Ryan’s Christmas Gift
By Hillari DeSchane
Ryan Dickerson wanted one thing for Christmas 2006, his last Christmas. He wanted a dog.
Ryan was no child but rather an athletic high school senior, and there was no suggestion that 2006 would be the last Christmas he would spend with his family. That wished-for dog actually arrived two years later, in a story that combines elements of intrigue, mystery, and a touch of divine providence. This December 2020 is the twelfth ‘Gotcha-versary’ of the little dog named Scrumpy, Ryan’s wished-for Christmas gift, who proved to be a greater gift than anyone, even Ryan, could have imagined.
“We had always had dogs,” Ryan’s mother Lynn Dickerson recalls. The family’s old dog had died earlier that year, and “Ryan really wanted another dog,” Lynn says. But with Ryan, the younger of Ron and Lynn Dickersons’ two sons college bound, she and husband Ron told him, “’No, we’re empty nesters now.’”
Ryan dropped the issue, but that Christmas morning showed he had not forgotten. Amid all the happy chaos of gift unwrapping, Lynn asked, “‘Ryan, did you get your big gift yet?’” She meant an iPad. Lynn recalls Ryan’s excited reply. “‘A dog?!’”
Six months later, Ryan was dead, drowning while serving as a lifeguard at a children’s camp, apparently from previously undiagnosed cardiac issues.
Only those who have lost a child or sibling can begin to describe the effect on Ryan’s family. In previous interviews, Lynn has described life following her son’s death as a period of numbness, of existence painted in shades of gray and black. Paradoxically, the former publisher of McClatchy-owned newspaper The Modesto Bee had just been promoted to Vice President of Operations for the publishing chain. She forced herself to work, to travel, to somehow slog on despite carrying an aching emotional wound that was all but invisible to those she interacted with in her daily rounds.
That wound wasn’t invisible to the many who knew and loved the Dickersons. The popular family had spent a lifetime forging strong friendships, and their friends were concerned about the family. Over two thousand miles away, a conspiracy was forming. It was all centered on one small black and white dog.
A mysterious past and a touch of divine providence:
By late 2008, Lynn began receiving emails on an unusual topic from friend and colleague Valerie Canepa, then President-Publisher of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia. There was a dog in the local shelter that would be perfect for the Dickersons, Canepa wrote. Lynn had to see him. She and Ron would be the perfect family for this adorable pup.
“When Valerie first proposed it, I emailed Ron,” Lynn recounts. “Ron was NOT a fan.” It wasn’t the first time friends had urged the family to adopt a new pet. Ron and Lynn’s instinctive reaction, Lynn describes it, had been, ‘We don’t want anything that will die and leave us. We can’t imagine subjecting ourselves to another loss—more hurt.’
But “a year and a half later, it wasn’t so raw.” Canepa, an animal advocate as well as newspaper executive, pressed on with her campaign. She knew she’d found just the right dog for Lynn and Ron—and oddly, as the weeks passed, he remained at the shelter. There was an air of mystery surrounding this chap. He was a healthy young adult. He had good manners and charm to spare. He’d obviously been well cared for in his previous home, yet no one had come to claim him. Even odder, no new family had stepped forward to take home the little fellow with the captivating personality and scruffy good looks. Why was he still there? “It was like he was waiting for us,” Lynn recalls, “like he was our dog…like God sent him to us.”
A campaign of intrigue:
The final stage of the adoption ‘plot’ was replete with intrigue and misdirection worthy of a spy thriller. During Lynn’s December 2008 visit to Columbus, Canepa took her on a ‘marketing tour.’ “It turned out it was just a ruse to get me to the shelter,” Lynn laughs, to see a certain little black and white dog. Lynn was captivated but cautious. Columbus was a long way from California. How to get him to his new home? Wouldn’t that be difficult?
