Sister Mary Annunciata sat at her battered old desk holding the stack of bills in her right hand and her imported wooden-bead rosary in her left.

She had been in these predicaments before and had always managed to come through them; plus she knew worrying would not make them go away. And as much of a believer as she was, she didn't think she could make the unpaid bills disappear with prayer alone. She knew it would take more, but at this point, she didn't see any miracles on the horizon.

The knock on her door was a welcome interruption and Sister Angelina entered carrying a small box and the daily mail.

"Sister Mary," Sister Angelina began, "There is an old black dog at the back gate and I do believe he is hungry. May I take some of our leftovers to feed him in the back yard?"

Sister Angelina loved all animals. She knew that they were God's way of bringing comfort and companionship to people. She kept the bird feeders filled in the gardens and always left out food for any stray animals that came by St. Patrick's Hospice Center.

The nuns at St. Patrick's were a dedicated group serving the needs of people who were at the end of their lives. They carried on a tradition of dignity with peace for the families and friends of the loved ones who were about to leave this earth.

Sister Mary replied, "Of course feed the dog--would you ever expect me to say no? Sister Angelina, did you see what is written on this box?"

"Yes Sister, it says----'to be opened only after the death of MARTHA MARY MILLS.' Mrs. Mills is one of our patients in the hospice ward. Perhaps you should ask her what is in the box?" she said while walking out the door.

Sister Angelina let the dog into the kitchen--feeding the dog in the back yard was not even an option. She had placed the leftovers on a tray on the floor in front of the pantry where the elderly dog began gobbling up the food.

"Well, Buster--that was Sister Angelina's generic name for all male dogs, two-legged and four-legged alike--looks like you haven't eaten in a week."

The black dog, a lab-terrier mix, looked up at her, barked once, and then continued searching the tray for any remnants of food. When he had licked all of the plates clean, including the tray, Buster sat on his haunches and looked up at the nun. His graying muzzle gave him a dignified air. She knew that he had left his mark on many different fire hydrants on many different occasions.

"Buster, do you want to follow me today on my rounds?"

The sister knew that most legitimate therapy dogs have to pass a course, be up-to-date on their shots, and be bathed. But she also knew that most of the patients at St. Patrick's did not have a lot of time left and petting an animal was a great source of comfort and solace. She would take care of the bath and other things tomorrow.

So she invited the dog to follow her and he did. After visiting some of the other residents they arrived at Mr. Franklin Thomas's room. Buster immediately stood and put his front paws on the side of the bed, turned toward Sister Angelina and barked.

"You want up with Mr. Thomas?" she asked.

Buster barked again.

The nun picked up the small dog and placed him next to Mr. Thomas on the bed. Mr. Thomas stirred.

"You have a visitor, Mr. Thomas. Someone who would like a little petting," the sister said to the still man. Sister Angelina did not know if Mr. Thomas could hear her but she never let an opportunity to speak with the patients go by. Sometimes she felt compelled to shout but she always wanted them to know that there was always someone near.

Instinctively the old man's hand began to move seeking out the small black dog. When he reached the dog's fur he pulled his hand back in a reflexive petting movement.

Sister Angelina was amazed. She left the room to seek out the sister-on-duty.

When she returned a few minutes later with Sister Bernadette all was still in the room.

Buster had his head on Mr. Thomas's leg and he was whining softly almost like a crying baby. Sister Bernadette checked Mr. Thomas's vitals but there was no sign of life. He had passed on sometime after Buster had gotten on the bed.

Sister Angelina picked Buster up from the bed and put him on the floor. She looked at him and said, "Well I guess you knew his time was coming, didn't you?" Buster barked back at her. Sister did not think of it as a reply, but rather as an acknowledgment that she was speaking to him.

Sister Mary walked down the hall toward the infirmary. Mrs. Mills's room was coming up on the left. She hesitated outside the door not knowing what she would say or would ask. She knew Mrs. Mills was cognizant of her surroundings at times but she was also going in and out of a coma at a regular rate.

Finally she knocked softly and let herself into the room. Mrs. Mills was awake listening to the soft music serenading the room.

"Mrs. Mills I received a package today--from you. Can you tell me what is inside?"

"It is something special for St. Patrick's. Someday, Sister Mary, we'll share a little secret, but for now let me get some rest." This is what she had said to Sister Mary. In fact it was the last thing she had said before entering the final coma.

And Sister Mary felt she might never learn the secret of what was in the box.

Sister Bernadette let Buster into the backyard for his nature call and waited by the door until he returned. Buster raced down the hall to Mrs. Mills's room, sat, and barked to be let into the room. There again, he stood and placed his front paws on the side of the bed. Sister Bernadette picked him up and placed him next to Mrs. Mills on the bed. Buster lay quietly beside the comatose woman and never moved.

Sister Bernadette checked on them both every 30 minutes. Buster would open his eyes but he would never raise his head. This went on all night long.

At sunrise when Sister Bernadette came into the room, Buster was whimpering again as he had in Mr. Thomas's room. Mrs. Mills had passed on sometime between her visits to the room. Sister picked up Buster and placed him on the floor. She did not speak to the dog and the dog did not bark but followed her as they both left the room.

In the hall Sister Bernadette looked at Buster and said, "Let's go see Sister Mary."

Buster's nails clicked on the shiny linoleum floor as they walked the infirmary halls to Sister Mary's office.

The sister knocked softly and an immediate reply to enter was forthcoming.

Sister Bernadette said, "I believe you can open that package now, Mrs. Mills has left us."

Sister Mary opened her bottom desk drawer and took out the small package. With her letter-opener she slit the tape on the ends and opened the box.

Two small pieces of paper fell out of the box and onto her desk. "For my fine care during my final moments, a gift for St. Patrick's," signed by Mrs. Martha Mary Mills.

Sister Mary sat at her desk holding the gift from the lonely old woman. She had never seen so many zeros in one place:  a cashier's check made payable to the St. Patrick's Hospice Center for one million dollars.

"Well, Sister, looks like this will put St. Patrick's back in the black. And, Buster, I guess there's an extra bone or two in this for you too!"

Dogs Come when Called

"Dogs come when called. Cats take a message and get back to you."

"Of course, every cat is really the most beautiful woman in the room."

Edward Verrall Luca (essayist)

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