A dog, a cat—and even a parrot—comfort and care for ailing and grieving family members.
The sound of whimpering woke me in the middle of the night. It was our 11-month-old Bichon-poodle puppy, Beethoven. He sniffed at our closed bedroom door. He had never done that before. You already went outside, I thought. What could it be now—a bad tummy?
I rose to take him downstairs for another bathroom break when I heard a noise in the hallway. I opened the door. My mother-in-law, Stevie, stood there, looking confused.
Mom had moved in with us a couple days earlier, and the house was still new to her. She was totally healthy except for her memory—she had dementia. We had planned to move her into a care facility in her hometown of Seattle, but she refused to go.
“I think God wants her to come live with us,” I said to my husband.
“If you’re sure,” he said. We already had four kids and a puppy in the house, but we could manage. At least I hoped we could.
Beethoven followed me as I led Mom back to her bed. Is this what you were whimpering about? I wondered.
When Beethoven cried again the next night, I opened the door and there was Mom—standing in the hallway, looking bewildered. This time, Beethoven passed me and walked to her room, as if guiding her back to safety. Mom followed.
“That dog needs to leave,” she said. “I don’t sleep with animals.”
“Mom, he’s not staying,” I said as I tucked in the comforter around her.
“What’s his name again?”
His work done, our dog trotted back to our room. This became an almost nightly routine. Same actions, same conversation.
Ever since we’d gotten him as a two-month-old, Beethoven had been my dog. He would follow me from room to room like a little shadow. But now that Mom was in the house, I noticed he paid more attention to her. The days she was most agitated, he would jump on the couch and lay his head in her lap. I’d often find her watching TV, absentmindedly rubbing his back. Other times Beethoven had only to scratch the front door and Mom would let him out.
“That dog got out again,” she would say. She never learned his name.
I’d run to the open door. “Kids, Beethoven escaped!”
Sometimes one of my kids would make a desperate leap and grab Beethoven before he reached the neighbor’s yard. Other times we gave up and he’d come home later.
I began taping notes near all the exits. First asking nicely not to let Beethoven out, then insisting, “Do not open the door.” Nothing helped. Mom had grown up with outdoor dogs. She just didn’t understand that letting Beethoven out without a leash turned into an unplanned game of catch me if you can. Several times a day he escaped and we chased.
Once, I was busy in the kitchen when I noticed Beethoven was whining loudly at the front door.
“You’re not getting out this time,” I said to him.
I turned to remind Mom not to let him out, then realized she wasn’t in her usual spot on the couch. Nor was she anywhere on the first floor. I looked out the front door. There she was, wandering around the yard.
I led her back inside.
Beethoven became Stevie’s constant companion for the three years she lived with us. He always seemed to know when Mom was somewhere she was not supposed to be.
Eventually the day came that Mom needed more care than we could provide for her, and she moved back to Seattle, living in a facility near my sister-in-law. Beethoven sat at the top of the stairs by Mom’s room for many evenings after she left. But he stopped whimpering by our bedroom door. He knew that his job was done.
Not bad for that dog.
Donna deNobriga Winningham
I walked into the living room after a long day at work as a nurse practitioner. There was my 93-year-old mom, Eleanor, right where she always was at this hour—drinking a glass of wine on the couch. She had moved in with us after my father passed away six months earlier, and I worried that she was lonely. I was gone most of the day, and my husband, Jim—though retired—sometimes went to run errands or check on his own folks 45 minutes away. Who could she talk to?
“How was your day, Mom?” I asked, sitting down next to her. “I hope you weren’t too lonely.”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “I had my friend Sherlock to keep me company. He’s way more fun than Dr. Phil.”
Sherlock was my African grey parrot. I had bought him as a tiny, featherless hatchling three years earlier. Not only did he grow into a beautiful bird—with dark feathers and a bright red tail—but he was intelligent too. African greys are known as the Einsteins of the bird world, and Sherlock loved to entertain us with his uncanny renditions of Jim’s cell phone ringtone, soda cans being cracked open and even me telling our golden retriever to “hush!”
