It was a cold Christmas Eve and the spirit of the season seemed so distant. Justin and Julie were returning from the vet clinic, having made the awful decision to put their beloved dog of 14 years, Banjo, to sleep. The cancer had depleted Banjo’s frail body.
“Wow, it’s so quiet now,” Julie noticed as she walked in the house.
“I know,” Justin sighed. “This is just so sad, Christmas without Banjo.”
“I don't feel like going to the Christmas party tonight,” Julie said with tears in her eyes. “This is terrible. I don't know if we did the right thing at the vet. Banjo is gone forever now.”
“No Christmas party for me either,” Justin added in a somber tone.
Both Justin and Julie, worn out from the emotion of the day, sat down on the sofa and began watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV.
Words were not necessary as visual reminders in the room, Banjo’s dog bed, a dog toy, and photo frames with pictures of Banjo, emphasized the void that was now surrounding them.
Toward the end of the movie, both Justin and Julie fell asleep as the cold wind picked up outside, creating a howling sound at times.
The night continued as the wind grew even stronger and the temperature fell.
Shortly after midnight, Julie’s eyes opened, hearing the faint sounds of barking in the distance.
She got up and went to the front door. Upon opening the door, she was startled to see that not only was it light outside but it was also pleasantly warm.
“What is going on?” she thought to herself.
In front of her was a vast expanse of green grass, trees, flowers, a flowing stream, and a multitude of animals. There were dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, chickens, and even a few pigs. More animals were off in the distance that she couldn't quite make out what they were.
She stepped out of the doorway. It was as if something were calling her to come forward, without words, into an apparent surreal paradise.
Julie exited her porch and walked down to the pristine white sidewalk that curved its way to the horizon.
“Is this a dream?” she asked herself. “No, I really feel like I am here … it can’t be real … can it?”
As she walked along the sidewalk, a couple of squirrels approached and looked up at her.
“Hi,” she said.
Although the squirrels did not make a sound, Julie felt a welcome and a hello from them. She was at peace with them and they were at peace with her.
“I guess I should be afraid of all this, but I am not,” Julie realized as she continued her journey along the sidewalk.
Looking to her left, she saw some kittens and older cats playing. Some were chasing their tails and some were jumping around as if they did not have a care in the world.
Off to the right, there were a few puppies rolling around in the soft green grass.
Up ahead, there were dogs, cats, and even some guinea pigs playing together. An iguana crawled across the sidewalk and for some reason Julie knew that the iguana was happy and had a sense of purpose in this place.
A Chihuahua ran up to Julie, with what sounded like a happy bark, bark, bark.
“Hi little fella,” Julie greeted him. She picked up the Chihuahua and was then the subject of several puppy kisses.
Putting the Chihuahua down, she noticed he went ahead a few steps and then turned his head around as if to say “follow me.”
He led the way. After a minute or so, Julie stopped and noticed a medium sized black Labrador retriever with a white spot on its face running in her direction.
“I know that dog,” she recognized.
The black Labrador reached her and began licking her hand.
“Oh wow,” she sighed with concern. “This is the poor dog I saw yesterday laying on the side of the road that was hit by a car and killed. I stopped to help a lady put her into the car so she could go bury her. I know this is her because I remember that white spot on her face.”
Julie noticed a park bench nearby and decided to sit for a moment.
Another dog, this one much smaller with gray coat, ran up and jumped into Julie’s lap.
“I know you too,” Julie teared up. “I found you one day when I was going to work. You couldn’t walk and you were barely alive. After I got you to the vet, they said you had two broken legs and a broken back. There was nothing they could do and they had to put you to sleep.”
“I never forgot you,” Julie spoke softly as she hugged the small dog.
The black Labrador turned and walked down the sidewalk in the direction she came from.
The small dog jumped from Julie’s lap and joined the black Labrador.
Both dogs turned their heads back to look at Julie and issued inviting barks.
“You want me to come with you, don’t you,” Julie spoke out loud.
The black Labrador responded favorably with another bark.
After following the two dogs for a few minutes over a small hill, she could see what looked like the light of a bright but setting sun on the horizon at the end of the sidewalk off in the distance.
As she strolled further down the sidewalk path, Julie looked around in continuing amazement.
“I have never seen so many animals so happy and so friendly,” she thought.
“There is excitement in the air, yet it is so peaceful,” she smiled.
A short time later, she noticed a medium sized mutt dog off in the distance running across the meadow toward her as fast as the dog’s feet would go.
“I don’t believe it,” Julie said in awe. “It’s Banjo!”
With tears in her eyes she ran into the green grass toward Banjo.
She sank to her knees and took Banjo into her arms for hugs and puppy kisses.
“It’s you! Banjo, it’s you!” Julie exclaimed with emotion.
The happy reunion lasted for several minutes.
Banjo then calmed down a bit and settled in next to Julie, encouraging the petting they had often done on the sofa at home.
Banjo, panting with tongue hanging out, seemed to be smiling with a message for Julie.
Julie felt a wonderful sense of peace and understanding in reconnecting with Banjo.
Several thoughts came to her reality.
“Banjo, you are telling me thank you for doing the right thing at the vet, letting you go and ending your pain,” Julie realized.
Banjo looked up with a sense of approval.
“You are also telling me that one day when it is time, we will walk the sidewalk together into the light.”
Tears of joy flowed freely.
Julie looked around at all the other animals as other thoughts came over her.
“… and all of the animals that are here and were homeless or abused or neglected or put to sleep too soon, we will be given some of them to take with us.”
“… and all of the animals in this entire place will be able to take that walk with someone at the right time.”
“… no more pain, no more suffering, no more starving, just joy.”
Julie sat down and then laid back in the grass with Banjo’s head on her stomach.
She looked up at the blue sky and saw a puffy white cloud in the shape of a paw print.
With tears of understanding in her heart, she fell asleep next to Banjo.
Time passed and Julie later awoke and noticed that she was now at home on the sofa, with morning sunlight streaming through the front windows.
Julie got up, in a state of peaceful wonderment, and went to the front door. She opened the door and noticed Justin sitting on the front steps.
She sat down beside him and they looked at each other.
Justin spoke first, “you are not going to believe the dream I think I had. It was …”
Julie put her finger up to his mouth to silence him.
“I believe,” Julie said.
They both looked up in the blue sky and off in the distance they saw two puffy white clouds in the shape of two paw prints.
“Christmas paws,” Julie said.
“It’s a sign,” Justin added.
After a few moments of reflection, they knew that this Christmas, which had started with such sadness and despair, had become a Christmas of hope and comfort and meaning.
They looked at each other and said, in unison and with a sense of understanding, “Merry Christmas.”