Bandit’s been making new friends lately, under the worst of circumstances. But you couldn’t find a better friend to sit by your side these days.
Only days after bringing my 86 year old father from a hospital a hundred miles away to a lovely nursing home near me, I was meeting him again in an emergency room at midnight where a number of catastrophic things were happening to him all at once. The tragic convergence of those ailments and other complicating factors has meant that now, only a week later, he is resting comfortably in a hospice, as we wait for nature to finally take its course. I am on what amounts to a long death vigil, and I am still trying to keep it “perky.”
I’ve done many little things to try to make these last days nicer. Filled his room with the German music of his youth. Installed (with the help of a truly wonderful man) a goldfinch feeder right outside the window by his bed. Put large pictures up of himself and my mother and other family members on the wall beside his pillow. Fed him German beer and ice cream on the days that he could still swallow. In the oldest pictures, he leans casually against his motorcycle in post-war Germany, dressed in a trench coat and a fedora. He looks like a movie star. My mother is gorgeous and slender in a gathered dark polka-dotted skirt, kneeling to pet her little dog on a city sidewalk. They can still be young in these pictures.
And I brought Bandit to visit. Bandit is a chocolate lab (mostly), and a grey-bearded old-timer himself. At eleven and a half, with a bad liver, he’s also dodged enough bullets already that I like to say he’s got more lives than cat. I could drive to the canine emergency room twenty miles away in my sleep. Some days he wakes up and moves so stiffly that I think he’ll be a goner by nightfall. A few painkillers later, snuck into a doggie treat or two, and he’s wagging his tail again and following me outside with a tennis ball in his mouth. Or chasing a rabbit across the lawn at about a hundred miles an hour.
My dad grew up on a farm, in a small village, and has always loved animals. Until the last one died at seventeen a few years ago, he and my mother had always had a dog underfoot. And so a few visits ago I fluffed up the fleece dog pad for the back of the car, clipped a leather leash on Bandit, and said “let’s go!” He’s the center of attention from the moment we step through the door, as one resident after another asks to visit. He wags his tail, licks their hand, let’s them hug, sometimes gives them a lick.
He’s been a perfect gentleman. Visiting my father, he sits quietly or stretches out on the tile floor while I fuss with ice cream and swap music CDs and try to urge my father to take one more bite of pudding, one more sip of beer. I don’t know if my father realizes that he’s there, but I still toss the ball around the room, filling the air with the sound of scrambling feet and toenails on a slick surface. Bandit usually brings the ball back to me and drops it at my feet, eager for another round of “fetch.”
The first day, though, I got distracted by other little things, and when I finally searched the floor for the tennis ball, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Puzzled, I stood up and looked around…and realized that he had gently placed it on the bed beside my father’s elbow.
I don’t think my father knew it was there…but I certainly did. I patted his head and gave him a squeeze. “Bandit,” I told him, “you’re a very good dog.”