While he and Mom didn’t exactly have conversations, Sherlock often chose to perch next to her and keep her company when Jim and I were out. Sometimes Sherlock would imitate Jim’s voice.
“Hello, Eleanor,” he would say.
“Hello, Jim,” she’d say.
This would go on a few times until Mom realized it wasn’t actually Jim talking.
Mom and Sherlock took care of each other. Though Mom wasn’t able to fill Sherlock’s food and water dishes or change the newspaper on the floor of his play yard, she kept an eye out and was quick to tell Jim or me whenever any of those chores needed doing. Sherlock was her faithful companion. Together they’d bird-watch, Mom’s lifelong hobby. They would sit by the window in her bedroom and look at the birds picking at our feeders.
“We’ve been checking the feeders all afternoon,” she would say when I got home from work. “The one that holds sunflower seeds need to be refilled right away.”
So I would slip on my rubber boots and head outside to the feeders. Mom would wave from the window, Sherlock by her side.
Mom passed away last winter at the age of 94. Though my sweet parrot has never said, “I miss Eleanor,” I know he does. He still sometimes says her name.
It was just after Christmas, and I was visiting Mom in her rambling farmhouse outside Tiskilwa, Illinois. Punkin, the family cat, was resting on my dad’s old chair at the kitchen table. I filled the sink with soapy water for lunch dishes and checked Punkin’s bowl on the floor. Still full. He gazed up at me with luminous golden eyes.
I’m not going to eat until Bill comes back, he seemed to say.
“You might as well eat, kitty. He’s not coming home.” It broke my heart to say it out loud.
Bill was my dad. Punkin had barely eaten since Dad’s passing in November, after a bout of pneumonia. My mom and the six of us kids tried to carry on, but our grief lingered. A palpable thing.
Punkin’s too. He left Dad’s chair only to use the litter box or jump onto the kitchen table, where he would sit and stare at that chair—as if willing his best friend to appear.
“Punkin can’t go without eating,” Mom said. “He’s not young anymore.”
“Surely he’s had some food,” I said.
Mom shook her head.
We were both worried. Mom about Punkin. Me about Mom. Punkin had been Mom’s comforter during Dad’s illness, and she relied on him now that Dad was gone. Mom wouldn’t be able to cope if something happened to him. None of us would.
Punkin loved my mom. He used to perch on her shoulders, nuzzling her head, while she was reading. But he was Dad’s best friend. Dad had discovered the tiny orange kitten in the barn 17 years ago, abandoned by his mother.
There must have been something special about Punkin even then. My dad wasn’t usually a cat person. He had livestock to take care of and a farm to run. Fields to plant and harvest. Hay to bale. Cats were just what killed mice in the barn.
Yet Dad fed the kitten even before he fed the cattle. Punkin returned his devotion, following Dad to the barn for chores. He trailed behind Dad to the machine shed and waited for him to come back out after lunch. When Dad rolled down the road on his tractor, Punkin held court on the front porch with the other cats, watching for his buddy’s return.
“When he purrs, I feel myself relax,” Mom had once said to Dad.
Dad had nodded. Punkin’s ability to sense their need for comfort and company—especially as they grew older—was his best gift. Mom needed that now more than ever.
I found myself praying as I did the dishes. Please, God, let Punkin know how much we need him to be okay. Let him eat.
I drained the sink and turned to wipe down the table. Dad’s chair was empty. I looked under the table. No cat. I stared at his bowl. Some of the food was gone. He’d eaten. Finally.
I peeked into the living room. There was Punkin on Mom’s shoulder. It was the first time he’d curled up with her since Dad died. She reached up to stroke him, and he stretched out a paw to pat her cheek.
“It’s all right,” she said to him. “We’re all going to be okay.”
I smiled. If Punkin could go on without Dad, so could we.
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