My grandfather always told me if you had two or three “true” friends in a lifetime you were a lucky man. His words were strange and unbelievable, at least to a high school boy who was fairly popular, played basketball and was known all over school. That was until I got older and noticed my so-called “friends” becoming harder to find than a winning Powerball ticket.

I connected with one of my closest and truest friends only because of the catastrophic loss of another relationship I held very dear.

My buddy Gage was dying from old age. He was a sage of sorts… the type with which I had a lot in common. He loved the outdoors, was an avid hunter, and was dedicated not only to me but also to my family. We didn’t get to spend near as much time together as I would have liked because my work didn’t give me much availability outside of weekends. However, the countless frosty winter mornings we spent duck hunting together will never be forgotten.

Gage was incredibly smart and had a type of sixth sense  enabling him to know when something was wrong with me even when I tried to conceal it. Even though I was the one always doing the talking, I felt he understood every word I spoke. Better yet, he was a great listener. He wasn’t the type who looked through you as though his mind was somewhere else, nor was he the kind who interrupted your thoughts; he just always made you feel like he really cared… and understood.

When the news came that his internal organs were failing from old age, I was consumed with grief. My wife, three kids and I all went together to pay our final respects. When the moment came for the veterinarian to put him to sleep, everyone left the room except my oldest son and me. Gage had been my son’s Christmas present 12 years earlier. Neither one of us could conceive letting him leave this earth without us by his side.

Gage was incredibly smart and had a type of sixth sense enabling him to know when something was wrong with me even when I tried to conceal it. Even though I was the one always doing the talking, I felt he understood every word I spoke.

After he took his last breath, my sobbing family loaded him up to take him to the country for burial. Upon arrival, we wrapped him in a blanket, took turns saying a prayer of thanks and buried him under a shade tree where we felt he would rest in peace. A white cross emblazoned with his noble name marks his grave.

Gage defined, in many ways, the characteristics of loyalty and unconditional love.

After Gage passed to the next life to frolic outside the gates of heaven until we are reunited to walk through the pearly gates together, or so I choose to believe, I was determined not to buy another yellow lab. I knew it would stir too many comparisons and memories and end up being an unfair comparison. After all, no other dog could ever live up to the standard.

That was until a dear friend e-mailed my wife a picture of a beautiful yellow Labrador puppy. His email said he wanted to give me the dog as a gift because he “would be proud to know this dog was by my side.” Less than one week later, “Cross” became the newest member of our family.

Cross weighs 102 pounds, is an incredible hunter, and has an extensive vocabulary of words he understands. He sleeps inside on a leather sofa, obeys commands by hand and whistle, and has become one of my most treasured friends. His head and body are so large people often ask me if he is a full-blooded Lab. I always say yes, but it’s a lie… no matter what the American Kennel Club says, he is more human than he will ever be a Labrador retriever.

If a man’s character is best known by his friendships, then Cross makes me look pretty darn impressive. While friendship is almost impossible for me to define, because its depth, complexity and feeling is beyond explanation, I can easily see it. It is in the shape of four legs, velvety floppy ears and a golden wagging tail and always answers to the name of “Cross.”

Jay Lowder is a full-time evangelist and founder of Jay Lowder Harvest Ministries and author of “Midnight in Aisle 7: Sometimes God Introduces Himself Outside the Church Walls.” Follow him on Twitter at @jaylowder or @jlhministries.