrating that I made a lot of mistakes. By this point in my school career writing with a pen was mandatory, so Eraser-Mate pens seemed like a godsend to me for a time. Theoretically, they offered me a chance to fix my mistakes. In reality, the nonindelible ink smeared under my hand and the eraser didn’t so much remove the ink as smear it around, so my papers looked as bad as ever. Eventually I was forbidden to use the things. But for a while they were precious commodities to me. They were more expensive than regular pens; they had to be stowed securely or brought home after school, or they would be stolen by some dirty pilfering eleven-year-old. I knew this, and yet I could not keep those darn pens in my possession to save my life.
It’s amazing that with my near-pathological levels of anxiety about loss, I didn’t do a better job keeping track of my belongings. My young brain combined hyper-vigilance with extreme absentmindedness. At school, I repeatedly failed to secure the pens in a safe location; at night, lying awake in bed (I did a lot of that), I agonized over my carelessness. Nobody was abusing me at home or making me shovel coal to pay for my lost pens, but there would be an accounting to be made, and I dreaded it.
Loss terrified me, and yet I couldn’t seem to get away from it. Every so often something of mine would just slip into a void, never to be seen again. I always felt I should have been able to prevent the loss, to take better care of my things, but somehow I just couldn’t seem to do it.
Eventually I grew up, and my hyper-vigilance got the better of my absentmindedness. These days I rarely lose my belongings in the sense of mislaying them. I have designated places for almost all household items and I usually put them there. (Sometimes this actually works against me, because when family members can’t find their own misplaced belongings, they know exactly where to look for mine, which they may or may not return after use.) But I am still haunted by loss. Of time, property, money, opportunity, relationship. Of dogs, real ones, whose names and stories I don’t dare set down here because if I do I will never make it through this post.
Sometimes the lost thing is a period of time, an epoch, in which friends and work and opportunity and health come together in a wonderful synergy, a sort of golden age, and suddenly it’s just over, the laughter and the flow of ideas and the good fellowship, and it will never happen again. There will be other people, other good times, but never this particular precious combination.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis asks, “How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
Our family has lost a lot of things in recent months. A horse, some dogs and cats, a vehicle. A hard drive, with a full complement of irreplaceable photos we always meant to back up. Some people. Dreams that can no longer be realistically expected to come true. I am tired of losing things. I want another golden age, one that won’t end. I want lasting security. I want to know that the things and people I love will never go away.
The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are precious to me. “And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost” (Luke 15:9). Jesus is speaking in particular of the joy in heaven over a sinner that repents, but the stories wouldn’t resonate so deeply if they didn’t reflect our expansive joy over the restoration of other things. I know that joy, and it is indeed too great to be kept to myself. When the lost kitty, despaired of after going missing for a full week, suddenly turns up early one morning perfectly healthy and meowing for breakfast, my delight must be communicated. I must scoop up the kitty, take it quietly to the bedroom of my sleeping daughter, and put it on her bed, where its softly treading paws and tickling whiskers will make her awakening into a celebration.
The lost-and-found experience teaches me this joy, while the lost-and-still-lost experience keeps me looking forward to the glad morning when I’ll have the most joyful awakening of all. In the meantime, I wait, and hope, and sometimes ache. As C.S. Lewis said in Perelandra, “God makes good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”