My stepmother died August 1, 2012. I returned to Florida for the interment of her ashes October 19, and my 84 year-old father announced he wanted to get married again.
I gently suggested he wait, and try to get his sea legs back under him. Not make consequential decisions from the standpoint of lack.
“God damn it, Scotty, I want a woman on my arm!” For some reason, at that moment I thought of a watch.
I suggested we start with a dog. He’d been talking about getting one, and had actually been going to his local Petco, unaware the only reason animals are there at all is to sell pet food.
“A dog’s a big responsibility.”
A spouse apparently paled in comparison. We tabled the marriage and dog discussions for the moment, and laid Joan to rest. I flew home.
I returned for Christmas a few months later. Dad had managed to stay single, through no fault of his own. Persistent attempts to connect with “IrishRN53” on Christianmingle.com filled his e-mail box. There were other more salacious monikers. I was both disturbed and relieved to learn libido had a longer shelf life than I imagined.
“I need a nurse with a purse,” he half-joked. Alone at night, though, his searching gaze bored holes through his computer screen. He was deadly serious.
We talked more about the dog idea, and I finally convinced him to go out and look. We decided we’d start by going to Petco. It was a baby step.
We walked in, and inhaled the distinct, familiar odor of wood chips and dry dog food. A tiny, tanned, thickset woman with voluminous bronzed hair approached, tying her blue staff apron. It was late afternoon, and she was just starting her shift. Her toothy grin lacked a canine and a bicuspid on one side, but she clearly did not care. She had a necklace made with twine and seashells. Her hand on her cocked left hip had a tattoo, pointing to a big silver and turquoise ring on her index finger.
“Can I help you?” A warm, amber-and-honey voice, a thick back-country drawl, and a direct gaze.
“My dad’s looking for a dog.”
She grinned again. “Oh, you ain’t gonna find one here. ‘Least not one that I’d…” She trailed off.
She zeroed in on my father. He was standing next to me, sincere and hopeful, with his hands in the pockets of his khakis. At 84, he looked like a boy who wanted a puppy. I felt like his parent.
“There’s a county shelter ’bout fifteen miles from here. It’s Sunday, but I think they might still be open.”
Strangely, my father knew exactly where it was, so we set out.
“Y’all gimme a call if y’get lost!” she hollered after us. Her name was Joy.
Leaving The Villages, FL for outer Marion County, the geo-demographics change dramatically. We left manicured boulevards packed tightly with franchise restaurants, box stores, and an impressive array of specialized medical plazas, and were soon whizzing at dangerous speeds down two-lane county roads past cow pastures, ramshackle trailers, and muddy sink holes. The car windows were open, and my father spoke loudly. “Before old man Schwartz started building down here,” he said, crossing a double yellow line to pass a pickup at 70 miles an hour, “this was all a watermelon patch.” He waved his arm outside the car.
75 miles an hour now.
“Isn’t it amazing how this car just floats?” he said proudly. My dad had cut his driving teeth on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. I had long since learned to focus straight ahead and breathe.
We passed a huge gravel pile rising like a pyramid out of the red clay. “Buy land,” dad said, looking significantly at me. “God’s not making any more.”
We turned left across some railroad tracks onto a dusty dirt-and-gravel road, and approached a whitewashed cinder-block building in the shadow of the gravel pyramid. We parked, and entered the Marion County Animal Shelter.
“Can we see your dogs?”
It was 4:30PM, Sunday December 30, 2012. They closed at 5:00.
“That’s all we got is dogs. Out back,” the woman behind the counter said, looking at her watch.
It was Florida, after all, so the shelter animals lived mainly outdoors, even in the winter. In the first stall lay a half-starved Beagle-Bassett Hound, his gentle human eyes fixed on us. He was fervent and focused, his tail his only moving part, wagging slowly and steadily. He’d been there three months, two months past the usual stay of execution. The staff couldn’t bear to put him down. After him were at least 20 stalls of Pit Bulls, ten on each side, young and muscular, bristling with energy. They were gorgeous, but too much for an 84 year old man beginning to be unsteady on his feet.
“I think I found my guy,” my dad said, a little conspiratorially. The name on the cage with the Beagle-Bassett said “Ford.”
“Ford?” my dad asked. “What the hell kind of a name is that?”
