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The Dog That Sprang Into My Heart by Helen Zylman Seaman

It wasn't supposed to happen that way. I should never have gotten that dog. Now please don't get me wrong. It wasn't that I didn't want him. Oh, I did! It was just that it seemed as if it would never work out.

We live in a condominium complex that supposedly accepted dogs - with permission from the board. At our annual meeting, I casually mentioned to our board President that we were going to get a dog, and asked what we needed to do. He glared at me and my husband, David, then growled something about "making a test case" out of our request. As we looked at each other in bewilderment, he stomped away. Despite that, we sent our request to the board for permission to have a dog, and continued to visit "our" springer spaniel puppy at the breeder. We had already named him Sam, and were rapidly falling head over heels in love with him.

After six weeks, we went away on vacation spending much of the time dreaming about our puppy. We came home ready to pick him up the next day. As we quickly sorted through our mail that night, we came across a letter from the board. Our request for a dog had been denied. I didn't know whether to cry or to walk down and throw a rock through the board President's window.

We called our breeder and asked her to be patient. Over the next several weeks, we tried everything from a threat from our lawyer to a letter from the pain psychologist who had recommended my getting a dog in the first place. Nothing seemed to move the board until our neighbor, Susie, found out what had happened. She was incensed! Susie is a dynamo. She walks fast, she talks fast, and she never, ever, ever stops till she gets her job done. She started to call the three board members. She called them on Monday. She called them on Tuesday. She called them on Wednesday. She called them on Thursday. You get the picture. Susie called each of them every day and approached them every time she saw them in the neighborhood. They finally gave up and gave in. One day all three showed up on our front doorstep with their tails between their legs. We could have the dog!

Ecstatic, the first thing we did was run to the phone to call our breeder... only to find out the worst. We were just one day too late. She had decided she couldn't wait any longer and had told another man that he could have Sam. We were devastated. She felt almost as bad. She said she would give the man only until noon the next day. If he didn't come, Sam was ours. We held our breath all night and the whole next morning. At 12:05, David called her. The other buyer had been a no-show. Really and truly, Sam was ours at last. In retrospect, I believe it was meant to be.

Back up, if you would, two years. I was driving to work one beautiful sunny September morning when I was hit by a semi-trailer truck. We were each driving at least 70 mph, if not faster. Miraculously, although my car was destroyed and the paramedics needed to take me out of the car through the window on a stretcher and wearing a neck brace, I suffered no broken bones. However, I certainly did suffer. It turns out that the soft-tissue injuries only got worse and worse. Over a period of five years, I was hospitalized 15 times for pain management. Almost inconceivably, life continued to get harder.

Shortly after I got Sam, I was trying to run with him. Not knowing anything about running on a leash, he ran right between my legs, tripping me and sending me face first to the hard pavement. I slammed down onto the underside of my chin, forcing my neck back into an unusual and extremely painful position. This time I ended up with a "minor" brain injury, as well as a great deal more chronic pain. My life, as I then had known it, was over.

"Sammy was going under, and the terrified look in his eyes said only one thing, "If you don't rescue me, Mom, I'm going to die!" He would go under, and then come up only to fix his gaze on me again."

For the next five years after that fall, I either lay on the couch or sat in a chair staring out the window. Between severe pain and depression as a result of the head injury, I had no interest in doing anything. I was taking narcotic pain medicine around the clock. I couldn't think. I couldn't move. All I wanted to do was sleep. As a result of all this, my muscles got weak. Eventually, not only did I not want to move, but I wasn't very able to move either. That's how Sam found his role in life. He and I became inseparable. If I sat in my chair, he sat with me, snuggled in my lap with his head on my shoulder or on my arm. If I lay on the couch, he curled up between my legs and the back of the couch. Whenever I got up at night because of pain or breathing difficulties he woke up immediately and came out to the family room with me where he slept in my lap. I snuggled with him, I stroked him, and I talked to him. He was the one individual who didn't mind if I cried, who didn't care if I couldn't find the right word when I was talking to him, who wasn't bothered if I wore the same pair of sweats all week.

On the other hand, Sammy was a puppy, and a springer spaniel puppy at that. He needed to go outdoors and I was his "person". David took him for a run (after Sam figured out the leash business) every morning and for a short walk before bed. Other than that, it was up to me. Even though I was in the chair or on the couch not wanting to get up, Sam would decide it was time. Then he was a bit like Susie was when she was advocating for us: he would not give in. He would whine, he would cry, he would bark, he would nuzzle me, he would chew on my fingers; he did whatever it took to get me up and moving. Eventually, somewhat grumpily, I would slowly hoist my ever-heavier, ever-weaker, ever-less-agile body up from the couch and we would go outside.

