One of our favorite guests was Molly (the black dog in the photos above). We really bonded with her because she stayed with us for four nights. She's a passionately relational family dog from a household with three energetic kids. Molly was a long-suffering angel with Josh, snuggling in his bed for hours at a time patiently abiding his awkward pats and obsession with her tail. We all bonded quickly and deeply with her.
During Molly's visit, I was running errands with the kids and the dog when Hope astutely observed, "Hey, Molly is like Josh in a lot of ways. She doesn't talk, she has black hair and she has to be taken on walks, just like Joshie."
I smiled because Hope was tapping into a conversation that Alex and I have been having. Don't tell anyone but sometimes we (sort of, semi-jokingly) ask each other "What is the difference between having Josh and having a dog?"
After all, life with Josh is still based on primarily non-verbal communication. We still have to help facilitate his toileting, manage his food needs, and make sure that Josh gets proper exercise. Josh communicates his love and affection for us primarily by snuggling, just being around and being himself. Honestly, having Josh is not unlike having a pet.
And a part of me realizes that this is not entirely an insult to Josh's humanity. Having had a number of dogs in my house recently, I've come to realize how precious and profound animal companions can be. When one of my daughters found out that she didn't get into a play that she had auditioned for, the first thing that she asked me was whether we had a dog at our house that day. She wanted some unconditional love and connection to comfort her.
I also read an article from a local psychologist who was commenting about what parents can do to help our stressed out adolescents to grow up with good mental health. (Our town has had a disturbing number of teen suicides in the past couple of years.) One of his suggestions was to have a pet. The role of pets in enhancing human well being is both well-documented and intuitive.
Some theologians such as Andrew Linzey have written about a "theology of animals" exploring what the Bible may have to say about a compassionate, respectful relationship between Christians and animals.
We live in a country that clearly values our pets, even to the degree that we are projected to spend $80 billion on our pets this year. This is remarkable given the fact that the United Nations estimates that the cost to end world hunger (for people) would be about $30 billion.
Yet, the reality is that although Josh is like a pet in some ways, Josh is not our pet. He is our son. Genesis 1:24-31 illustrates God's intention that people are the pinnacle of God's intent for His creation. People alone, of all of God's creation, are created in the image of God. Despite Josh's limitations in communication, productivity, and independence, he still embodies a special reflection of who God is. Even in his brokenness, he has a place among those of us who, as people, have a unique, though not exclusive, role in the history of God's redemption of the world. Furthermore, I'm not sure what the eternal destination of animals or pets will be. I do know that all people, no matter our physical or intellectual abilities, have set before us the invitation to eternal communion with God.
It's hard to explain these thoughts to my nine year old daughter. To her, I simply said, "Yes, Hope, Josh is like a dog in many ways. But he's not just a member of our family like I dog might be if we had one. He's your brother and our son. And that's very, very special." She smiled and said, "I know, Mommy."