Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hospital Dog

I have been asked on more than one occasion why I never posted this story on my blog. A shortened and edited version appeared in The Observer column of the Arkansas Times the week before my dad died.

So, here is the original, unedited version, just as it was written on my laptop as I looked out of the hospital window on that February day, one week after my birthday and one week before my dad died. The edited version is prettier....but this is what spilled from my heart without a filter.



There aren’t many bright spots, sitting in a hospital room on cold dreary winter days, watching your father die by inches each day.

You might be lucky enough to get a cheerful nurse or aide who understands your plight, perhaps because she has been in the same place in her personal life. Or someone who has meaning to you might stop by to say hello. But they don’t stay long. The scene is just too gruesome and the sounds too haunting to tolerate if you aren’t deeply vested in the unfortunate situation.

So, day after day, I come to the hospital, sit in my dad’s room at a little desk by the window and read news on the computer or some story on my kindle, hoping I can escape for a few minutes from the living hell my father is trapped in at the moment.

The window in the room faces the entrance of the hospital so some days, I sit and watch people come and go. The ones coming in are usually slumped over either to shelter themselves from the wind or cold, or weighted down by the burden they are bringing in. The patients leaving are usually a bit happier, just thankful to be going home. On occasion, I will see a family leaving, so overwrought by the news they are trying to absorb, I want to run out and hug them and tell them that in time, things will work out as they are supposed to. But I don’t, because I know that could be me in a matter of days.

It was on one such gloomy day that I was looking out the window for something, anything that could distract me, when I began to pay closer attention to what I have now come to know as The Hospital Dog.

I had seen this stout little black and white dog around town on several occasions, always wondering why an owner would let him run lose that way. But after several days here at the hospital, I began to wonder if this was his home.

The Hospital Dog is here, every morning when I arrive. He usually lies in a patch of grass, waiting for hospital employees to walk across the street to a designated area off hospital grounds to smoke. He will accompany them and sit patiently, hoping for a pat on the head

or a treat of some sort. Even on the days when he gets neither, he sits like a gentleman guardian until his friends have used up their break time and go back to work.

I have seen him go up to groups of people, gathered around the entrance of the hospital, sit politely on the perimeter of the circle, just in case someone needs the comfort only petting a puppy can provide. He seems to know this. More often than not, he is ignored. The people leave in their cars and he goes back to his spot on the grass, waiting for his next mission. I have come to know him as the most welcome sort of minister…..there if you need him, not imposing if you don’t.

Having rescued dogs of my own, I understand their need for a grateful acknowledgement of their presence on occasion, so shortly after discovering The Hospital Dog, I began putting a bag of treats in my car for when I arrived and when I left the hospital. I know he recognized me as a person and not by my vehicle, because I drive two different cars, depending on the weather.

When I arrive in the hospital parking lot, I say “Puppy” in his direction. He bounds from his central location and comes to sit politely a few feet away so not to invade my space, but to let me know he is here for whatever I need. He always appears so grateful when I pull out the bag of treats and give him enough to sustain him through the morning.

I am told that some women buy him a hamburger in the hospital cafeteria at lunch time and the nurses bring him dog food and table scraps. He is such a gentleman; I know he shows the same gratitude for the scraps that he does for the burgers.

Most of the hospital employees I have spoken with about him adore him and think of him as their own. Several nurses have considered taking him home with them. Story has it that one sweet lady doctor has taken him home with her, twice, but he always finds his way back to the hospital.

Each day when I get up before daylight and get dressed to come sit with my dad, I have a sense of impending doom that sometimes overshadows my day. I can’t help it. Even though I had a tutorial in this, watching my mother die three years ago, I wasn’t a good student and the lessons I learn from that seem to escape me now. It is as though I am learning it all over again, knowing the final exam could be days away.

But at least now I know that no matter how difficult the day, how horrible the sights and sounds around me might be, I can walk out the door to the little grassy spot and there will be a black and white dog, waiting to let me know tomorrow is a new day and I must make the best of the challenge I have been given………just like he has done.