Almost a year had passed. Christmas was approaching when Andrew and Rhea walked into Billy Nowles' room. Both parents were standing by Billy's bedside. 

Mrs. Nowles could not contain her tears.

"It'll be okay, Mom," Billy said to her. "I'll just have to learn to walk with crutches. Besides, I'll ask Santa for a dog to help me."

Billy's parents looked at one another. They both knew that with all of the medical bills already incurred and with those yet to come, they would never be able to afford an assistance dog for their son.

Rhea jumped up on Billy's bed without being asked and presented herself for petting. She had been in his room on many occasions before and always knew exactly what to do to bring a smile to Billy's face.

Andrew coaxed his parents into the hospital hallway.

"Do you think Billy would be able to care for a dog after he has his surgery? That is, if we can find one for him."

Billy, too, was about to become an amputee. The cancer in his left leg was spreading and the doctors had said emphatically that the only way to stop its spread was to remove the leg.

"Andrew, we appreciate the offer and your help, but there is just no way we can afford an assistance dog for Billy. We've made some inquiries, but they are all way too expensive. And they are not covered by our medical insurance. We'll just have to make do the best we can - one day at a time."

"One day at a time," thought Andrew to himself, "wasn't that what he was doing? And hadn't he made it pretty good so far?"

The next day Andrew and Rhea stopped by his favourite thinking spot - the place he went to clear his mind when he felt troubled.

The sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows gave a kaleidoscopic-look to the interior of St. Patrick's, each beam radiating with its brilliance over the pews with each one different from the next. Each sound in the Irish Catholic church reverberated belying its actual size. St. Patrick's sat prominently on the top of the hill at the corner of Glebe Street and Clinton Street.

Father Michael Carole saw the man and the dog sitting in the first pew. From this distance he could recognize neither man nor beast.

The big black dog turned and looked at the approaching priest, but the man did not. He remained motionless, staring at the crucifix above the altar.

When Father Michael was a few pews back, he said to the man, "I'm so very sorry, sir, but we allow only assistance dogs inside the chapel."

The man turned and Father Michael saw who it was.

"She is an assistance dog, Father. She does therapy work at Easttown General Hospital."

"Oh Andrew Hladik, I had no idea it was you. It certainly has been a very long stretch since your altar boy days. You've been away from this place for a long, long time. I had heard that you had returned from Iraq. I was actually expecting to see you here much sooner than this."

"Father," Andrew's mournful look gave away the nature of his question, "I really need your help. I really don't know what to do."

"You know, Andrew, God brought you back to us. He may have brought you back without one of your legs, but he brought you back, nonetheless. You should be very grateful for that."

"Oh I am, Father, I am. Some of my best friends didn't come back at all. I'm the only one left from my squad."

"Well then, what is it Andrew? What can be troubling you so deeply?"

"Father, there's this little boy, Billy Nowles. He's only ten years-old, and one of his legs is about to be amputated. The doctors say that there just isn't any other way. I overheard Billy asking Santa for an assistance dog. But his folks really can't afford a dog because of their medical bills. Plus they would need a dog that is already trained to help the boy after he leaves the hospital. Father, I just don't know what to do."

Father Michael stared intently at Andrew almost indignant at being asked this question.

"What are you asking me, Andrew? Do you want me to make a decision for you? You know I can't do that. But what I can do is tell you this." 

Father Michael with his silver grey hair framing his face with a haloescent-glow, sat in the pew nearest them.

"Andrew, I personally believe that there are angels all around us. They are sent from Heaven to guide us through our daily lives. You've got one right next to you."

Rhea put her paw on Andrew's leg and licked his face. With his right hand Andrew instinctively patted her head in return.

Father Michael continued, "When God made dogs, he gave them all very big hearts. These big hearts share all of their love with those around them. It is the 'giving' of this love that makes dogs different from man. It is a love that knows no boundaries. It is pure and unconditional."

"You know, Andrew, you are not a dog. But God has given you this perfect opportunity to share your love with someone else - a little boy who really needs your help at this time in his life."

Father Michael paused and then said, "Don't turn your back on him Andrew. Don't be selfish. You know what you must do. I don't have to tell you."

Father Michael rose from the pew. He turned to the pair, looking them both in the eyes, "And let us see you here in this chapel more often."

The long walk to the apartment was cold and arduous. Big snowflakes fell steadily blanketing the town. Fresh powder masked patches of ice making each step treacherous. Andrew's crutches kept slipping on the icy sidewalks and even Rhea was troubled by the snowy journey home.

Upon their arrival at the apartment, Andrew cranked up the heat and put a kettle of water on the stove to boil. He gave Rhea her bowl of kibble and added some warm water to her water bowl.

The two stared at one another. Each locked their eyes on each other.

Andrew went over and sat on the bed staring out the window at the Christmas street lights in the distance. The frosted glass panes cast a soft, sparkling glow to the room's interior.

For a moment, when he looked back again at Rhea, he thought he could almost hear her speak.

"What?" he asked.

Rhea whined audibly.

She went over to Andrew and lay her head in his lap. Her big brown eyes glistened and gave voice to the reflected thoughts of her soul.

His right hand as usual began petting his right-hand gal. He wept, and the tears began to fall from his cheeks.

Rhea pulled out from under his hand and jumped up on the bed. She licked his face hoping to stop the tears, but no amount of licking would suffice.

And each knew each other's thoughts.

At 6:30 Christmas morning the hallways of Easttown General Hospital were deserted. Andrew and Rhea walked through the emptiness, down the long hospital corridor past the nurses' station. The footstep and the crutches echoed obtrusively throughout the hall. Random hospital pages could be heard over the ubiquitous PA system. And the fluorescent hospital lights flickered their acknowledgment that daylight was now creeping into the building.

Night nurse Lisa Walker looked up from her desk.

"Well, Merry Christmas, Andrew. What are you doing here so early? You can't possibly have any therapy sessions today."

"I've got to deliver a Christmas gift - something special that just won't wait."

"Okay, well you have a great day." She stood up from the desk to grab a chart. It was then she realized that Rhea was with him.

"Well, Merry Christmas to you too, Rhea!"

The dog turned to her and barked once softly as if cognizant of the sleeping patients.

Andrew and Rhea continued down the hall turning the corner into the East wing: the children's ward.

"You're gonna have to go on alone from here, girl. I can't go with you. You take good care of Billy, just like you would me."

Andrew knelt and hugged the dog one last time. He knew his hug conveyed his unspoken words of love, but, just in case, he added, "And remember girl, I'll always love you just as if you were with me. You'll be in my heart forever. Go on now; go see Billy"

The Christmas morning sun beamed down brightly over the hospital grounds. The walk to the parking lot almost made Andrew happy. Rhea would have a new home. She would be helping Billy adapt to his new limitations.

And just as he would always feel his missing leg, he knew he would also sense his missing companion.

He began whistling "Me and My Shadow." When he realized its significance, he smiled for the first time since his visit with Father Michael.

And Andrew knew in his heart that he had done the right thing.

© James Colasanti Jr

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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