Canepa had an answer for each of Lynn’s qualms. The dog, now named Scrumpy, would fly. ‘Oh it’s no big deal, they do it all the time!’ Lynn recalls Canepa’s reassurance. “She really did a great job convincing us how easy it would be to get him back to California.” Canepa concluded her campaign, “You really need this dog.”
December 16 was Scrumpy’s Gotcha Day, with Valerie Canepa assuming the role of doggy godmother. She chauffeured Scrumpy the hundred-plus miles to Atlanta and put him on a plane. A few hours later, Scrumpy joined the Dickerson family.
“I think he sees something we don’t see.”
Losing his first home, spending weeks in a shelter, flying thousands of miles: any dog could be excused a period of adjustment before bonding with his family. But not Scrumpy. He wasted no time taking up his role as the injection of joy the Dickersons’ friends had hoped and prayed—and schemed and plotted—for. Lynn remembers, “[It was] like he was so comfortable with us from the get-go.”
He settled into the busy family’s routine seamlessly. Only a few days after Scrumpy moved in, the family held a ‘Remembering Ryan’ reunion for his high school and college friends. Lynn and Ron wondered how the dog would respond to some seventy young people descending on his new home. But Lynn says, “He was as cool as a cucumber, like he belonged. [He was] the king in his castle, no drama at all.” He became a favorite of the neighborhood, warmly greeting his friends with little grunts and squeals of joy on his daily walks with Lynn or Ron.
Above all, Scrumpy seemed to understand his place in the family, and what they needed. “He was a balm for our soul,” Lynn says. As if comforting grieving hearts was his mission, he did not restrict his efforts just to Lynn and Ron. A young friend of the couple who had recently lost her mother told the Dickersons how sensitive Scrumpy was, how attuned to the needs of his human friends. “I think he sees something we don’t see,” she told Lynn. There was no doubt, Scrumpy had a gift.
"The love is worth the loss:"
That was twelve years ago this December, and Scrumpy is nearing the end of a long, full life. Adopting Scrumpy did not magically protect Lynn and Ron Dickerson and their family from all the trials and struggles life brings, including serious health challenges. But Scrumpy has always been there to provide a dog's unique perspective, that each day can still contain joy amidst the most serious trials. The canine senior citizen still enjoys short walks, he has a young doggy friend—another rescue dog—with whom he can commune, but mostly he sleeps, secure in the midst of the family he has loved and served so well. As their impending loss approaches, Lynn and Ron anticipate the pain Scrumpy’s death will bring. “We’re going to be heartbroken,” Lynn acknowledges. But they embrace this present pain as the inevitable grace note to the joy Scrumpy brought them through his very special gifting.
Better than most others can, Lynn Dickerson understands loss, and the perennial nature of grief. “Compared to the loss of our son, [a pet’s death] is not in the same universe.” But to grieving families who fear to adopt a pet, as Ron and Lynn once did, anticipating the loss when a beloved animal’s too-short life come to an end, Lynn counsels, “Do it anyways.”
Lynn and Ron Dickerson understand, thanks to Scrumpy, what a gift the life-affirming love of a dog can be. In a way that only Providence could design, Ryan’s Christmas gift, the one he wasn’t able to unwrap himself, turned out to be just the gift his family needed.
“The love is worth the loss,” Lynn Dickerson says.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” 2 Timothy 4:7
(American Standard Version of The Bible, in the public domain. Accessed via Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Timothy+4&version=ASV)
The Ryan Dickerson Academic Scholarship fund was established in 2007. It is open to Modesto High School students who embody the heart and spirit of Ryan Dickerson. Preference given to International Baccalaureate students. Award $1000.
Application cycle opens January 2021. Visit the Stanislaus Community Foundation at https://www.stanislauscf.org/scholarships to apply or for more information.
Scrumpy with his ever-wagging tail
With his 'doggy godmother,' Valerie Canepa
Scrumpy is never far from Ron
The king at peace in his castle
With warm thanks to Lynn and Ron Dickerson. All photographs provided by Lynn Dickerson.