“And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty. ”
- John Grogan, Marley & Me
In Remembrance of Gage Sarmento Good, gone March 27, 2022
In May of 2017, my daughter Maggie and I were halfway home from Blacksburg on Interstate 81 after moving her out from her freshman year at Virginia Tech when my phone rang. It was an unusual call from my ex-husband who relayed the news that he was in the emergency room with our daughter Leah, a junior in high school, and that she was being admitted after serious concerns for her personal safety. My heart sank and my mind raced. Leah had been seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist for several years after mental health concerns emerged after her dad and I divorced. Even on the good days, I knew she struggled and rarely felt peaceful or hopeful about life, but I was still devastated to hear that she was in a crisis. When I arrived at the hospital later that night, I began the process of finding inpatient mental health care for her. Two weeks later I found out I was pregnant.
Hope and fear weaved their way through the summer of 2017.
We walked with Leah through two inpatient admissions, medication management, partial hospitalization, and intensive outpatient programs. She had good days and bad days, but the outcome of her struggle was not certain. It was not a guarantee that she could or would survive. We worked hard to trust and surrender to the awful reality of how powerless we were to help her. We suffered with her and prayed daily for guidance, wisdom, and a miracle that she would be well.
At the same time, we held the news of my unexpected middle-age pregnancy with cautious excitement. This tiny, loved life was also not guaranteed. Miscarriage rates are high when you are 45. We hoped and prayed that our baby would grow healthy and strong, but the pre-natal testing indicated that our little boy likely had a life-limiting condition – one that could end his life at any point in the womb or shortly after birth. It was very possible that he, too, would die. Again, we trusted and surrendered to the awful reality of how powerless we were to save him. Again, we prayed daily for medical guidance and the miracle that he would be well.
These agonizing seasons were concurrent. Often, I re-live the movie-in-my-mind of one or the other and forget that they happened at the same time. For months and months, we prayed for two miracles. We got one.
Shortly after our baby was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, things took a turn for the worse with our daughter Leah. Despite our many therapeutic efforts, she could not hold on to hope. For quite some time, Leah had been asking to get a dog. She has always been an animal-whisperer. She finds comfort and connection with animals in a way that soothes her soul. Leah attended equine therapy and her therapist also had an emotional support dog present during sessions. Leah desperately wanted her own dog, convinced this would help her mental health. I didn’t doubt her, but we had a busy household with six kids and a baby on the way. Also, my husband Ralph had made it very clear before our marriage that he did not want animals, even though he had brought home a cat two years prior. Getting a dog was not an option. Whenever it came up, Ralph was frustrated, Leah was disappointed, and I felt caught in the middle.
The conflict reached a climax shortly before Labor Day weekend. Leah was not doing well and was especially despondent one night. Without a service dog, she said, she was not sure she was going to live. On the surface, this could sound like teenage manipulation, but I knew my daughter. She was suffering, and while it might not make sense to me, having a dog to love and care for -- and to love and care for her -- truly felt like life-or-death to Leah.
After Leah went to bed, I sat in my room and cried. I felt tired, afraid, and helpless. As a mother, there was nothing I wouldn’t do to help my daughter, but being in a blended family can be tricky and I wanted to respect my husband’s wishes.
An ugly fear emerged in my heart, though. If Leah committed suicide and we hadn’t gotten her a dog -- a dog she said would help her – right or wrong, I would blame myself and Ralph. I prayed again for a miracle for Leah, and now also, a miracle in Ralph’s heart to agree this is what we needed to do. As I went downstairs to talk to Ralph, I prayed for the intercession of St. Francis of Assisi, patron of animals, to help me, help Leah, and help Ralph.
Ralph was in the library working at the computer. I pulled a chair up close to him and made my heart-felt plea. Please. I know you don’t want this, but I am so scared. What if we lose her? What if we didn’t do everything? What if getting her a service dog is the one thing that will save her life? The Lord and St. Francis answered my prayer.
“Then let’s get her a dog,” he said. A miracle.
Leah and her siblings left the next day to spend Labor Day weekend with their dad. I spent all day Friday researching service dogs and realizing the process of getting and training a psychiatric service dog can take a long time. We didn’t have a long time. My next step was to start calling breeders with a ridiculous request: Do you happen to have an adult dog, fully trained and ready to go? I started with golden retrievers and labs and called every breeder within 100 miles, leaving messages and coming up empty over and over again. By the end of Saturday, we were considering purchasing a dog from an agency in Culpepper that helped families train service animals, but it was a complicated process and the ongoing financial investment for training was unclear. I didn’t feel great about it, but it was our only option until a breeder near Richmond returned my phone call.
Nita was the owner of Breaking Dawn Kennels and had a 7-year-old male Golden Retriever we might be interested in. Gage had been their stud male for several years but was now related to all the female dogs in the kennel and as a result, had just been neutered that week. Nita’s husband trained some of the kennel dogs to work in film so Gage, while not a service dog, had the highest standard of training and she was confident he would be an ideal companion dog for Leah. She offered a reasonable price and said we could come down and get him the next day.
It sounded too good to be true, but for the first time in months I felt hopeful. After Ralph spoke to Nita on the phone that night, he turned to me and said, “This is our dog.” We got in the car the next day and made the two-hour drive to Richmond to meet Nita and Gage.
