Abbey the Wonder Dog came into my life when I needed her the most. It was December 2007. Abbey, an adorable Jack Russell Terrier puppy, came to the residential care community where my parents lived via one of the top nurses. The bosses let her bring Abbey to work each day and everyone—residents, staffers and visitors—fell instantly in love.
My mom had fallen and broken her hip in November and what became horribly and unalterably clear in late December was that she was not going to recover. I remember asking the head of nursing if Mom was dying and—I’ll always be grateful to her for this—she looked at me and quietly said, “Yes.” It was honest and direct and true. There was no timetable. Mom had quit eating two days before and she did not want a feeding tube. The nurses said it could be up to three months but that she wouldn’t be in any pain.
Abbey showed up around then. She was a 10-week old bundle of restless, kinetic energy, who bounded up and down the halls in her brightly colored collars with nothing but determined good will and an all-consuming desire for someone to throw her a ball.
Two days after the nurse had answered my question, Mom had quit speaking. That morning, the nurses dressed her and put her in a wheel chair. My dad, sister, and I sat with her and two of my friends who had known mom since we were 7 came over. We showed her pictures of me and Jeannie growing up and of her as a little girl. We took turns brushing her hair (when I was little, she would want to play “beauty shop” under the guise of getting us to brush her hair), and I put my ear buds in her ears and played her “Happy Together” by the Turtles on my iPod. It was a song that she and I used to sing to each other when I was little. Afternoon came and it was clear she was worn out. Abbey came trotting into the room and surveyed the situation. Either Jeannie or I picked up Abbey and brought her around to where mom could see her and we put her on Mom’s lap. Mom smiled and said, “arf.” It was her last word. She died two days later on Christmas Eve, 2007.
The next day, I needed a quiet place to make a call, so I went into mom’s room in the skilled nursing unit. I was sitting on the floor —I couldn’t bring myself to sit on the bed where she’d died— talking to a friend, gently crying. Abbey, who was too impatient to stay in any one place for more than a few seconds, came in, curled up on my lap and slept for the duration of my 30-minute call while I gently stroked her back. It felt like Mom had sent her to comfort me. She would even come into the guest room where my sister and I were staying and take naps with us. She made the unbearable a little easier to take.
More than five years later, whenever I go to visit my Dad, who now lives in the same unit where mom was at the end, I ask when Abbey will be there. I usually get to see her at least once a trip by just stumbling upon her. It’s always a happy reunion for both of us, but sometimes she is so fixated on playing fetch that she has no time for me if I don’t have a yellow tennis ball and she seldom stays for long. She is a Very.Busy.Dog with lots and lots to do and a grand sense of purpose. The nursing home has even given her an official name tag with her picture on it.
But on this last trip last week, something happened that had never occurred before. As I turned the corner to get to my dad’s room, which is at the end of a long hall, a blinding white flash came charging from the other end up to me. It was Abbey. She greeted me at my father’s door without my calling her. I had no idea she was going to be there that day. I crouched down beside her, she jumped up on her hind legs, wrapped her front paws around my wrist of my right hand as I rubbed her ears and she slurped my face continuously. I was giggling and she was wagging her tail and my father was smiling broadly, taking it all in. If she could have spoken, she would have delightedly screamed, “You’re HERE! No one told me you were coming today!!!!” She didn’t want me to throw her the ball, she didn’t want a dog biscuit (both of those came later), she just wanted to let me know she loved me.
The connection between Abbey and me is unbreakable, but something really special happened this time and I’ve thought a lot about that greeting since I got back home. She smelled me or saw me and instantly knew someone who loved her and she loved was here and that was cause for great celebration...and a very fast sprint down the hall. I’ve long felt that my mom’s spirit inhabits Abbey in some way. Her greeting this time felt like Mom reaching out to me to remind me that even though I can’t see her or brush her hair, she is always with me, even if she now is white and brown with a stubby tail.
In addition to Abbey, there are other fine, four-legged creatures who often visit my dad’s nursing home. There’s even a miniature pony who comes by. Residents respond to the pet therapy in a beautiful way that helps physically, mentally and emotionally.
Today’s $10 goes to Therapy Dogs International, a New Jersey-based company that takes dogs to nursing homes, has disaster stress relief dogs and even has a program where children read to dogs called Tail Waggin’ Tutors (it’s almost too cute, isn’t it?).
June 21: Therapy Dogs International
Click here to get “Causes and Effects” delivered every day to your email inbox (the subscription link now works) or enter your email in the top right corner.