Those of us having in our households one or more pets would probably acknowledge that the love received far outweighs the care and attention required by our pets. And, that is why we have them. They give us love, unconditionally. They make us laugh. They console us and lick away our tears. They sit on our shoulders, in our hands, on our laps and by our sides. If we are in good health, it is no doubt due in some part to the pets that distract us from our problems and worries, in a way as casual as the methodical stroking of furry head laid against a knee. Pets give us something on which to focus other than ourselves. They are amiable – and best of all, loving companions.Pets become an important part of our memories as we grow older. Nowhere can this be seen more poignantly than in a nursing home or eldercare facility. I will never forget my first visit to a nearby convalescent home and 90-year-old Elsie, who kept repeating happily, “Trixie and Tommy, two little dogs,” as she held my Shih Tzu puppy, Gus, in her lap. The simple act of letting go of the wearisome, and often painful present while responding to the flow of affection from an animal, will often cause elderly people to retrieve wonderful memories and share them. I have made many visits to nursing homes and therapy facilities since that first one and always some small miracle occurs.
Last February, Annie, my four-year-old Shih Tzu, and I visited a local nursing and special care home. We began in the recreation room. Annie went from lap to lap. All but a few responded to the cute little dog with a blue bow on each ear. There were one or two residents who responded unfavorably – but Annie handles rejection well. She just wags her tail! Most of the residents assembled in that room reached out to Annie and me for the affection we provided and for the memories we stirred. When it was time for us to leave, the activity director asked if we might take a little extra time to visit a few of the less ambulatory residents in their rooms. This is how we met Sam.
His room was small and unremarkable except for a photograph and a framed print – both of which hung on the wall just beyond the foot of the bed, where Sam could see them. The print was of a robust western scene and it bore the signature of Charles Russell. The photograph was of two cowboys sitting on the steps of a bunkhouse. It was inscribed, “To Sam and the good old days – Charlie.” As I looked closer, I saw a much younger Sam sitting with his friend, the famous western artist, Charles Russell! As I stood there, temporarily awestruck, the nurse touched my shoulder. “Sam hasn’t spoken for two weeks,” she said. I moved closer to the bed with Annie in my arms. “Sam,” I said, “This is Annie and I’m Connie.”
Sam looked first at me and then at Annie. His grizzled face broke into a slow smile. He tried to rise to a sitting position. The nurse moved quickly to help him. He reached out for Annie as I eased her onto the bed beside him. Annie laid her head against his chest. Sam’s rheumy eyes focused on her and he began to gently pet her. Then he looked up at me and said, “Annie – Annie Oakley!” “Annie Oakley,” he repeated, stroking a delighted Annie with his gnarled hand.
I pulled a chair close to the bed. “Sam,” I asked, “did you know Charles Russell?” “Yes, Charlie and I were pals. We both rode Appaloosas. Best horse there is, the Appaloosa – can’t beat’em,” said Sam. Then he listened as I reminisced about my daughter’s first horse, a huge and onery Appaloosa named “Whistle.” “Sure is a good little dog,” Sam said. I agreed. “Annie Oakley – I knew her, too,” said Sam, “ugliest woman I ever saw!” I laughed.
Sam’s eyes became brighter and almost young again as he remembered the old days. Mercifully, the recent yesterdays were a hazy clouded strand he was unable to grasp. His memories of his youth and prime, however, were vivid. He recalled wonderful stories for Annie and me that afternoon, all the while gently stroking Annie’s fur. He loved her red and white color and the way in which she would edge up and lick him on his chin every so often.
Outside the light began to fade and large raindrops spattered against the window. But inside, Annie and Sam and I were far away, sitting somewhere on the steps of a bunkhouse in the warm prairie sun. I learned many things that afternoon; interesting things like a team of Jenny mules can out-pull any living creature. Nurses peeked in on us, their faces clearly reflecting their attachment to Sam. Finally, reluctantly, we said goodbye. Sam hugged Annie close, and I took his hand and thanked him for sharing all the stories with us. Driving away from the home, I found myself quietly looking forward to seeing Sam again.
On the weekend, my husband Craig and I went shopping. We had decided to pick out a western art book and give it to Sam. It was a difficult task as the weight of the book was important. Sam had to have a lightweight book. After much looking and lifting, we found two books: one of Charles Russell’s paintings and one of Fredric Remington’s works. Midway home, I suddenly had the feeling that the books should be given now, without waiting until my next scheduled visit in two weeks. So, I had Craig swing by the home.
I was apprehensive as I asked the nurse if Sam could have a visitor. “Why yes,” she said, “He’s in a wheelchair right outside his room.” I quickly inscribed the books, “To Sam, With Love from ‘Annie’ Oakley,” and hurried down the hall. There he was all smiles. I explained that Annie would be coming to see him in two weeks, but that we had a present for him. I handed him the books. “Oh,” he said, “thank you, thank you. Just look at those pictures!” I’m so glad you like them, Sam,” I said. Impulsively, I bent down and gave him a hug and a kiss. His eyes misted over. Mine did, too. As the day of my next visit approached, I found myself eagerly looking forward to seeing Sam.
On the morning of February 27th, the activity director called. She hated to tell me this, but Sam was gone. He died February 23rd, quietly slipping away in his sleep. I thanked her for calling. Annie put her paws up on my knee. I picked her up and held her close. “Sam’s gone, Annie,” I whispered against her fur. And, then the tears came, for Annie to gently lick away.
We will never forget Sam and that wonderful afternoon when “Annie Oakley” and I were transported to another time and place by a very special gentleman.