Marcus Lemonis said something on his show “The Profit”, that struck a chord in me. He was referring to those occasions when a life event becomes the primary inspiration for starting a business. Marcus made the point that if we experienced something that inspired us to create a business then the source of that motivation is important to acknowledge and share because it has an influence on the company and the product the company produces. I agree with him on that and what follows is the mystical story of how a small Angel and a dog inspired me to start a company to make the healthiest dog food possible.
More than a few people, including family members, wondered what could possibly have motivated me eleven years ago, at the age of 60, to leave a comfortable life in the beautiful foothills of eastern Pennsylvania, move a thousand miles to another state, trade in the dream house I’d designed and built out of an old stone barn to finance a business involving dogs, and begin working 100 plus hours a week. I imagined they settled on one of the following reasons: the breakup of a marriage, a delayed midlife crisis perhaps, or just another incomprehensible decision by the oldest of 11 who had a good heart but a compass that didn’t always point north, and now it seemed as though he’d lost his compass completely.
Naturally there was more than one thing influencing the decision, but close to my heart was the opportunity to finally repay a fifty year old debt of gratitude that I owed a small dog who overcame the impossible and launched his indomitable spirit with every ounce of loyalty and love he had in his 35 pound body into my 9 year old world when I needed him the most. I’ve long wondered if Patches had a small Angel guiding him, or was himself a small Angel, but either way he found a way to overcome the substantial obstacles preventing me from having a dog and was instrumental in preserving my emotional sanity through a very difficult childhood.
Patches was a force of nature who imagined himself to be twice his actual size. Once he had chosen me as his life’s work he was my constant companion, ferociously loyal and protective one moment, and the next a tender source of unconditional love licking away a boy’s tears, reassuring him that he was loved and it would be OK. I think he fully comprehended the depth of that little boys need and committed every ounce of energy in every cell of his being to his chosen destiny as guardian Angel and loyal friend. Everyone should experience what it is like to be loved so ferociously and unconditionally as Patches loved me. I have held his memory for over 5 decades, as a soldier would a fallen brother in arms who sacrificed everything for his friends, with the hope that one day I would be in a position to enrich the lives of other dogs in gratitude for the loyalty and unconditional love with which Patches enriched my life.
Patches barreled into my life on a Saturday afternoon in 1955 some 62 years ago when I was not quite 9 years old. I usually fail when I try to make sense of that strange and exhilarating day, which I’ve replayed in my mind, many thousands of times since. I’m usually left with the feeling that something mystical happened that day that included small Angels and Dogs
What follows is the true story of a little dog who saved a little boy with his absolute loyalty and unconditional love and who remained a positive influence on the boy for the next 60 years. Patches was his name and if you ask me I wouldn’t be surprised if he had the help of a small Angel to be such a loving, compassionate, wise little dog, but I never asked and he didn’t say.
My father was always a hard worker who provided for his family but he was a very strict disciplinarian who tended toward the extreme when it came to physical punishment. His drinking problem made matters worse in that area and at the very young age of four I began retreating into a self made cocoon. Over the next few years my sense of isolation grew and by the time I turned 8 (see the photo of me eating a bowl of something) I longed for the companionship of a dog, but there was no way that was going to happen; my father was adamant that I could not have a dog and once he made a decision, like it or not, that was the end of any further discussion. Questioning his authority in any way was punished severely so I did not bring up my desire for a dog again.
I know the story begins sadly, but over the years I’ve come to peaceful terms with my childhood. I’m not going to go into more detail than is necessary about the difficulties of my childhood because that’s not what this story is about. I’m referencing just enough to provide some context for how utterly hopeless it was for me to get a dog when my father was 100% dead set against it, as he was. I was surrounded by a barrier of massive negativity, in the form of my intransigent father, who prevented even a glimmer of hope that a dog would ever penetrate it and if by a mystical miracle it did then my father would instantly remove it. I felt terminally isolated and lonely. Looking back I doubt that any normal dog would have stood even a remote chance of gaining access to me, or staying for long if he did gain access.
One Saturday early that summer my father took the whole family to visit the Catholic nuns who ran our school. The only authority on earth that my father acknowledged above his own was the Catholic Church. The nuns lived on a beautiful estate that had been donated to the church, in a one story building that had a long hallway that ran from the front door deep into the interior of the convent. I remember standing way out on the lawn about 30 yards or more from the entrance to the house as my family was saying their goodbyes. The 14 of us stood in a loosely formed circle – half nuns and half Darlington’s. The nuns stood with their backs to the front doors which were wide open to let the fragrant early summer air blow through the large, one story building.
