My sister left me a phone message : “I think Mom has had a stroke.” It was shorthand for us, a message my sister and I have exchanged many times, whenever our mother was particularly difficult or unreasonable. “Having a stroke” meant our mother was irrational, belligerent, mean, needy or any of the other possibilities that crop up regularly between women who care too much for each other. If I called my sister back every time our mother “had a stroke,” I would have to wear a phone headset and my sister would need to invest in a toll-free number.
Several hours later, I got a more frantic message from my sister. “Didn’t you get my message? I’m in the emergency room with Mom. I think she’s had a stroke.” And then she added, because she must have figured out why I hadn’t called her back: “A real stroke.” So began a journey that was to teach me about a lot of clichés; among them, the limits of love and the importance of not losing heart. And this is where Mom’s dogs, Daisy and Pumpkin, come in, for in many ways,we were in the same bind: We were three gals who had lost our mommy, and we didn’t know what we were going to do next.
To say that Daisy and Pumpkin are Mom’s dogs is like saying that there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean. It’s essentially true, but it doesn’t begin to describe the degree or the depth of the situation. My mother has always had dogs and has always been devoted to them, but since my father’s death 12 years ago, and my aunt’s death a few years later, Daisy and Pumpkin have become her family, her tribe and her friend base. “My fur people,” Mom calls them. It fell to me, in the midst of dealing with Mom’s medical crisis, her frantic friends and her unraveling life, to figure out what to do with Daisy and Pumpkin.
Of course, I had promised my mother—five years ago and nearly every week since then—that if anything ever happened to her I would take care of her dogs. And so I began to call her friends, relatives and acquaintances. Everyone wanted to help.“What can we do?” they asked.“What we really need,” I told them, “is for someone to take care of the dogs.” “Well,” they’d say,“what else can we do?” Several people offered to help by taking the dogs to the vet to be “put down.” Even the local no-kill shelter said,“Bring them in and we’ll euthanize them.” I learned quickly that being alone, elderly and female is perilous, whether one is canine or human. Every day, I would return from the hospital and tell the dogs not to worry, that I would think of something. And every day, as it became clear that Mom would not be able to return home, I said it with less conviction.
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I admit that Daisy and Pumpkin were a hard sell. Here is the ad I would have had to run in order to find a new home for them: “Wanted. Home for two 14-year-old, deaf, possibly blind, obese, flea-ridden, mangy, matted, incontinent dogs. Have never heard the word no. Will eat only Beef ’n’Cheese Snausages and Booda Smacklepuffs Chicken Quesadilla Dog Treats, and then only if you hand-feed them one by one. Both bark incessantly, so you’ll never have trouble with burglars (or your friends, ever again) entering your house. No need to walk them; they just pee on the carpet when nature calls. Comfy sofa a must.”
But finding a new home for them wasn’t an option, because even though Mom could hardly speak, she mustered enough strength to tell me she would die if anything happened to her dogs. Every day in the hospital, it was the same story: How are the dogs? Who’s taking care of the dogs? When can I see the dogs? It was her mantra, one of the few ways we had to measure that she hadn’t lost her mind entirely. If she stops asking for the dogs, I decided, we’ll declare her gone.
Daisy and Pumpkin had each been through adoption fairs, foster homes and humane societies before my mother took them in. Mom had spotted Daisy at an adoption fair and had fallen madly in love. She had made my father sit on Daisy’s crate while she went to fill out the forms, so afraid was she that someone else would snap Daisy up. Daisy had been with Mom through my father’s illness and death and has been her companion during all the years since. Pumpkin had been my Aunt Barbara’s dog, and Mom had ended up with her after Barbara’s early death from brain cancer, when there was no one else who could take her. This was at least the third time that no one had wanted Pumpkin.
Except for me. I wanted Pumpkin. And Daisy. After two weeks of caring for them in my mother’s house, I wanted both of them. I wanted their incessant barking, their fatness, their blindness, their weird eating habits reinforced by years of my mother’s singular parenting style. We were, I figured, sisters under the skin, or fur. I wanted everything about them. I wanted them to come and sleep on my sofa. I wanted them to shed bales of fur in my house. I wanted them to bark until my eardrums frayed. I loved them both with a fierceness that astounded me, and I was not about to have them “put down” or sent to a “nice home in the country.” Taking care of them was perhaps the only thing I could do for my mother, and I was determined not to fail.
I live on the other side of the country from my mother, and my rescue illusions bumped up against reality when the vet told me that there was little chance Daisy and Pumpkin would survive a plane trip or a long car ride. My mother moved into assisted living, and Daisy and Pumpkin moved temporarily to Camp Bow Wow, where they played outside with other dogs and slept in “cots” in their “cabins” at night. Since returning home to Seattle, I’ve watched them on the CamperCam as they trot around with their new pack and get their ears scratched by the staff. Daisy and Pumpkin look happy. Pumpkin has lost weight and they both play avidly with the other dogs. Camp Bow Wow is about a mile from my mother’s assisted living apartment, and friends take the dogs to visit her a few times each week.
From the beginning, I considered Camp Bow Wow to be a stopgap, a place where Daisy and Pumpkin could be cared for until I could figure out how to get them to Seattle. We could afford to keep them there for a month or two at the most, and after that I was out of ideas.
And this is the part of the story where human generosity and the importance of not losing heart come in, for just as I was reaching a point of despair about not being able to keep my promise to my mother, I learned that it is not just I who unexpectedly fell in love with my mother’s dogs.
Tony Caruso and Kim Martin, “rangers” at Camp Bow Wow, called to tell me that they wanted to foster Daisy and Pumpkin for us, that the dogs could stay at Camp Bow Wow for the rest of their lives, as a favor to us and as a way to help my mother get better. Daisy and Pumpkin won them over with their determination to make the best of a bad situation. Tony and Kim were touched by my mother’s devotion to her dogs and by our dedication to not giving up on them. They are in a position to help and they would like to do so. Would we possibly consider their offer?
It is not perfect for Daisy and Pumpkin to live the rest of their lives at Camp Bow Wow. There are no antique sofas to sleep on, no mailmen to attack, no junk food. They will see my mother only sporadically and, like my mother, will never return “home.” But it is as perfect a solution as we are likely to find. All three of these elderly ladies, down on their luck and in failing health, have gone into assisted living. The dogs won’t ever again live with my mother, but they will live with people who saw their plight and were able to love them because of it.
In one of the darkest times of my life, when I was faced with both losing my mother and breaking my promise to her, Daisy and Pumpkin showed me what true compassion, generosity and love look like. They helped me take care of my mother and keep my promise. Near the end of their lives and with the help of Camp Bow Wow and Tony and Kim, Daisy and Pumpkin rescued me.