Listening with Your Heart

What my dad — and my dog — taught me


By James Colasanti Jr.

Christmas is my favorite time of the year, largely because of my childhood memories involving dogs.

I have always slept with dogs, my unconditional loving companions. From a few days after my birth, I slept with Butchy, the dog who taught me to have empathy for all. And now, 71 years later, with a 21-year-old Chihuahua named Minnie. It all began with my father, James Sr.

In 1949, my pregnant mother was busy preparing the evening meal when my father entered the room holding a small black-white-and-tan terrier in his big Italian hands. Of course, she heard the sharp, high-pitched yipping before she saw him.

“Look, Mary, look!” he exclaimed, holding out the frisky, wriggling pup he would name Butchy. “She is just too feisty to have a girl’s name. Butchy will make a great companion for our son.” (Although gender reveal was a thing of the future, my father knew in his heart that my mother was having a boy.) Following my birth, my parents put Butchy in my cradle every night to keep me warm and to alert them to my needs.

When I graduated from my crib, guess who snuggled in the bed with me? Well into my teenage years, Butchy slept alongside me. And every night, one of my parents would visit my room to check on me.

I recall one particular Yuletide evening being very special. I was 15. As the hall light cast its glow into my bedroom, Butchy looked up toward the door as my father entered. As dad sat on the edge of my bed, Butchy raised her head from my chest. He patted her head as he spoke.

My father — who was 50 when I was born — was a gentle man, a philosopher and an animal whisperer in the truest sense. If he were to sit on a tree stump in the middle of the woods with an ear of dried corn, a deer would be eating out of his hands within minutes. He was the one who taught me my understanding of dogs and the meaning of Christmas.

“James,” he began, “the best gifts I can give you this Christmas are the little lessons I have learned over the years.” What followed was the wisdom of a man who barely got past the eighth grade. I can still hear the cadence of his voice. “The love of a dog is the magic that binds you together,” he told me. “And it only takes one dog to change your life forever.” (For me, that was Butchy.) “When I come into your room at night, she always has her head on your chest. It’s her way of making sure you’re OK. And because she loves you, she also listens to you with her heart when you talk to her.”

My dad had a lot more to say about the heart. “Your heart is the center of your life. It is the source from which all of your love flows. Whenever someone is speaking to you, you will never go wrong if you listen with your heart.” And then he shared something that his father — my grandfather — once told him. “Remember, son, that you were loved by a man who loved dogs — who loved dogs more than he loved people. And do you know why he told me this?”

“Why?” I asked, yawning.

“Because he knew that — unlike people — the only time a dog will break your heart is when it dies.”

As the hall light faded, I heard my father whisper, as he had so many times before, “Son, if you follow your heart, you can make every day feel like Christmas.”  OH

James Colasanti Jr. is a Maxwell Medallion award-winning author and member of the Dog Writers Association of America. A past president of the Animal Rescue & Foster Program of Greensboro, he shares his home with four rescue dogs.

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