Below is a special Christmas story that appeared in both Chick Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul and Chicken Soup's 101 Best Christmas Stories.
A CHRISTMAS FOR TOBY
Tekla Dennison Miller
Toby was the biggest black lab anyone had ever seen in our town. My parents gave Toby to my sister Alyce, brother Chuck and me, on Christmas morning, 1950. I was seven and the youngest.
Toby, just 2 months old, bounded out of his carrying cage, a red ribbon around his neck. He wagged his mighty tail wildly for approval, and before we knew it knocked over the Christmas tree. Ornaments were hurled in every direction. Toby’s tail got wrapped in the wiring. Then he dragged the tree across the floor and proudly presented it to my mother.
Mom stood stone still, squinted her eyes and opened her mouth wide, but no sound came from her. Mom just stared at Toby through half-opened eyes as his tail continued a vigorous thumping against the wood floor. With every thump, more ornaments flew from the ravaged limbs of the tree and landed in shattered, colorful piles. Finally, Mom opened her eyes wide and yelled, "The tree is ruined."
"No Mom. We'll fix it. It’ll be like new, but with fewer ornaments," I consoled, fearing she would banish Toby from the family. Mom never moved as Alyce, Chuck and I untangled Toby's tail from the wiring. I held him while my brother and sister reassembled the tree and propped it up against the wall in the corner of the living room.
Dad tilted his head from side to side. "Doesn't look too bad,” he said as he rubbed his chin. “It's really not leaning all that much. Could have been worse. Toby’s just excited, Mother."
We all studied the tree, forgetting about Toby, whom I had lowered to the floor.
"What’s that sound?" Mom asked as we surveyed the room.
"Toby's in the packages,” Chuck shouted. He pointed to the stack of wrapped Christmas
presents. “He's tearing the ribbons.”
I grabbed Toby again and took him outside to save him from himself - - and the need to look for a new home.
A year passed. We all survived the loss of at least one shoe to Toby's teething. Despite his mischief-making, Toby became a beloved member of our family.
One week before Christmas, Toby became ill and we rushed him to the animal hospital. The veterinarian thought someone had poisoned Toby during one of his unauthorized outings. "He may not recuperate,” he said. “He'll have to remain hospitalized."
I began to cry. "Can we see Toby for just a few minutes?” I sniffled. “He'll be so lonely without us, and it's almost Christmas."
"Sure,” he said. “But be careful not to excite him."
We stood around Toby's kennel. He looked much smaller than the mighty dog we so often caught gliding over the fence. His eyes were sad. His breathing was exaggerated and unsteady.
Dad stuck his large hand through the cage’s meshing so he could touch Toby. Tears filled all our eyes when Dad said, "You'll be all right, boy. We'll be back to get you in a couple of days."
Toby lifted his head for a moment, then dropped it back with a heavy thump against the floor. I heard that thump all the way home as we rode in silence.
The bell rang, signaling the end of class at Park Hill Elementary. My fifth-grade schoolmates rushed from the building into the cold December air eager to start the Christmas holiday. I trudged in silence behind, neither feeling the joy of the season nor wanting to talk to anyone. Toby was still in the hospital.
My walk home was filled with thoughts of happier moments in the past when each day after school Toby ran to meet me at the end of the driveway. He’d jump up to lick my face, forcing me to the ground as he tugged at my coat sleeve. Toby only released his grip so he could carry my book bag between his powerful jaws as he marched to the door. He never asked me about my grades, or whether I had been chosen for the school play. And he never cared if I wore the latest clothing craze.
When I entered the house, I found everyone sitting around the kitchen table. No one was talking. Their heads were bent, their eyes directed at the center of the empty surface.
I dropped my book bag. My eyes stung. "What's the matter? Has something happened to Toby?"
Mom stood and walked to me. "No, dear.” She circled her arms around me in a comforting hug. “Toby’s fine. But we have another problem. It’ll take a family decision. Take off your coat and come sit with us.”
I did as Mom instructed, but worry didn’t subside. "What is the problem, then? I mean, what could matter if Toby’s okay?" A sour liquid rose into my throat.
Dad took my hand. "Toby can come home from the hospital today...."
"Wow! That's great. Why’s everyone so unhappy? When can we get him?"
"Slow down.” Dad raised his hand. “Let me finish.” He got up from the table to get a cup of coffee from the pot simmering on the old gas stove. He took a sip and turned to us. “If we take Toby out of the hospital, we'll have to pay a large bill. There’ll be no Christmas presents.” He took another sip of the hot brew before he added, “We can't afford both. You know, there really is no santa.”
It had been a long time since I believed in Santa Claus, so this news didn’t come as a surprise.
"I knew that. But, I still don't see what the problem is." I looked at Alyce and Chuck who had said nothing. “You two can't want presents instead of Toby? It wouldn't be Christmas without him."
Alyce wrapped her leg around the chair leg. Chuck rubbed the worn spot on the table top and spoke first. "I was hoping for a new bike. But, it wouldn't be any fun riding it if Toby wasn't following, barking to make me go faster."
Alyce kept her head lowered toward the empty table. "I really can't think of anything I would want more than Toby," she said.
I jumped from the table. "It's settled then. We get Toby, again, for Christmas. When can we go?”
For the first time in a week, everyone laughed. Then we all piled into the family Ford. Unlike the silent trip when we left Toby at the hospital, we chattered all the way there, each sharing our favorite Toby story. A few of the more memorable tales brought a scowl to Mom’s face, especially when we talked about the trashed Christmas tree the year before.
Though the ride to the hospital seemed interminable, the minutes before Toby's arrival in the waiting room seemed even longer. Finally, the door from the waiting room to the kennel area swung open and out walked a slower Toby wearing a red ribbon around his neck and the same mischievous glint in his eyes.
We all rushed Toby, hugging and kissing him. His mighty tail thumped in happy response. Mom leaned over and held Toby's face between her hands and whispered, "Merry Christmas, Toby."