Testing his instinct, my father walked up and down the dog stalls one or two more times, slowly and thoughtfully. The Pit Bulls were putting on a floor show. I loved their broad skulls. One pretty brindle she-Pit with a white pie-eye danced on her hind legs and pawed the air in front of her. I saw her in a tutu. Ford lay stock-still, never taking his human eyes off of us. Whenever we drew closer, his tail wagged ever so slightly faster. He was a cool customer, and after 90 days, a veteran speed-dater. We went back inside and told the woman behind the counter which one we’d chosen. It was 4:45.
A restricted door opened, and another member of the shelter staff appeared. Far below him waddled Ford, hooked to a complimentary aqua-colored collar and leash emblazoned with cartoon bones, and the words “I Got Adopted!”
“By law, I have to inform you he’s tested positive for heart worm,” the woman behind the counter said.
And God only knows what else, I thought, looking at the ribs just showing through his pretty tri-color coat. The heart worm treatment was difficult and expensive, she said, and depending on what she called “the worm burden,” there was no guarantee he’d survive it. She waited. Over her reading glasses, her eyes fully expected us to back out of the deal.
My dad asked about his background, for whatever information they had about his life before. He’d been found wandering alone, starving, but friendly. He’d been chipped, and his fourth birthday was tomorrow. His owners had been contacted when they found him. They didn’t want him any more.
“I think he deserves a shot,” my dad said.
20 minutes later he was in our car, and you could almost see him pinching himself. We stopped back at Petco to trick out his new crib with dog-bling: a thick, satiny-black nylon leash, shiny silver food & water bowls with no-skid rubber bottoms, IAMS grain-free nuggets, and nasty sodium and nitrite-filled training treats.
“Don’t they smell good?” my dad asked.
“Chow down,” I replied.
The topper: a telescoping pooper-scooper. High-end stuff.
Joy was thrilled, and gave Ford a treat made to look like a cupcake from one of the open bins by the cash register. The dog wagged his entire sausage body and rolled over for her, and she rubbed his belly.
“Oh, ain’t you won the lottery!” she cooed to him. “Looka them eyes!”
She looked sideways up at my father. “You know dogs are chick magnets, right?”
She winked at me. “Don’t encourage him,” I said.
We brought him to the house and he immediately ran out to the tiled sun porch and peed, then jumped into a leather recliner, looking straight at me. He was home, and he knew it. I grabbed his snout, looked straight back at him, cleaned up his pee, and took him directly outside. As we walked together through my father’s perfectly-coiffed neighborhood, it was clear this dog had never been on a leash. He was compliant, but not obedient. His nose determined his path; he was a zig-zagging butterfly in a field of daisies. I foresaw leashes becoming tangled in unsteady old-man legs, and decided to delay my scheduled flight back to Ohio. I wanted to see my dad through the acclimation period, the vet visits, the establishment of routines, and make sure he could physically handle the responsibility.
At the vet the next morning, Ford tested positive for heart worm, and also what proved to be a pernicious parasite. One of his front paws had a badly ulcerated pad from the acid wash the shelter used to clean the stalls, and he was seriously malnourished. But those eyes never changed.
He didn’t seem interested in his food, but smells fascinated him. The first time we left him alone in the house, we returned to find the kitchen garbage strewn everywhere. Everywhere. Why not just eat out of the can, I thought, or in the area nearby? Why every room of the house? Contemplating the widespread pattern of destruction, I tried to enter the mind that had conceived it. This animal had vision. I learned how he’d survived on his own. I also learned how he’d likely contracted heart worm. A full garbage can, the base of a tree, or a pile of dog crap clearly did for him what a sunrise does for us. I could see his brain had gone into wondrous overdrive, endorphins exploding. Charged with such magnificent energy, how could you hoard your treasure? No! Spread it far and wide!
He was an olfactory epicure. He reveled in his rubbish bounty, and on a walk, in every blade of grass. His capacity for simple, complete happiness fulfilled and grounded me. It felt good to touch him.
I returned home to Ohio, hoping for the best. About a week afterward, my phone rang around 10PM. My dad was on the line. Apparently, he’d been out walking the dog. Overreaching to collect one of the dog’s offerings with his new telescoping pooper-scooper, he fell. Despite his best efforts, he could not get up. He managed to crawl to the curb on bloody, prosthetic knees, and sat at the roadside in the dark, barely a block from his house. Ford had watched my dad struggle to stand, watched him crawl. When he finally made his way to the curb, the dog came and sat next to him, and stayed there. They waited together in the dark. After a while, a car approached. Seeing Ford’s eyes flash in his headlights, the driver slowed, and then saw my father on the ground. He stopped, got out, and helped him up. He asked to make sure my dad was OK, then drove off.
