by Anna Cooke
His name was Sam, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a savior of women’s spirits. Perhaps his backstory, whatever it was, only prepared him for what was right in front of him. Sam was adopted from the Humane Society of Pinellas County by a woman looking for a gentle, loving and loyal companion. Soon after, the woman and her dog moved into an assisted living facility. There were two levels of care for residents. Sam and his human, Sally, lived in one of the individual independent-living apartments on the peaceful property situated near the Bay.
In the apartment next door to them lived a woman from Puerto Rico who loved animals, especially cats and dogs. Her name was Milagros, and Sam and Sally became good friends with their good luck charm. Together they took long walks around the waterfront, especially enjoying the sunrises. They laughed at things only older women understand with years of life experiences tucked under their straw hats. Sometimes when Sally had to go to the hospital for several days, Milagros would take care of Sam.
One evening, while sitting on their adjoining front porches, Sally told Milagros that she would no longer be able to care for him. The details of why were left unspoken. Sally gave Sam to Milagros and asked them to take care of each other.
A few days later, Sam and Milagros watched from their front porch as their friend was taken away by ambulance. Attendants later cleaned out her apartment.
Sam and Milagros became inseparable. Walking around the grounds, they were a lovely sight for the other residents, greeting everyone with a human’s smile and a dog’s tail wag. They frequently visited the facility’s main lobby, meeting for coffee with the other dog lovers.
Sam was a lap dog, always right next to Milagros. They slept together and ate together. They watched television together, and she sang to him. Occasionally, he was her dance partner when an old favorite played on the radio. They thrived on their togetherness.
Sam whined incessantly when Milagros shut the door to her bathroom for even a few moments. Sometimes the whining escalated to screams while she was taking a shower, and he couldn’t see her from behind the shower curtain.
Once, a neighbor left an anonymous note on the windshield of the daughter’s car during a visit with her mother. The note accused Milagros of hurting Sam, and passed judgment on how she was caring for the dog, pointing out how long his nails were. “If you don’t do something, we will report you and your mother to animal services for animal abuse,” was the last line in the note.
Concerned for Sam’s health and her mother’s well-being, the daughter took them all for a visit with the family veterinarian. Maybe Sam was in pain from an undetected infection or perhaps a broken bone from a fall. Her mother would never intentionally harm Sam.
“Sam is fine,” assured the veterinarian. “We’ll just trim his nails. They’re really not that bad at all. I’m sorry you are having to deal with something like this, right now.”
As Alzheimer’s began to chip away the pieces of Mother’s brain, and subsequently her memory, the decision to find a memory care facility became priority. During one of her ever-increasing number of hospital stays, her doctor advised us that the facility should be secure, set up especially for residents living with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other diseases of the brain. Mother had a tendency to wander, and she had become very good at figuring out locks on doors and windows.
Finally facing the truth of Mother’s health, one of the decisions that had to be made was what to do with Sam. He was staying with us – a family of two adults and four dogs, and he missed my Mother terribly. His mournful cries often rose to blood curdling screams if he was not in the same room with one of us. I understood, then, how a neighbor could think Mother was hurting Sam. The only time he was consolable was when one of us was sitting next to him. He could go without food, water and exercise, but not the feel of a human’s touch.
We moved Mom 10 times over an eight-year period as her illness progressed. When she was highly medicated, she often became combative with staff who did not understand the disease, or Mom. These outbursts would prompt another phone call, asking us to find another facility for her.
Every facility we moved her to did not allow pets, except the last one, where a lovable fat cat named Buddy resided. He was adopted from the Humane Society as well. Buddy would make his rounds every day, visiting with each of the residents who sometimes dispensed treats and always had a gentle hand. Buddy ended each of his days in bed with Mom, curled up inside the crook of her legs, softly purring.
After some experimentation, we figured out that taking Mom off most of her meds calmed her, bringing her back to her more recognizable self. I also believe Buddy was of great comfort to her, especially after her memory had almost completely faded away. There was always something familiar to Buddy’s soft fur and the rumbling of his purr.
Almost to the end, Mom would ask about a dog who managed to remain in her memory. Was he her dog? Where was he, and was he okay? She could not recall his name, but it didn’t matter. She would smile and laugh when I described Sam to her, sometimes stroking her lap as if he was sitting on it. Sometimes, it would be Buddy on her lap she was stroking, but I imagined she may have been remembering Sam.
Sam’s third human spirit he would take care of was a woman who was bed-ridden. He gladly took his place next to her so she could feel his soft, silky fur under her hand. Her family was grateful for Sam’s gentle demeanor and his ability to calm her.
Sam had enough unconditional love to share with three special ladies, arriving at just the right moment in each of their lives. Such is the purpose of dog.
*Quote used in headline by Jean de La Bruyere, a French philosopher (1645-1696).
I am forever grateful to Curlew Care of Clearwater for the kindness and love they showed to Mom and all their residents. I’m also grateful for shelters like the Humane Society of Pinellas who work with longterm care facilities. –Anna Cooke