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Shamus and Andy - Part 1

It all began some twenty years ago when I told the wizened little man selling plants at the farmers’ market that I was looking for something that would grow close to the ground and be happy in the shade under a maple tree. He looked at me, shifted around a little, rubbed his chin, and said, “It sounds like you need a dog.” I had a dog, actually. And, it turned out, that it was Andy who needed one.

            We got to know Andy and his plants. Over time, I bought many of them for our yard. When my husband mowed a couple of them down and I sent him back for more, Andy cheerfully suggested he go home, plant the new ones, mow those down, and come back next Saturday for replacements. Andy got me involved with Tudor Hall (the home built by John Wilkes Booth’s family) and then we got to know his home and his amazing Christmas displays. He began decorating shortly after Labor Day and had a tree in every room—even the bathroom, where there really wasn’t space for another thing. He hung them upside down from the ceiling where space was really tight. He invited folks out to share this holiday domain, and year after year, his treasure trove of decorations and Christmas-themed music boxes expanded.

            The first year that we went to Andy’s with some friends for the holiday visit, I said I would bring dinner if he would set the table for us. He agreed and when we got there, we found that he had set his table with his mother’s china, which he was using for the first time in the thirty-plus years since her death. This began a tradition we enjoyed each December for many years. Over time we learned that Andy had no relatives and incorporated him into holiday dinners in our home.

            It was St. Patrick’s Day weekend in 2003 when I drove to my parents’ home in Penn Yan, in central New York State, to plan a party for their sixtieth wedding anniversary. There was a lot of old snow on the ground and it was very cold out. I got there shortly after Mom and Dad returned from a trip to town and discovered a black puppy sitting on their porch as if he lived there. No explanations, no tracks, just this little ink spot of a puppy about three months old. Mom and I gave him water while Dad discouraged our encouraging him to stick around, although he was quickly outvoted and the puppy certainly gave no sign of planning to go anywhere. It was a Friday evening and we headed out for my parents’ usual fish fry. It was dark out and cold, so we brought the puppy in, gave him food and drink, and tied him to a doorknob in the kitchen before we left. He was sitting there primly and greeted us happily when we returned.

            The next day I called the local humane society and animal control officer. No one had reported a puppy missing. My Polish American mother was cooking corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day when she announced, “Well, he must be Shamus.” I remember this clearly because that weekend turned out to be the last time I spent with my mother before her slide into dementia and the nursing home. I called my husband, who assured me we did not need another dog. I took Shamus back to Maryland with me anyhow. I knew we would soon lose Maggie, our old black lab, and I thought a puppy might help Atticus, my Navajo border collie (who was absolutely sure Maggie was his mother), through that loss. Mom and Dad couldn’t handle a dog anymore, let alone a puppy, and I was not leaving Shamus unaccounted for. I took him to my vet, Dr. Cook and his stable of associates, for his shots. Dr. Cook, himself, happened to be in that evening and declared Shamus a black lab, despite a little spot of white on his chest and a white toe or two. And he told me I may as well start buying super-sized bags of dog food.

            Shamus and I went faithfully to dog obedience school week after week. Well, I went and he came along for the ride. He was not interested in learning much, but he was always good company. Like most labs, there just was not an aggressive bone in his body and, even as he grew and grew, he was pretty sure he was a lap dog. He chewed the wooden knobs off my dresser during the months he slept beside my bed, so eventually he was relegated to sleeping in the garden room. He loved to eat, to play, to get walked, and just about anything else social. He loved everything except paying attention to the instructions imparted at doggie obedience school, where I surely absorbed more training than he did.

            The last time I took Maggie to our place in West Virginia, where she so loved the creek when she could still get down to it, and the only time I had all three dogs with me out there, I watched them listen to coyotes howling first from one direction and then from a mountain on the other side of the cabin. Shamus’s head swiveled from one side to the other—back and forth as the howls resounded down the hill and poured onto our porch. Usually ready to respond to any dog they heard in the distance, the three of them apparently knew when they were out-howled because no one uttered a sound. Shamus got up and tucked himself between Maggie and Atticus like the baby of the family he was.

