"If anything happens to me, you have to take Scooter. You understand him and you will see, he will be a blessing."
My mother shared this news with me just days before she was to enter hospital for exploratory stomach surgery. Scooter was a blind, 15-pound, seven-year-old shaggy dog.
It took me off guard, as my attention at the moment was focused on the pungent, suffocating aroma in her kitchen. I had been trying not to react to her sautéing fresh chicken livers for Scooter. I am a vegetarian, it was a sticky, mid-July afternoon and her 80-year-old house was not air-conditioned.
I modulated my voice to land somewhere between calm and reassuring: "Of course I would take Scooter, and don't worry. Nothing will happen to you."
The day of the operation, we left early to take the one-hour trip from her village to the teaching hospital in the city. The drive, which threaded through bucolic farmlands and hamlets, had always been a happy one for our family. On that day, each mile stressed me. I chided myself to stop being a worrier.
From the time my mother was admitted to three days after her operation, everything went well. Then, while still in hospital, on painkillers and disoriented, she fell and broke her hip in four places. Enduring another surgery that same week was, as her surgeon said, like "being hit by a train."
In mid-August, after one month in the intensive care unit struggling for health and strength, my mother died at 86.
My anger was overwhelming. I wanted to scream. I wanted to sue. But what I did was walk out of the ICU and leave the hospital for the final time. I drove back to my mother's home, where Scooter was waiting; waiting and crying for his mother. While she had been in hospital, a neighbour had slept there most nights, and another neighbour fed him.
Scooter had been blind for the past two years and it was he who was supposed to be having surgery that summer, not my mother.
I clung to him during the graveside service. I knew then and there, true to my word, that I was taking him home with me.
I started covertly sharing my digs with Scooter, as my condominium has a no-pet policy. When his demand for treats led to a waste-management problem, I limited his treats. He barked and barked in a building where there was to be no barking.
I kept wondering what Mom had meant by the word "blessing." She was not religious, or even spiritual. Was she suggesting that he was a miracle? A stroke of good luck? How could it be that, when I had had the misfortune of losing my exceptional mother and gaining a testy pet?
The grief I felt could not be quieted. I was an adult orphan. One by one I was losing those important to me, starting with my father and brother, my husband, cousins, grandparents and friends. But Scooter and I were still here. I knew he needed me, but did I need him?
I had not taken care of anyone for many years. Scooter looked scruffy after not having been bathed or groomed for more than a month. His eyes were seeping.
I took him to a groomer at a veterinarian's office recommended by a friend, but as I handed him over, I started weeping uncontrollably. I explained to the staff that Scooter's mother had just died and he was very sad. It must have seemed to the other dog parents sitting in the small waiting room that I was leaving him to be euthanized.
I sat in the car for three hours while he was being bathed, and apologized to him the whole ride home. I was beginning to care, but where was the blessing?
To boot, he was expensive. It was going to cost dearly for his cataract surgery, and yet I knew my mother had been planning on it. The veterinary ophthalmologist outlined my responsibilities to get Scooter ready for his day surgery. I had to give him pre-operative eye drops twice daily for two months. Scooter growled and nipped at me every time I gave him the drops.
On the day of the cataract operation, I spent nine hours looking at the clock as I waited to fetch him. It was already dark when I carried him to the car, wrapped in a blanket against the cool October air. Still dopey from the anesthetic, he whimpered all the way home. I put him on his bed and he didn't move the rest of the night.
By morning, he was hungry. As he entered the kitchen, I knew he could see when he walked toward me and not into a wall. Finally, something wonderful had disrupted my grief. Scooter could spot squirrels out the window. He could see the difference between a whole treat and half a treat. He stopped biting and growling when he had to endure his daily eye drops.
I knew my mother would have been content that she had placed him in my custody. And I started to understand the blessing. My mother treasured Scooter for so many reasons, for helping her through the grief of losing my father, and later my brother's terminal illness. Like her, I needed Scooter to help me laugh again, to remember the good times with my mother and not dwell on her frail, hospitalized self.
About to turn 16, Scooter is profoundly deaf, but he can read the sign language I made up to communicate with him. We are happy to have each other. I can tell by his smile. And by my smile while I sauté his chicken livers.
Barbara B. Simmons lives in Toronto.