by Maryetta Ackenbom
The story is a fictionalized memoir which combines several incidents involving Maryetta’s mother and her beloved
I woke up from a comfortable night in my old bed, in my old home, to the smell of bacon frying, and the sounds of—a struggle?—just outside the front door.
Wide awake, I scrambled out of bed and to the door. My mother, two days out of the hospital after bypass surgery, stood on the porch, trying to help her black chow dog down the steps.
“Mother, don’t!” I stepped to her side and eased the old dog down to the ground. “The doctor said no lifting. Cha must weigh forty pounds.”
Her head drooped, and she spoke softly, “Amy, Cha’s got arthritis, and she’s in pain this morning. I know all about arthritis.” Mother put her hand on my arm and gave me a smile. “I wish you could stay here to help her.”
I glanced at her distorted fingers. Yes, she knew about arthritis.
“I want to stay here to help you and Cha, Mother. But my boss said she couldn’t extend my leave any more, and I have a mortgage payment due. And Sarah can’t come, she’s pregnant.” My sister Sarah had gone through the heartbreak of three miscarriages during the past few years. She was not moving out of her house.
“Oh, I’m all right. The visiting nurse will come almost every day to help me.”
“But she’s not going to help Cha go up and down the steps.”
“Mother, Cha is in pain. Do you think she still has a good life?”
“I know where you’re going with this. Yes, I do. She’s happy with me, she plays with me, she eats well, and—when I can get her down the steps—she does her business easily.”
Cha “did her business” and came to the foot of the steps. Mother stepped down to help her. I held onto Mother’s arm and pulled her back, then gave Cha a boost myself.
“And she’s also your companion.”
“Of course she is. She’s more than that. We have saved each other’s lives, and we owe each other. I owe her more…”
We walked into the house. I went to put on a housecoat; the autumn air was beginning to be crisp. I wanted Mother to continue her story. “Why do you owe Cha, Mother? You saved her when your neighbor planned to put her down. You’ve paid for two operations.”
Mother dished up eggs and bacon, and we sat at the small kitchen table to have our breakfast. When I saw my mother’s face across from me, I was shocked to see tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Amy, I don’t know what to do. I know I can’t continue caring for Cha. But no one else would be able to, either. She’s old and she needs help.”
“And so do you. Have you thought any more about the assisted living center Sarah found?”
“Of course I have.” She looked down at Cha, lying peacefully at her feet. “They don’t take dogs.”
Tears came to my eyes, too. I sighed. I offered the only solution I could think of. “Mother, what if I took Cha home with me?”
“Honey, you work! There’d be no one with her all day. She’d be lonely and scared, and she might not adjust well.”
“I think that’s the last option, Mother.”
“No.” She placed her hands flat on the table. “The last option is that she stays with me. I will take care of her as best I can. It’s only fair.”
“What do you mean?”
She rose and gathered her dishes. “Amy, let me tell you about Cha. Something I’ve never told anyone. Let’s sit in the comfortable chairs, where Dad and I used to sit together.”
We moved to the living room, Cha following. When Mother sat in her recliner, Cha put her nose on the chair next to Mother’s knee, and my mother absently began scratching her ears.
“You know I rescued her from the neighbor who couldn’t take care of her—he kept her tied up. She had the run of my yard then, and slept in the garage. Often she’d jump the fence and go off on her own, but she always came back at night—for her supper.
“One night she came home with a tiny kitten in her mouth. It was her baby. She fed it, cleaned it, played with it, slept with it. That’s our Kitty, there—she’s three years old now and I couldn’t ask for a better cat.”
I smiled and petted Kitty. She was a handsome calico cat, friendly and well behaved. Cha trained her well. “I remember that story, Mother. Cha wanted a baby and she went and found one.”
“Cha is my guard dog, too. No one can come near the house without her sounding the alarm.
“But what I want to tell you is this: A couple of years ago, when the ground was icy, I went out toward the garage to go to my church group meeting. I don’t know whether I fainted or slipped and fell—I felt a little light-headed that morning—but I must have been unconscious for twenty minutes or so. The neighbor told me that about that time she heard Cha howling mournfully. She was getting ready to come see what was wrong, but then Cha quieted.
“Cha stopped howling because she had lain down beside me to keep me warm and was licking my face, eventually waking me up. She whimpered with joy when I finally opened my eyes and lifted my head.
“It took me a while to get to my feet. I couldn’t have done it without leaning on Cha.
“Amy, Cha saved my life that day. It’s only fair that I repay her with as much love as I can in her old age.”
Cha snuggled her black nose in Mother’s hand, as if she knew we were talking about her.
I rubbed tears from my eyes. “Mother, thank you for telling me. I’ve always loved Cha—now I know why. She kept you alive.”
We still had no solution to the problem of what to do about Cha. Ideas went through my mind—sneaking the dog off to have her put to sleep, going from neighbor to neighbor to ask for help—but nothing was right, for Mother or for her dog.
The day before I had to leave, Cha solved the problem. She followed Mother around the house all the previous day, sometimes getting underfoot, but never scolded. She limped to her blanket that night after coming for a goodnight ear scratching session and lay down, her eyes watching Mother until she went to her bedroom and closed the door. We slept.
In the morning, I woke to see Mother sitting on the floor, her hand on Cha’s still head. Cha had left us, like the heroic lady she was. I helped Mother dry her tears and prepare Cha’s burial, under the pecan tree in the back yard where Mother’s other beloved dogs slept.
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