It was a normal day at Pleasant Hill Respite Care Centre. That is as normal as our days could ever be. To the world outside, this was a place for the rejects of society. For those deficient and defunct, disabled and damaged. We had a few long term patients but most were short term regulars; booked in for a few days to give their care-givers a break. Often their family brought them in, exhaustion and guilt etched deep in their faces.
I walked into the communal lounge, breathing in antiseptic and stale cooking. “Good morning, Lillian. You’re looking well today.”
The old woman, hunched like a comma, gazed round in bewilderment. “Where’re Patsy and John? I need to get them ready for school.”
I took her elbow and steered her to a comfortable chair. “Patsy and John are away, Lillian. You’ll see them next week when they get back.”
I turned my attention to George, a teenager with cerebral palsy. “Howzit, Buddy.” I grasped his twisted hand and stroked it gently. His mind was perfect, trapped in a body over which he had no control. “Would you like to watch a video?” He blinked his eyes, his lips contorting in a grotesque grin as I steered his wheelchair to the TV lounge. “Superman, Shrek or Old Yella?”
I knew what the answer would be. George lived for the visits from Suzanne and her Labradors. They were wonderful animals; so gentle and blessed with an innate ability to read the residents. Sometimes they would rest their chins on a knee or sit patiently while children pulled their satiny ears. My favourite was a puppy who seemed extra sensitive to special needs. Milton was six months old now, a wiggling exuberance that lavished love on everyone at Pleasant Hill. I thought of him as I popped Old Yella into the VCR; of his thick golden fur and deep honey eyes and paws that were too big for his body.
As I turned to go, I noticed a little figure curled up in the corner. “Come sit by George, Joel.” No response. “He’s going to watch Old Yella.” No response. I reached out my hand to take his. No response. Joel had come to us four months earlier from a background of physical and emotional abuse. In four months, he hadn’t spoken a single word or responded to any therapy.
“It’s a psychological block.” The experts said. “We just have to be patient until something shifts in his mind.”
“Lynn, call for you.”
Suzanne was crying. “I’ve got bad news, Lynn. I took Milton to be de-sexed this morning and he reacted badly to the anaesthetic.” My heart froze, guessing what was coming next. “They couldn’t save him…he died about an hour ago.”
He was just a dog, I kept telling myself but my grief was real. He had loved whole-heartedly and the residents had loved him in return. I thought of how I had helped George run his arm across Milton’s fur. Of how Milton had licked Lillian’s knees and made her giggle. Of how he had rolled over and over and then barked for a biscuit. The pain was sharp and unrelenting and several times I blinked back tears. Concentrate Lynn. You can’t cry here. Not over a dog.
I managed until lunchtime. “Come on, Joel.” I coaxed, spooning vegetables into his mouth. “Open a little wider.” He obeyed but his eyes were blank, bottomless and lifeless. I was on the last spoonful when a staff member stopped next to us.
“I heard Milton died, Lynn. I’m so sorry - he was the most adorable dog I’ve ever met.”
The tears overflowed as she walked off. Stop it Lynn. Get a grip. I dug in my pocket for a clean tissue and soaked them up before turning back to Joel.
He was crying. Two silvery streams, washing feeling and emotion back into his eyes. Liquid pain, releasing the poison in his soul.
His voice was husky, dry after months of disuse. “The doggy died.”
I pulled him onto my lap and for once there was no resistance, no stiffening or turning away. Instead he laid his head on my chest and together we wept, our tears mingling as we remembered a puppy who had revelled in life. A dog who had given his all.
“Your life wasn’t in vain,” I whispered, hoping the message would reach doggy heaven. “It wasn’t in vain, Milton.”
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