I stood on the far side of the circle flanked on either side by my 4 younger siblings facing mother Superior who stood across from me in the center of 7 nuns who formed half of the circle. My parents were off to my right and filled the gap between the nuns and their 5 children. I was looking through a space that had developed between Mother Superior and the nun to her right and became interested in trying to make out what was happening down the long hallway that was visible through the open front doors.
Every so often I would see a nun enter the hallway from one side and disappear through a doorway on the other side. Occasionally I would look up at Mother Superior, who was obviously in charge of the overall conversation, to see if we were any closer to leaving. Even if she was in the middle of a sentence when I glanced her way, she’d turn her face to me and give me a warm, kind smile that seemed completely genuine. I wasn’t used to such graciousness from an adult and it made an impression on me. I continued my observation of the activity in the long hallway and I didn’t have long to wait before something totally unexpected happened.
A nun entered the hallway from the right side about three quarters of the way down the hall followed closely behind by a small white dog with a full, feathery tail that curved proudly above his back, swaying back and forth in time with his happy strut. Following directly behind the dog was a second nun. At the sight of the dog my heart experienced a burst of spontaneous longing for a dog and a moment later they all disappeared into the room on the opposite side of the hallway.
No sooner had the threesome disappeared through a doorway on the opposite side when a flash of white burst into the hallway with head lowered in a full out effort to achieve maximum speed, hell bent for the open front door at the top of the long hallway. A second later the two nuns appeared in full pursuit calling after him by name doing their best too catch him with arms flailing and habits flying as they chased him. The drama was mesmerizing and my heart beat wildly for the little dog who seemed to be making a successful break for his freedom. As he neared the open front door with the voices of the two nuns echoing up the hallway after him, the group around me broke off their conversation and turned around to locate the source of the commotion.
As though the entire scene had been choreographed and practiced a dozen times, everyone in our group turned in perfect unison and focused their full attention on the source of the shouts echoing up the hallway. A few seconds later a dog flew through the open doorway, briefly made contact with the front porch floor, then launched himself effortlessly and he easily cleared the distance across the rest of the porch including the three steps that led down to the gravel driveway. We were about 30 or 40 yards away out in the middle of a large open lawn area and it was apparent that no one had the slightest chance to catch this dog who could run like the wind.
No one moved or said a thing, we all seemed shocked into inaction, like spectators faced with something spiraling out of control that was clearly beyond our ability to do anything about it. However, within seconds it became apparent that nothing was spiraling out of control. Once the dog cleared the gravel driveway and began tearing across the grass it was clear that he knew exactly where he wanted to go. With his head held low and steady, his eyes fixed and intent on his goal he tore across the grass at full speed in a perfectly straight line – directly at our group.
From the far side of the circle, through a small space between Mother Superior and the nun beside her, I watched him intently. He was magnificent. He ran efficiently without the slightest wasted motion, with total control and complete confidence. He was closing the gap quickly and just before he got to the nuns on side of the circle closest to him, Mother Superior seemed to understand what he wanted and she turned her body sideways to create a slightly wider opening in the semicircle of 7 nuns that she was at the center of.
For an instant I clearly saw his face and the intense focus in his eyes – and those big brown eyes were locked on me. As he entered the circle he launched himself at me with complete abandon. He left the ground, his eyes still locked on mine, and I came to my senses just in time to open my arms and lean slightly backward to brace for impact. He had to weigh half as much as I did and as the full weight of his furry body crashed into my chest, I wrapped my arms around him instinctively and we flew backwards together into a happy heap on the lawn. No one moved. The nuns, my parents, and my four siblings stood in stunned silence as Patches lay on my chest, my arms still locked around him in a hug, licking every square inch of my face, his tail wagging furiously.
For the longest time no one spoke. Eventually I sat up, still hugging Patches who was now sitting in my lap face to face his paws on my shoulders. I looked at all the astonished faces above me, two of which were the new faces of the two nuns who had been chasing Patches and had just joined the group. Still no one spoke. Finally Mother Superior stepped forward and crouched down next to Patches and I. After looking into my extremely happy, freshly licked face for a long moment she stood, turned to my father and in a clear, measured voice that was more of an order than an observation she said, “Well it seems that Patches has chosen his master and there’s nothing to be done about it.”
