Angels touch our hearts and our lives in many different ways. And they bring a special kind of magic that happens at Christmastime that doesn't happen at any other time of the year.

Sometimes - instead of perching at the very top - an angel resides underneath the Christmas tree where the gaily wrapped presents patiently wait to be opened on Dec. 25. The angel also lies in wait, protecting the precious gifts from any intruders, cocking his head whenever anyone enters the room. Having done this now for almost 19 years, it is a duty from which he will not shirk. His eyes glint and sparkle from the Christmas lights, reflecting the radiance of his soul and his love for his family and home.This angel - a black chow-lab mix - answered to the name of Rex. He barked when I entered the room, and if a dog can smile, a big one would spread across his muzzle to show his pleasure that I was now at home.

Like Marley in "A Christmas Carol," Rex wore a very long chain for the first 41/2 years of his life. He was confined to a ramshackle old dog house in a back yard, barely protected from the elements. The only time he saw a "family" was when they brought him food and water. Never was there a kind word: no petting, no playing with toys. But somehow Rex managed to sustain himself by barking at the birds and the squirrels and by watching the people walk past the end of the driveway.

At the end of 41/2 years, his "family" moved to Florida, leaving Rex chained to his existence like a discarded remnant of a previous life. And no one was left to care for him.

My friend Patty called me - knowing full well that I would never say no to a homeless dog - and pleadingly asked, "Can you possibly take another dog?" I had her deliver Rex to my vet for an exam and for shots, and I picked him up from there.

Rex became part of the gang at my house, and even though he was sometimes overwhelmed by the size of the pack, he always would smile.

As the years went by Rex gradually developed an arthritic limp. He was still OK on a flat surface, but the back steps were proving to be too cumbersome. I would pick him up - carrying him out and then back in - easing his journey when nature called. But more and more even the flat surfaces became too much.

As I stood staring at the brightly lit Christmas tree and as I blinked twice, the memories of Rex welled up in the corners of my eyes - and then the shape of the dog - the angel - that had lain so silently beneath the tree faded. Rex passed on this year and Christmas will be spent without him. Yet his memory remains etched like the frosted glass Christmas ornament with his name on it hanging from the tree bough - and etched in my heart forever.

\ James Colasanti is a lead clerk for Barnes & Noble Booksellers at Friendly Center. He and his housemate share their home with 24 dogs and a cat named Pumpkin. He is working on his memoir, "One Good Dog Deserves Another." Other essays by Colasanti can be found in the archives at Petwarmers.com.

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