Breaking Dawn Kennels was a sprawling, well-kept property with large fenced runs, horse pastures, and beautiful gardens. As we approached an outdoor kennel area, there were many dogs barking and jumping for attention, but one dog, elegant with a mahogany coat, stood still to the side quietly watching us. Nita came out shortly and brought this quiet, stately dog over to meet us. Gage. He won us over right away. Gage exuded dignity and calm. Nita demonstrated his training and told us what we could expect from his behavior. We spent several hours getting to know Gage, even traveling with him and Nita to a nearby restaurant to see how he interacted in a commercial environment. As a service dog, he would need to sit quietly under a desk for hours at a time. He was flawless, and we were sold. Gage would be coming home with us for Leah.
Thank you, Jesus, for hearing our prayer. For bringing us Gage.
By the time Leah and the other kids got home on Monday, we had Gage set up at home and ready to surprise her. We had told him all about Leah, about how wonderful she was but that she was fragile and needed extra care. She would need him very much, and we needed him to take care of her. It was a tall-order, but Gage was a very special dog -- a miracle dog. There was no other way to explain how we found him so quickly and how perfectly he became a beacon of hope for our Leah, and for us.
Gage stepped effortlessly into his role as Leah’s service dog. He intuitively knew when Leah needed him to come close. His behavior was flawless. In the four and a half years that I knew Gage, my only critique – and I can’t even call it bad behavior – is that sometimes he ate too fast and that he loved pets so much that if you stopped, he would nudge your hand with his snoot for more, but only once. We had no trouble acquiring the proper service dog paperwork and within a matter of weeks, Gage was attending Briar Woods High School with Leah as the first psychiatric service dog in Loudoun County Public Schools.
They were inseparable, as it should be with any service animal. Church, movies, restaurants, choir concerts – Gage was there by Leah’s side. When Leah performed in the spring musical, Gage was backstage. He was in her senior pictures, had his own listing in the yearbook, and when Leah graduated from high school, a milestone that had not been guaranteed, Gage’s name was called after Leah’s and they crossed the stage together.
Gage moved to James Madison University with Leah and spent the year in Hillside, 3rd floor. He moved with Leah to Nashville the following fall and helped Leah launch herself in a new city with a new job. As Leah and Gage both got older, she needed him less and less as a mental health service animal and more for continued emotional support and as her best friend.
In September 2021, Leah discovered a mass in Gage’s neck. He was 11 ½ years old. In November, she found out it was cancer. The timeline was grim. Even with treatment, which was prohibitively expensive, he would only have 6-9 months. Leah and her boyfriend made the painful decision to manage his care themselves and to keep Gage home and comfortable for as long as possible. The cancer was not yet affecting his energy, mobility, or appetite. As Leah said in her own words:
Gage was a fighter. He stayed his happy goofy self for 5 months and never acted sick until a few days after his 12th birthday, March 23rd. I knew that birthday would have to be special, so I invited a few of our friends over to celebrate with us. He got so many pets and happily ate his whole cake. It wasn't until the 26th that he really started to take a turn for the worse.
On his last night, I tucked him into his big dog bed on the floor in my living room and set up my spot next to him because he couldn't make it back to my bed. I was reminded of my first month in college with him, when he hadn't figured out how to jump onto my raised dorm bed yet. I slept many nights on the floor with him then, until he was able to get up in bed with me.
That dog always wanted me to be happy, and he always knew when I wasn't. I know he waited until I was asleep to go, and I am so beyond thankful that I was able to be right there with him for his last moments. He passed surrounded by the two people that loved him the most, and his puppy grandson.
Knowing that Gage was an older dog, Leah had long desired to get a puppy while Gage was still alive. After Gage’s diagnosis, Leah accelerated her plan and contacted Nita at Breaking Dawn Kennels to ask about the availability of puppies that came from Gage’s line. A new liter was born to Gage’s daughter in December 2021 and Leah brought Dennis, Gage’s grand-puppy, back to Nashville the end of January. Gage and Dennis had two months together before Gage died on March 27, 2022.
Even knowing his death was coming, I wasn’t prepared. Leah’s journey with Gage began when I was still pregnant with my son, John Paul Raphael. For months we prayed for our two children, both of whom needed a miracle. When John Paul Raphael was born on January 4, 2018, we didn’t know how much time we would get with him. Gage was with us at the hospital to welcome our baby. Gage helped Leah have the courage to fall in love with her brother on Thursday and helped her begin to grieve his death the next day. In many ways, Gage’s arrival in 2017 was woven into the fabric of my own grief, for John Paul Raphael and for Leah. I didn’t realize how much I relied on him for comfort and hope until he was gone. He was a beacon for all of us
I write about loving and losing John Paul Raphael in my book, Let Yourself Be Loved: Big Lessons from a Little Life, but many of those lessons I also learned from Gage.
You never know when you will be surprised by love.
When you come to the end of yourself, you can be found.
The miracle you get isn’t always the miracle that you prayed for.
Thank you, Gage, for surprising us with your abundant, selfless, warm, furry love and your long pointy snoot always asking for more pets.
Thank you for finding us at the very end of ourselves, the end of our hope, and for meeting Leah in her darkest battle and leading her back to the light.
Thank you for being our miracle dog and for watching over our girl as we mourned our little boy.
You gave your heart so generously not just to Leah, but to all of us. Losing you and John Paul Raphael reminds me that love always has a cost. Loving those we know we will outlive strips us of certainty. It demands we face our fears about the fragility of life and the limits of our own capacity to be human -- to hold love, joy, pain, and grief freely in equal measure. It requires the courage to hold one tiny baby and one furry beast for a terribly short time on earth, but forever in our hearts.