I asked him the same question.
“I’m fine!” dad told me on the phone. “Just hurt pride.”
There was a pause. In my mind’s eye, I saw them regard each other.
“That damned dog stayed right there.”
They were officially pals. Every day for nearly six months, my 84 year-old father gave him oral medication that finally killed the parasite. He saw him through the painful, risky, expensive heart worm treatments that involved injecting chemotherapeutic arsenic deep into his lumbar muscles. Dad healed his blistered paw with ointment he applied daily. He helped him learn where his territory was, and gradually got him interested in his own food. He rechristened him Seamus, after our venerable childhood dog. This was a great honor. They trusted each other.
“He’s the darling of the block!” my dad would crow on the phone in the Bronx accent he never lost, despite years of international business. Seamus had successfully garnered an invaluable commodity for a lonely old man: attention. My dad had buried two wives and his first born child. He was responsible for something again, and this time he had saved it. It didn’t die.
Six months later, dad almost did. Just as Seamus’s health began to improve, dad started falling with greater regularity. One June morning, his neighbor called me in Ohio after finding him on the floor of his garage.
“I’m not trying to tell you what to do.” she said. “I’m not. I’m not…this is none of my business, but…”
How do you tell your neighbor’s child you don’t think his father should live alone anymore? I made plans to fly down.
The next day while making breakfast, dad began bleeding profusely from his mouth, and fell in his kitchen. He was hospitalized with multiple organ failure, and was told he either had to have a pacemaker implanted or enter hospice. He opted for the pacemaker.
Then, a whirlwind month. My father needed to heal. He also needed to move, which took convincing. As he convalesced in a cardiac rehab facility, my niece – his firstborn child’s daughter – helped me pack up his house. I put it up for sale, and moved him to an assisted living facility near me in Ohio, selecting one that would accept Seamus. As long as dad could care for the dog himself, they said, he could stay.
As my dad gradually healed, it became clear he’d never be able to walk his dog again. Seamus seemed to understand exactly who he needed to suck up to, and magically became the “house dog” at my father’s new residence. Another stay of execution. Who says only cats have nine lives? The residents and staff adored him, and fought to take care of him.
Whenever I visited, he recognized my shape coming in the door across the lobby. He’d jump off the couch and toddle over, his entire, absurd body waggling like a harbor seal, and roll over onto his back.
On these visits, he began to speak to me for the first time using his voice. The cadence was dense and complex, and his tone was urgent. I listened, then answered back, using the language I heard. He looked me in the eye to be sure I wasn’t making fun of him, then continued speaking. He had a lot to get off his chest. He was telling me about his life there, and about my father.
During the months that followed, my dad’s vitality gradually faded, and his focus grew less and less worldly. Seamus sensed himself on the verge of becoming anchorless again. He began to speak up, loudly and often.
“I’m sorry, Scott,” the facility director said on the phone. “I’m getting a complaint every 20 minutes.”
The staff at Berea Lake Towers lined up to say good bye, sobbing uncontrollably.
“He’d better be back to visit, ’cause I know where you work,” bawled Irene, the tough-as-nails receptionist.
“I promise,” I said. He moved into our house.
My father died nine months later at 5:15AM on December 12, 2014, on what would have been Frank Sinatra’s 99th birthday. That morning, as we waited for the funeral home to take his body, we brought Seamus in to say goodbye to his old friend. He approached my father lying lifeless in his bed with his tail wagging. As he stood watching, his tail gradually slowed to a stop. He turned and looked at me, and lay down at the side of the bed.
Fast-forward two years, and Seamus has become the center of our lives. He makes my heart happy. I still love to touch him. Our two cats have adjusted. Our nine chickens remain wary, as enchanted as he is with them. Seamus determines the rhythm of our day. Any plans we make involve consideration of his needs first. This seems right. He tends to put us first too.
He’s with me in Arizona now, asleep in the sun and the dirt. Even deep in his dreams, his nose doesn’t miss a trick.
Leave it to an animal to remind you what it is to be a human being.