The second story I told on 'Tales of the South:'
One of my close friends on the mountain where my husband and I live was a woman in her 80s, frail from emphysema, but still feisty and great fun. Before she died, Flo and I enjoyed one another’s company for a number of years. Despite our more than thirty-year age difference, we formed a bond: a love of the outdoors and gardening, animals, bird watching, reading, classic movies, discussions of current events and politics, and an appreciation for the absurdities of life and laughter. Flo liked a good party and enjoyed dressing up. She came in costume to our Halloween parties, and was once elaborately arrayed for a Mardi Gras party in a tiered, veiled, costume and tiara. At 80, she was the belle of the ball at that dinner-dance; despite shortness of breath, she didn’t let it prevent her from ‘cutting a rug.’ When she gradually grew too frail to venture out and relied on an oxygen tank at home, I’d go over on the occasional afternoon with my needlepoint and we’d talk or watch an old movie from her extensive collection, which was piled high on a teetering wooden shelving unit that bulged from overuse. Though Flo loved all animals in general, her particular fondness was for dogs. She had them all her life, and would tell me stories about all the dogs she had growing up while she lived in Japan and Hawaii. Yellow Labradors were her favorites.
When her last one died, after a period of mourning, Flo decided she was ready to adopt again. I had heard about a cute puppy that needed a home, and one weekend the foster caretaker and I took the dog over for a visit. Flo delighted in its exuberance and warm wriggly body. But once I saw how much work would be involved in training and how quickly it scampered around, I grew concerned the puppy might knock her down or tangle up her oxygen lines, which snaked throughout the house. Flo apparently shared my concern, though, and regretfully turned the puppy down, declaring she needed a quiet, mature companion that didn’t require housebreaking. And she decided the only breed she really wanted was another Yellow Lab, explaining, “This is the last dog I’ll ever have.” We started trolling the animal rescue sites, asking at veterinary offices, and watching for one in the newspapers. Then a mutual friend heard of a Yellow Lab that needed a new home. Its owners were older and their kids had grown and were out of the house. They were moving into a smaller house nearby but had decided the dog was too much trouble to bother with. So he brought “Nugget” over to Flo, and a match was instantly made.
Flo promptly renamed the dog “Sweetie” for her disposition. Even after so many years of responding to “Nugget,” the new name was quickly adopted and the dog never seemed confused. Perhaps she was pleased to finally be truly ‘recognized.’ From the first instant of mutual love and appreciation, the two ‘little old ladies’ got along splendidly. They mostly sat around, Sweetie gently snoring and farting, sleeping on the carpet at Flo’s feet as she read or watched her movies – just keeping one another company. Sweetie was a polite dog who never missed an opportunity for a head-rub, but when you moved your hand away she sensed it was time to move on, and never got obnoxious about attention. She was strict only about meal times, and she did not tolerate or appreciate any deviation to her eating schedule. Fortunately, Flo was acutely aware of Sweetie’s concerns, and Sweetie didn’t have to work too hard to train Flo to drop whatever she was doing or interrupt a visitor to attend to Sweetie’s bowl.
Sweetie also enjoyed her twice-daily constitutions outside, but she didn’t roam far and Flo never had to worry about her straying down to the road. When Sweetie developed shortness of breath, you’d hear the two ladies huffing and puffing as they gently labored to breathe while they puttered around their living room and kitchen, side-stepping one another as necessary. Sweetie’s health seemed to dovetail Flo’s. After a few close calls, we weren’t sure who was going to die sooner, Sweetie or Flo, who was growing more anxious for Sweetie. After her hospitalizations, she’d mostly talk about Sweetie, and what would happen to her when she was gone. A friend volunteered to take Sweetie in if that happened, but Flo frequently forgot the offer and would lament about it until reminded. In the back of her mind, though, I think she worried because she knew no one would love Sweetie as she did. I wondered if the two of them weren’t just hanging on for the other. Sweetie often seemed on the brink of disaster and would then rebound miraculously; and Flo seemed as close to the edge.
The sad call that Sweetie died finally came on an early spring day. Despite Sweetie’s health ailments, Flo wondered aloud why she died, and her already-frail voice trembled and sounded beyond sad. “I don’t think I can live without my Sweetie,” she wailed. I think all her friends knew what was coming, and weren’t surprised when she died days later. We knew the end of Sweetie meant the end of Flo, too.
Flo had planned a memorial service as unique as she had been. We gathered in her cozy house and trooped out into the back yard to say the Eucharist, read prayers, and walk around the front where her ashes were scattered with Sweetie’s in her dog cemetery. The air seemed soft and still and full of birdsong as we said goodbye to our two old friends.
Before she died, I had dug up some ‘Star of Bethlehem’ bulbs from her garden. They are among the first flowers to bloom as the season moves towards early spring, which always reminds me of Flo and her Sweetie, now walking together outside somewhere, breathing easily again.