I hugged Patches and buried my face in his fur as I waited to hear my father tell Mother Superior that was not going to happen. I nuzzled my face deeper into his soft white fur, tightened my hug, and tried to block out the world, to delay the inevitable disappointment my father’s words would bring. Then I became aware of sounds floating in the air around my head, strange words, words that were gentle, words being repeated over and over, words meant for me. I opened my eyes and was looking into the compassionate eyes of Mother Superior who had crouched down next to me again. The words were coming from her, she was asking me something. It took me a moment to re-orient myself, I was expecting my father’s words, words that were the ultimate authority in my life, that would bring my present world crashing down. Instead I was looking into gentle eyes and I was hearing her words, soft words, unbelievable words, she was asking me if I would come back tomorrow to pick up my new dog.
I looked up at my father tremulously, fully expecting his final and irrevocable negation of the entire idea, but Mother Superior would have none of it. She stood, turned to face my father and repeated her question, “Do you promise to bring Richard back tomorrow to pick up his new dog at 2:00 in the afternoon?” My father appeared somewhat stunned by the events and Mother Superiors reaction to them, and silently nodded his head. Mother Superior repeated her question and this time he found the words. I begged her to let me take Patches home that very moment, terrified my father would break his promise once out of her sight, but she wanted to bathe him and get him properly ready so she had my father reassure her yet again that he promised to come back on Sunday afternoon to get Patches.
True to her word Mother Superior had Patches bathed and ready to go, and adorned with a big bright blue bow. I don’t think I slept at all the night before and he seemed to have been as worried as I was that he’d never see me again because when he saw me crossing the lawn he couldn’t be held back. He wriggled free of the nun holding him, raced across the lawn, and bowled me over yet again as I crouched to welcome him. This time he stood on my chest as he licked my face and wagged his tail, occasionally looking at anyone nearby as though to say, “This kid is mine to love – I’m keeping him forever”. Patches was instrumental in preserving my emotional and spiritual sanity. He found a way (possibly with the help of a small Angel) to adopt a battered and lonely 9 year old boy against considerable odds and sustained him through the difficult years that followed with pure devotion and unconditional love.
Patches and I, were inseparable from that day forward. He was incredibly empathic and seemed to fully comprehended how desperately I needed him. Our life together began back in 1955 long before there were leash laws in the outlying areas of suburban Philadelphia, and Patches would accompany me everyday as I walked about 1/2 a mile to St Monica’s grade school. He was always waiting for me on the covered open stoop just outside the door that opened into the schoolyard to greet me when our class went out for a lunch break or to exercise during the mid-afternoon break and was always waiting to walk me home when school let out at the end of the day. I don’t think he ever missed a day, and every kid in the school knew who he was. He was friendly to all but at all times seemed acutely aware that the heavens had given him this kid to take care of and love and nothing was going to distract him from what he chose as his mission in life.
It was a mile drive from our house up to Rt 30, the main 4 lane highway that ran west from Philadelphia 40 miles out to our little town of Berwyn (Population of 5,000 at the time). When either of my parents took me somewhere in the car, which wasn’t all that often in those days, they wouldn’t allow Patches to get in the car with me. Undeterred by their oversight, Patches would simply follow the car out of the driveway and chase it all the way up Waterloo Rd to where it dead ended at route 30. It always scared me when we turned onto the 4 lane highway because Patches would chase the car out onto Rt 30 oblivious to any danger from the traffic. Fortunately the town seemed to be willing to make allowances for him and the cars stayed way behind Patches until our car was able to build up enough speed going down the hill just past the last red light in town by the Acme Supermarket and Patches would finally have to give up the chase and pull off the road into the Iffrig family’s yard at the bottom of the hill. My last sight of him would be him running down the hill in the middle of the road as fast as he possibly could with his tail spinning in a circle from the effort, just before he had to give up the chase. Patches never hid the fact that he loved me with all his heart and he loved unconditionally. That may not be considered mystical by many but he ability to love unconditionally is
What I have often used over the years to judge the validity of ‘mystical’ events has to do with whether or not they inspire a positive change and if the change endures. We’ll probably never know for certain if there was a mystical element to this story or if the help of a small Angel was involved, although It seems to me, given the people involved and the overall situation at the time, both would have been necessary. What I do know is that 62 years after that summer day a 71 year old man will get up at 5 AM to work a 16 hour day, which he will repeat 7 days a week as he has for the last 11 years to do everything necessary to create and manufacture the healthiest dog food possible to pay forward the unconditional love he received from a small dog that sustained and inspired him when he needed it the most.
I can understand why someone might not believe in angels, even small ones. It would be considered an extremely rare event if it were believed at all I suppose. But how many people do you know that love unconditionally? Dogs seem more capable of it than humans. Could they be little angels in training ?