SHORT STORY. 1200 WORDS. NOVEMBER, 2017.
Sheila often said: “I love animals more than most people. Maybe all people.” She meant it. Though utterly devastating, her father’s sudden death and her mother’s drawn out demise never reached the same soul shattering level of annihilation as the passing of Winston, her rescued black greyhound with a grey face.
“He taught me how to love,” she said of the former racer who was her constant companion for six years. Despite his almost deer-sized frame, he slept with her on the bed and woke her each day with a lick. Always, he followed her like a shadow; not only from room to room but even from bed to closet, or from kitchen table to refrigerator. She was heartbroken each time she left for work and heard him bark and whimper, with the sadness of abandonment, from as many as four houses away. But his unbounded joy when she returned – wags, zoomies, wet kisses and a delighted howl of pure relief and exhilaration – completely erased this despair.
Sadly, their time together was marred by a dispiriting amount of suffering and hardship for Sheila yet Winston’s support never wavered. He was there through three abysmally ill-equipped bosses. One too demanding, one too demeaning, while the other sexually assaulted a co-worker on a day Sheila called in sick, leaving her to wonder what would have happened if she had been the one at work instead of her colleague.
There was also a neighbour, some college kid in a rented, rotting, heritage house, who hosted rowdy fraternity parties Sheila suffered through only with the help of ear plugs. Yet the same neighbour never hesitated to call the Humane Society any time Winston so much as barked at a squirrel during his morning walk.
Still more stress was caused by a landlord who failed to deliver on promises and, worse, a difficult breakup descended to a painful, petty and argumentative division of nearly a decade worth of assets.
And through it all Winston remained a silent, supportive presence, who instinctively knew, without a word, how to exude serenity and inspiration. Just seeing his face filled her with warmth and gratitude but, when life was at its most harrowing – and Sheila found herself sobbing uncontrollably, curled in a ball on the bathroom floor, legs drawn up to her chin and hands clasping her elbows beneath her knees – Winston immediately took action. He stood behind her, sniffed the air, nuzzled in, then rested the bottom of his chin on the back of her neck. Letting her absorb his warmth and compassion, Winston remained until the job was done and her tears had dried.
Sheila knew this was Winston’s way of hugging her and saying: I’m here, mum.
Then he started limping. An initial X-ray of Winston’s right, front foreleg found nothing. She requested a second X-ray when the limp worsened; a prognosis of osteosarcoma followed. Subsequent tests determined the cancer had already spread to Winston’s kidneys and lungs. Only three days later he was gone.
Without the dog, the neighbourhood – and life overall – was dreary and the healing process glacially slow. Grief placed an additional weight on her shoulders that she was even less equipped to handle with a massive hole piercing her heart and continuing through her soul.
It was too soon to think about getting another dog. That seemed disloyal; plus, she didn’t want to burden any creature by unfairly comparing it to a being who had taken on saintly attributes following his departure for the Rainbow Bridge, where all dogs ultimately go.
Her only respite came from the many neighbourhood dogs. Some owners knew Sheila’s situation and stopped longer than they normally had the patience for, in order to let her kneel and say a special, lingering, hello. Gratefully, Sheila hugged any canine she could get her arms around, talked to them in that sweet, soothing voice she used and let them kiss her open mouth – all while her neighbours struggled to avoid checking their watches. Many felt pity, even magnanimity, toward the bereaved woman but the kinder ones also felt compassion and empathy: they would likely all outlive their pets and it made them happy to witness this almost holy connection that left all parties – Sheila, the owners and their dogs – feeling enriched.
Often, Sheila encountered new dogs leading people she didn’t recognize. Being respectful, she let pass anyone who seemed in a hurry or upset with the weather but, if they appeared receptive, she politely asked to say hello to their pooch. Almost always, the humans happily obliged.
Six months after Winston’s passing, Sheila spotted a stranger walking toward her, accompanied by an energetic golden retriever. Constrained by his leash, he tried to take in everything – the movement of traffic on the road, squirrels on overhead power lines, butterflies bouncing on the air. Even stationary objects – trees and fence posts – caught his attention, so did smells – whether in the air or on the ground. Strutting along, the hound eagerly trounced from one edge of the sidewalk to the other, nose downward, conscientiously seeking out differences of scent.
Her heart filled with joy at the sight of this hankering creature, bearing that carefree, open-mouthed smile only big, happy dogs could pull off.
Never doubting her ability to communicate with animals, she inevitably heard the voiceover that was, she knew, an echo of the dog’s inner thoughts: Hey, I’m out for a walk. This is my favourite thing!
The retriever’s human seemed unhurried and approachable. True, moments earlier, he had tossed the butt of a burning cigarette into the middle of the street but Sheila decided not to let that reflect poorly on the dog.
Only steps away, Sheila paused, steadied herself for a surge of boundless love, while a smile rushed up, unimpeded, straight from the warmest spot in her soul.
Ever alert, the dog sensed her attraction. Eagerly, he raised his head, craned his neck and unabashedly wagged his tail.
Hey, I get to meet a new human. You need to pet me and give me scritches behind my ears. That’s my favourite thing!
Since the dog was clearly keyed up for a loving interaction, Sheila looked at the man on the opposite end of the leash and effused: “Oh, he’s such a good boy. Can I please say hello to your dog?” Her voice sang, her knees bent with anticipation.
But the human simply said: “No,” and kept walking.
No pause, no smile and no acknowledgement of the feelings of either the canine or the woman. Defensively, the man positioned himself between the two would-be friends and walked rigidly past, tugging firmly on the leash and barking: “Come on, Ryland,” when the dog tried to circle back to the receptive human.
Sheila was stunned, frozen, her spirit crushed. Never had a single word sounded so devastating, so out of place and uncalled for. Maybe the man also had an inconsiderate neighbour, a bad boss, a poor marriage – a life of disappointment – or maybe he was just running late but Sheila had been slapped by that one word. Her face hurt, her heart had stopped.
Noticing the voiceover had gone silent, Sheila straightened, put her hand on her chest and waited for her heartbeat to return.
Ryland obediently kept up with his human but looked back, twice. He might have been too far to witness tears in Sheila’s eyes but he instinctively knew they were falling.