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Animal Stories


Shamus and Andy - Part 2
Final Decisions

            To begin writing this I searched for a slip of paper with a name on it in my purse. Ever more tattered, for a month or more that paper surfaced now and then when I looked for something else. I would tuck it back into the depths because I was not ready yet. On the paper is written “Animal control officer Stacey Rawlins.” She is attached to the Humane Society and she is a woman whose job I do not envy. But it is time now to complete the story of Shamus and Andy, and Officer Rawlins is part of that. I can’t claim it is a happy tale, but, then again, in some ways it is.

            If you read the first story about Shamus, you know about the fire that destroyed the home that Andy was born and lived in for nearly eighty years—forty-two of those alone, except for Shamus who joined him for the last eight and woke him during the night of the fire in time to get out. Shamus was not so lucky. The official story is that Shamus did get out, could not find Andy, and actually went back into the burning house in search of him. But we will never know exactly what happened.

            Andy spent two months at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He had no family to visit him, and he certainly did not have a harem in the original sense of the word, but he had good friends. Andy did not want a lot of people around, incapacitated as he was, so Kris, Nancy, and Margie set up a rotation of visitors that, over time, caused one of the male nurses to hope he too would have “a harem like that” if he ever landed in the hospital. I’d known Kris for years, but had only heard about Nancy and Margie from Andy before all this. Jeannine was another close friend who became part of the circle of visitors as the days and weeks went on.

            I took Andy a bouquet of balloons and another of daffodils for his eightieth birthday, and regularly spent an afternoon and evening shift with him. Most of the time, Andy could not talk. I would take a book to read, and one time I worked on a review I was writing while Andy dozed on and off. He’d wake up and I’d say, “Andy, how does this sound?” He’d listen, smile, roll his eyes, and shrug as if I was using a completely unfamiliar tongue but he wanted to humor me. Unfortunately, the smoke and soot from the fire left his aging lungs badly damaged. Every time the staff tried to wean him off the ventilator, he would soon gasp for breath and be in trouble. Andy was always very health conscious, did not smoke, and did not have an ounce of extra fat on his spare body.

            Ask what he’d made for dinner and it was inevitably salmon and veggies. Somehow all that made it even sadder that it was smoke that caused him so much trouble and pain. Eventually the tube that sent air down to his lungs was replaced by a tracheotomy, a hole directly into his throat rather than the tube through his mouth. When that was capped, Andy could speak—although usually it was not long before he would need mechanical help with his breathing again. Over time, even when it was only a few minutes at a time, all of us all had meaningful talks with Andy. He knew Shamus was gone and that his home was a total loss. Occasionally we talked about where he would go after he left the hospital; he knew he would never be left alone to deal with whatever he faced when the time came, and he would have options. He never seemed to doubt that life would go on. But, too preoccupied with the present to worry about the future, he could not decide what to do about Shamus.

            There were some good times, even in the hospital and in spite of all the losses. I happened to be there one of the early days that the physical therapist and speech therapist came together to work with Andy. He had his speaking cap on, so he could talk a little and even joke as they encouraged him to do what he could. The pretty young speech therapist asked him where he lived, while the physical therapist helped him exercise his arms and legs. He said “Street.” She responded with “What street?” Andy repeated “Street,” but by that time he needed air. They could deal with the issue of air, but both women looked confused and looked at me.

            Andy rolled those eyes as only he could and gasped “Tell them.” I explained that he lived in the town of Street—not that there is really a discernible town. They had no idea there was such a place in Maryland. Later Andy, who hadn’t been out of a hospital bed in weeks, enjoyed kidding them about needing get out more. As I drove home, I thought about my words. I told the therapists that Andy lived in Street. I didn’t say “used to live” or “had lived;” I sounded like he still did. I wondered whether he ever would again.

            It was Animal Control Officer Stacey Rawlins’ job to reclaim the body of any animal killed in a fire, and thus it was she who did that for Shamus. Andy’s friend Nancy, a real animal lover if ever there was one, then tracked her down, for which I sincerely thank her. Nancy explained her decades-long relationship with Dr. Cook, our legendary local veterinarian. Eventually she talked Officer Rawlins into releasing Shamus’s body for safekeeping at Dr. Cook’s, but it was no easy sell. Apparently the Humane Society and Animal Control folks keep a very sharp eye out for any hint of abuse, including death by fire. It’s sad to think about, but we were glad they do that. After Nancy won her case, she personally transported Shamus’s body to Dr. Cook’s until Andy could decide what to do.

            We talked with Andy about burying Shamus on Andy’s property or having Dr. Cook cremate him. Weeks went by and Andy just could not decide and Dr. Cook, out of the goodness of his heart, neither charged nor pressured us. We, meanwhile, wanted to respect Andy’s wishes about Shamus. Perhaps after the fire, the notion of cremation was just too much for Andy. Maybe, since he felt as if he’d been put on hold at Hopkins and since Shamus was usually right there with him, it made some sense to leave him in a liminal state as well. We talked with Andy about burying Shamus on his land.

