A Christmas postscript: when dogs and fish come out to play

WHEN Atticus was a puppy, one of his new relations sent him a gift package to welcome him into the family. This package contained everything a human being would think a puppy might like to have: rubber bones, rawhide chews, squeaky toys, biscuits, dog candy, and other things intended to satisfy a creature that, in its early stages, appears to consist primarily of a stomach and to exist primarily to play games. When the package arrived, I saw at once that it was addressed to Master Atticus Grey Pony Cook. I made it clear to Atticus, in excited tones, that this object was his property, not realizing then what I have since understood only too well: Atticus makes instant connections. No package has ever again arrived at our house that he has not assumed to be his own. He stomps, shifts from paw to paw, pushes, nuzzles, and bounces as I open a box of -- cosmetics, garden tools, thermal underwear, oranges, books. Rarely is there any package for him anymore. Except on Christmas.

It never ceases to amaze us that Atticus can relate to an event that takes place only once a year. But the fact that he does has made the Christmas-morning, package-opening hour a great joy and great fun for us. From one year to the next he remembers the look and feel of Christmas wrappings and becomes as excited as a small child when the seasonal paraphernalia are taken out and the wrapping begins. On Christmas Eve, when the gifts are resting quietly near the fireplace (including presents from his ``grandparents'' and ``in-laws'' -- my mother calls him her ``granddog''), Atticus carefully sniffs through the stacks and locates what is his. Now, this isn't always easy. Sometimes, in addition to favorite food items like celery, apples, carrots, biscuits, and such, there is a new leash. Or a dog dish. Whatever it is, he finds it.

More incredible is the fact that he seems to understand that he may not have these packages until Christmas morning. This, however, does not keep him from wanting them. A couple of years ago, when we finally got him away from the packages and upstairs to bed, I suddenly felt, in the middle of the night, that he wasn't in the bedroom. ``John,'' I mumbled. ``I don't think Atticus is in here.'' ``Where would he be?'' John said. ``You aren't going to believe this,'' I answered, ``but . . . I think he's downstairs with the presents.'' I went downstairs and turned on a light. There was Atticus, standing in front of the packages, looking at me in anticipation. I pointed to the stairs. Reluctantly, slowly, he went back to the bedroom. I had to fasten the gate at the top of the stairs to keep him from going down again.

The next morning very early he was on top of us. ``I think he has to go out,'' I groaned, as all hundred-and-some-pounds of Atticus sat on my back, pounding, barking, and yodeling. ``Who's going to let him out?'' There was no response from the other side of the bed. ``Come on, kiddo,'' I sighed, as I pulled on my robe and trudged out into the hall and down the stairs. But he didn't want to go out. He wanted to open his packages.

We decided it wasn't worth going back to bed. There wouldn't be any peace until the presents were opened. I thought of my parents and how they must have felt every year when my brother and I came crashing into the bedroom on Christmas morning at -- was it perhaps 6:00 a.m.? I put the kettle on, stuck some homemade muffins in the toaster, and got out the butter and raspberry jam. What an extraordinary thing, I thought, to experience life with a creature that matures in a number of important ways -- in courage, sympathy, fidelity, sensitivity, for example -- and yet remains forever so exquisitely childlike. As I poured the orange juice, I watched Atticus trot back and forth. His enthusiasm knew no bounds. In a little while he was picking one package after another, scattering shreds of paper and ribbons everywhere, and munching on things like chocolate-flavored dog goodies and cheesy dog bits.

This past year he even took his favorite gift, a new ball, to bed with him Christmas night. As I look back on these unique moments with our dear canine friend, I think of the year-round gifts that Atticus shares with us -- joy and innocence warming the mangers in our hearts, bringing the same gifts the animals brought two thousand years ago.

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