By: Suzanne Reisler Litwin
I’ve always loved animals. During the summer of 1970, (I was 8 years old), I fed a stray cat that hung around our house. I fed her every morning and every night. I called her Menou as she was my pet.
During that July and August, I went to summer day camp. I would get on a bus in the morning which took me to Green Acres Day Camp. At around 4 pm, I came home from camp. One hot summer’s day, I got off the bus and found Menou on my front porch lying on a few blankets and towels. Nestled around her body were 5 kittens. This was a thrill beyond thrills. She had babies while I was at day camp! My mother told me all about the birth and how amazing it was to watch.
Now, I had a huge job. I had to care for Menou and her kittens. I named them Smokie, Blackie, Tiger, Spot, and Menou Jr. I was instantly in love with my new family and responsibilities.
The summer passed quickly and it was time to go back to school. It was also time for the cats to leave. My mother never liked animals and she certainly didn’t want any of them in our home. She made it perfectly clear, the cats had to go. So we put them up for adoption.
With each passing day another cat left our home. This was heart breaking as I begged to keep just one. The littlest one, Tiger. By the time school started all the cats were gone and I felt empty. I missed my new family. A lot!
My mother told me when I had a home of my own; I could have all the animals I wanted. The thought of running away to make that home entered my mind very often.
From the age of 8 until 23 I yearned for a pet. During that time I brought home hamsters, a Guiney pig, a rabbit, 2 chicks, a puppy, birds, turtles, and fish. None of these pets were allowed to stay in our home. I had to wait for a home of my own.
When I got married I got a beautiful cat named Rayon. After Rayon, we found another cat, Tommy. Later on we had Oreo, a black and white dominant male cat who is very old and tired.
Around 5 years ago, my father developed a life threatening disease. He was given about a year to live. During this unfortunate time, I asked him if he had any regrets. He told me that he always regretted not having a dog. He said that mother didn’t like animals and for that reason we didn’t have any except during the summer when we had Menou and her kittens. I seriously thought about his regret and mine.
A week after this conversation I was in a shopping mall buying my son football cleats. Just as we were about to leave the mall, we went to see some animals in a pet store. While I was in the store, something primal came over me. Within 20 minutes we left the store with a 6 week old toy poodle, a cage, some toys, pet food, and a book on how to care for dogs. Spontaneously, I just bought a dog!
All my friends and family told me I was crazy for buying a dog on a whim. All I could think about was my father’s life long regret and the little time he had left. I didn’t have time to waste; I had to do this…NOW. This dog had a huge purpose. He had to bring happiness to my father (and me).
Although buying the dog was a selfish act, I couldn’t manage any sensibility. My life at that time didn’t have any order as my father was dying. I wasn’t thinking inside a box, I was living outside of it.
So we brought the dog home and everyone cried with joy, except for my mother. My illogical/logical reasoning was to remove the regret my father had for as long as he had to live. Then I was going to deal with actually having a dog.
During this difficult time, I researched pet therapy dog training on the internet. I trained him according to my father’s needs and limitations. He was trained to sit quietly, allow erratic touching and pulling, and to receive treats without jumping or begging. He also learned how not to bark.
Bear, our dog, sat with my father for about 5 months. My father fed him, helped train him, and mostly cuddled him. When my father was hospitalized all he wanted to do was to get home to be with Bear. Surprisingly, my mother became accustomed to Bear and didn’t mind having him around. He was a good companion for everyone. Everyone loved Bear.
After my father passed away I felt a deep aching emptiness. I longed for our play time together with Bear. I deeply grieved my loss. However, I was never alone. Whenever I would find myself quiet and sad, Bear would sit next to me. When I would cry, he was next to me. I was never alone in my darkest and saddest moments.
While reading a community paper, I read that a senior residence needed pets for pet therapy. I realized Bear was trained to do this. I inquired about this volunteer job. Bear and I had an interview at this residence. He passed the test and started his pet therapy job. At first we were on trial jobs and then we were accepted as official pet therapists.
Bear and I visited people with severe dementia and physical limitations. He brings sunshine into the lives of the people he visits. We visit as often as we can. He jumps for joy when he knows we are going to do pet therapy.
Now, I can’t imagine my life without Bear. He filled the needs of everyone during out darkest days. Now when my mother comes to visit my home, she is greeted by Bear. He quietly sits next to her and he loves her. She loves him too. She says that Bear is the first animal whom she has ever loved. Actually, she thinks he’s a person. He is.
Suzanne Reisler Litwin is an instructor at Concordia University in The Centre for Continuing Education. Suzanne is a freelance contributor to The Suburban newspaper. She is the author of the children’s book, The Black Velvet Jacket. She lives in Montreal, Canada with her 3 children, Allyn, Taylor, and Duke and her husband Laurie. Suzanne contributes regularly to West Island Blog under her column Keeping it Real. Please visit her website www.suzannereislerlitwin.com to read more of her published articles, books, and poetry.