            At Thanksgiving dinner that year, I noticed Shamus taking a real shine to Andy. Shamus hardly lacked attention, though he did have to share us with a farm cat we’d brought with us from Germany, a feral cat who had no intention of going back outdoors once she realized she could stay inside and did not have to earn a living, and Atticus, who, it turned out, grieving for months as he did for Maggie, was none too thrilled to have a frisky puppy in his face all the time. Andy no longer had a dog, and he was way out in the country all by himself. Shamus rested his head on Andy’s knee every chance he got. It got me thinking. Shamus and Andy. Nah—surely it was just the ring of those names from that old Amos and Andy show of my youth. But I called Andy and asked him what he thought about Shamus coming to live with him at Morningstar Nursery.

            Bill and I delivered Shamus—with all his gear, a huge bag of food, and his certificate entitling him to go to obedience classes forever. As if. Andy was skeptical about Shamus’s name at first. He had a notion that a Shamus was somehow unscrupulous. It told him it was merely Irish for James, that my mother had picked the name, and how she spelled it. He nodded, having met my mother and accepting her assessment of the situation. Shamus and Andy settled in very nicely together, although I suspect Andy called him “Knucklehead” more often than by name. Shamus didn’t care as long as someone was around to feed him and he could sleep warm by the coal stove. The years went by. Andy, who had never married or had children, kidded about the dog we co-parented. I hauled a bag of kibble out now and then, occasionally borrowed Shamus long enough to give him a bath, and listened to Andy’s stories about Shamus’s gentle but “worthless peaceable ways,” which I happened to really like.

            Once, when Andy was in the hospital for a few days, Shamus came back to stay with us. There used to be a Rottweiler in our neighborhood who terrorized us. I usually walked Atticus really late at night to avoid the creature, but darn if I didn’t miscalculate. With Atticus on one leash and Shamus on another, the Rottweiler hurtled itself out of the dark right at Atticus’s throat. Atticus was ready to go to war while I shone my flashlight in the big dog’s face and yelled plenty loud. Neighbors came out from across the street, and eventually the Rottweiler’s owner retrieved him. Meanwhile, Shamus, who had tucked himself up safely behind me while Atticus defended us all, came dancing out to see what new person was there to pet him. It did not seem to bode well for hero status. Indeed, Andy told stories of Shamus backing down when chipmunks skittered or rabbits hopped through the yard, and of his being totally intimated by the deer that it was supposedly Shamus’s job to keep out of Andy’s nursery plants.

            The years went by—seven, eight. Then we got a call from Kris, Andy’s friend. Andy’s house had burned down and Andy was at Johns Hopkins in the Burn Unit. It was nighttime and Shamus, who slept downstairs and closer to the origin of the electrical fire, barked and awoke Andy, who fled his home and walked barefoot through the field to a neighbor’s. He called Shamus when he made his way downstairs, but there was no response by then and he could not see-- and Shamus weighed more than Andy could have lifted or carried if he’d been able to find him in the smoke. The local paper came out a couple of days later. My neighbor called, all upset. Was that my Shamus in the paper? And the Andy she knew from the market? Yes, it was, they were.

            The paper carried the story for two weeks: “Man rescued, dog dies in fire,” “Harford man’s best friend, to the end,” “Dog’s warning saves man from fire in house in Street.” The Baltimore Sun picked up the story, and like the local paper, always referred to Shamus by name, which was surely his due.

            Three weeks later, Andy is still at Johns Hopkins, although neither he nor Shamus actually suffered much in the way of actual burns. Apparently the fire got a strong start before Andy awoke; it was the smoke and soot that did the damage. Andy has finally been moved from ICU to a rehab unit, although he is still dependent on a respirator. Shamus’s remains are still at Dr. Cook’s waiting for Andy to get to the point where he can decide whether he wants him buried on his land or cremated. And Andy, who will be 80 in a couple weeks, has lost pretty much everything—the home he was born in and lived in every day until three weeks ago, all those Christmas trinkets, even his glasses… and his gentle and loving best friend...

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