Love and light in January

By Billie Johnson

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

—Martin Luther King Jr.

Within a day of writing my last column, my dog Bob died in a horrific accident. I had just lamented January’s dark days and the anniversary of my mom’s death. Really, January? Way to step up your dreary game of darkness.

Bob was a three-year-old, 75-pound bundle of love and light. He had a play date with a black lab pal named Alli, and when I let them out of the kennel at noon to potty and play, they played with all their might. While fixing lunch, I heard Bob’s something-is-wrong cry. The dogs collided and Bob’s neck was broken. He was paralyzed instantly and died on the way to the vet.

Bob would get into the trash, usually after four days of coffee grounds could coat my kitchen floor. He’d take breakfast waffles out of little boys’ hands, and he’d snatch entire loaves of bread off the counter.  He was naughty and full of mischief, but his soulful gaze, goofy gate and steadfast friendship lit up my days.

Two days after Bob died, I received the City of Pocatello’s Human and Civil Rights award. The chair of Pocatello’s Human Relations Advisory Committee (HRAC) asked me via email if I wanted to say a few words during the Portneuf Valley Interfaith Alliance’s MLK service. I bawled over my email.

I would love to say a few words. I would love to thank the HRAC for sponsoring the award and the man who nominated me.  I am humbled and grateful, but I couldn’t imagine talking to a crowd. A few words would turn into tears or a clumsy silence and apologies, so I asked a friend to read remarks and explain why I was uncharacteristically quiet.

I almost missed moments of light that night because I was in such a state of darkness over losing Bob. The Methodist church was full of people of different faiths. They stood and clapped as I received the award. I recognized Mormons and Jews and Episcopalians. Some of my coworkers as well as some of my mom’s former coworkers were there with hugs and handshakes. My old rugby coach who is now the Coordinator of Diversity Resource Center Programs at ISU was there. The church pews held straights and gays and any other number of labels we give ourselves.

During the fellowship reception, an LDS man shook my hand and offered condolences on Bob’s passing. He kindly talked of him and his wife losing their golden retriever. He was lucky there was a table between us because I wanted to hurl myself at him for a hug in hopes one of us would feel comfort. Grief breeds awkward, but add grief to an engineer who runs around in a cow suit and the conditions for awkward are at maximum capacity. His kindness brought light.

After that, another gentleman shook my hand to congratulate me and tell me he enjoys my columns. He added, “You’re much taller than I imagined.”  I almost hugged him, too!  I get that often, but the last time someone said my size surprised them, it came out, “Wow. You’re bigger than I thought you’d be.”  I can’t speak for all women, but since I quit playing rugby “big” isn’t my favorite adjective to describe myself. His complement and choice of “taller” brought light.

Since that evening, more light shined in my January. I got to recognize Pocatello High School senior Robert Perkel with School District 25’s character, attitude, kindness and encouragement (CAKE) award.  District officials knew about Bob, so they offered to make the presentation for me. No way. I have been surrounded by the light of kindness and was starting to feel the darkness lift. I wanted that to sustain. Besides, his name is Robert. That’s what I called Bob when he was regal and handsome after a haircut and bath.

I’d met Robert years ago through MATHCOUNTS. He was smiley, kind and excitable then, and he’s all of those now. When I asked if he’d consider wearing my bull hat and making this month’s picture more silly, he didn’t hesitate. He knew it’d bring smiles and with that Robert brought light.

The joy that left my life when Bob died was replaced by a cutting and empty darkness. Over 300 people sent me notes on Facebook, texted or called with messages of support, and I have been surrounded by more love and light than I ever thought could be in January. I am sad and will be for a while, but I know MLK was on to something. Love and light.

Why, hello February. Welcome. Maybe you can lighten up a touch.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at www.CowSuitSaturday.com.