After five years of grogginess and inactivity, I finally told my doctor I wanted to stop my narcotic pain medication. Sam was right there with me as I suffered through shaking, nausea and vomiting and sleepless nights. Did I mention pain? Just because I stopped the pain medication, didn't mean the pain went away. I learned to meditate to control the pain without medication, and once again Sammy was right there with me. Meditation meant I was quiet and not moving... perfect for a dog who loved to cuddle.

He also gave me several opportunities to find out the kind of strength I had inside of me - strength that I had completely given up on. Two weeks after my mother died, I was walking him, somewhat tentatively, when a ferocious looking German shepherd barked deafeningly from inside a house. To my horror, he burst through the front door, down the walk, across the road and attacked Sam. Sammy tried hard to defend himself, but the other dog was both big and mean. Very mean. I was hysterical. I had just lost my mother, not to mention most of the other important things in my life. I was not going to lose Sam! With that came an enormous surge of energy. I took the heavy, wood handled umbrella that I had been using as a cane, and started beating the vicious shepherd around the head and neck with all my might, never considering the possibility that he might start attacking me. Eventually he backed off and strolled back up the walk to his house. When I realized what I had done, I started to shake. I had actually saved Sam. I had thought of myself as so weak and useless, but I had saved my dog! Sammy needed a few trips to the vet, some stitches and some antibiotics; but other than that, he was fine (aside from developing a life long hatred of German shepherds).

A few years later, another opportunity arose. Sam and I were walking along the Huron River. That is, I was limping, and Sam was running and playing with abandon. The park was deserted since it was the middle of February. I was admiring his soaring leaps as he played some sort of hunting or running game known only to him. Truth be told, I was a little jealous of his grace and agility, as I was feeling decidedly earthbound. All of a sudden, though, Sam skyrocketed over the bank and plummeted through the ice into the river. It was a gut-wrenching moment. I looked around for help, and there was none. Sammy was going under, and the terrified look in his eyes said only one thing, "If you don't rescue me, Mom, I'm going to die!" He would go under, and then come up only to fix his gaze on me again.

What could I do?

Again, I felt that same surge of energy. Without really thinking, I went a little ways down the river, to where the strong current was carrying him. Still wearing my orthopedic shoes and my heavy winter coat, I took a couple of hesitant steps onto the thin ice. Immediately I plunged chest deep into the icy river. Somehow I managed to fight the current to get to Sam. As panicked as he was, it was no easy task to wrestle him to the bank and get him (and me) onto solid ground.

"I delighted in taking Sam for walks around the hospital grounds where I had spent so many painful, sad days. As we would walk, every 20 yards or so, he would look back at me. His smiling face seemed to say, "I knew you could do it. I knew you were strong. I knew we'd take walks again."

It was only after I got him out of the warm shower at our home that my legs began to quiver at the thought of what had happened. Somehow I had again found the strength deep inside me to save my beloved dog. How did I, with two bad knees and one bad shoulder, find the fire that allowed me to do that? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Sam had, over the years, actually set me free. He bonded with me to the point that we could read each other's minds; he pushed me to get up and move with some regularity; and he helped me to come out of my isolated world of depression to interact with him and with the many people who stopped to admire him when we went anywhere. He had given me unfailing, non-judgmental love. He had helped me find my lost inner strength. Using that strength, I was able to then rescue him.

Finally I was able to locate an exercise specialist who could do what no one else had been able to do. Kris found a way for me to strengthen my body without hurting myself. With her cheerful, knowledgeable help and motivation, I once again learned to walk easily and to go much farther than I had for years. I delighted in taking Sam for walks around the hospital grounds where I had spent so many painful, sad days. As we would walk, every 20 yards or so, he would look back at me. His smiling face seemed to say, "I knew you could do it. I knew you were strong. I knew we'd take walks again." Sam was my boy! As I got stronger, we went farther and farther. We were able to play more and to enjoy each other.

Eventually, though, the tables began to turn. I could actually go farther and faster than he. Sammy was simply... sadly... wearing out. Ironically, at the beginning of his life, I couldn't walk well and suffered from a great deal of pain. As he aged, he became the one who couldn't walk well and had pain that his medication couldn't touch. At both ends of his life, though, we cuddled, we touched and we loved. In the end, I couldn't stop the inevitable. Sammy died a week ago. I miss him dreadfully. Not only is my house oh-so-quiet and lonely, but my heart is also. And yet, I know that he will always be with me. Sammy changed my life. He was someone for me to love, to care for and to save. And in saving him, he saved me. I honestly don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't had Sam. I don't think I want to.

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