            Some neighbors had offered to help Andy get a house trailer established near his old home site, but what if he didn’t get to live there again? What of Shamus then? He’d be all alone out there with nothing but a gaping ruin of a homestead. Of course, it wouldn’t matter to Shamus, but, yes, it mattered to Andy and to us. It was all too sad for words and it remained up in the air and uncomfortably unresolved.

            Weeks went by and I watched Andy begin to slide away from regaining his health. It seemed that every time I saw him, he was a little weaker. When the physical therapist tried to get him to sit on the side of the bed and he sort of melted over sideways, I knew things were not looking good. Two days later, very early on Saturday morning, Andy’s heart simply stopped beating and all of the resuscitation that Johns Hopkins is so famous for could not do a thing. Nancy called me and we sobbed together on the phone. She and Kris would make the arrangements and call me back.

            It happened that two days before that, Nancy had finally heard from Dr. Cook that a lot of time had gone by and it was time to do something about poor Shamus, who was still tucked up somewhere at the vet’s. Being a good sized black lab (Well, he was definitely a big dog, though we were never sure he was all lab.), Shamus probably took up more than his share of whatever space was used for such purposes. Nancy and I decided that we would have to decide for Andy. We knew Andy shied away from cremation, so we would bury Shamus. That was plan A.

            I chuckle when I think how we pride ourselves on being independent women and each immediately volunteered our husbands and their shovels to help with the job. We settled on a time after work that evening. Then we set about deciding where. Andy had told Nancy to use the corn field because the soil would be looser there, but we nixed that idea immediately; we surely did not want Shamus being plowed up or under. Nancy suggested we bury him beneath the wonderful old Japanese maple in Andy’s yard. And a beautiful yard it was as time went by and spring came and first the daffodils and forsythia and then the azaleas bloomed all over it, despite the unsightly mess where the house had been.

            I argued that the roots on that huge tree would never allow a hole large enough for a dog the size of Shamus. We agreed that we didn’t want to damage the tree-- or our husbands, for that matter. We decided on the edge of the foliage, which was presumably also that of the roots of the old maple, and away from the corn field on the side of the yard and house. I thought we were ready.
An hour later, Nancy called again: “We can’t do that.” “Why not?” I asked, feeling our stab at closure dissipate. “Because somebody will buy that land and bulldoze it for a new house and disturb him.” Good grief. “You’re right, Nancy. We can’t do it. Well, surely Dr. Cook will give us the weekend to figure this out.”

            We had discussed having Shamus cremated and not telling Andy. We could easily inter his ashes under the big maple tree and then move them later if Andy ended up elsewhere. It was still not a bad plan B. Then Andy died the next morning and took with him all our qualms about having Dr. Cook go ahead with cremating Shamus.

Andy did not want a public viewing or wake, but those of us who were close to him needed a time to say goodbye. We arrived at the funeral home with a friend who was in town; Dave had been with us during the first years we went to Andy’s for our Christmas-time gathering and dinner. There were about a dozen of us there, including Nancy’s husband and mine, undoubtedly relieved that they had been spared digging a massive grave amidst century old tree roots for a dog who had already been dead for two months. Nancy told the group the story about Officer Rawlins and Dr. Cook, and even read a letter that Officer Rawlins sent for the occasion. Since Andy was Shamus’s surrogate father and I his mother, and given our years of “co-parenting” Andy’s “fur-child,” Nancy then handled the little box with Shamus’s ashes to me. I said a few words, which included forgiving Shamus for all those wooden knobs he’d chewed off my dresser in his youth and his total disregard for learning opportunities at doggie obedience class.

            Then I tucked the box down into the half-open coffin as far as I could reach beside Andy’s legs. Andy always said he was forever tripping over “our” dog (who was on those occasions my darned dog), so why should things be different now? The next morning, as I sat beside Kris at the funeral service, and Nancy and Margie sat across the aisle with our husbands and the other pall bearers, we were all very glad that Shamus and Andy would be together forever. The funeral parlor director had blessed our plan, and we figured the priest didn’t really need to know. There might be issues about consecrated ground or something, but Nancy and I figured Shamus deserved and probably could use all the blessings he could get.

            I was in charge of making a photo montage for the big reception after Andy’s funeral, which was also Shamus’s. (Not everyone present knew about Shamus being there, but those who did applauded the idea.) Pulling the pictures together, I was amazed to find how many images we had collected over the years of both Andy and Shamus. A few weeks later, I walked into a Christmas store with a friend (another Nancy) and thought automatically about what Andy would like, for I always took Andy a new ornament when we traveled. What ornament would be different than any of the many others he had on all those trees? Then I remembered, all over again, that there would be no more Christmases with Shamus and Andy.

            I bought a small black lab ornament for our own tree and thought about how good it is to know Shamus and Andy are still together, as well as that they will not be forgotten there in that lovely churchyard. I like to imagine them arriving at the Pearly Gates together and wandering fields of flowers, with Shamus chasing butterflies (about the only creatures that did not intimidate him) and tripping Andy up every now and then.

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