by Dawn DeBraal
Chet Cotter burned his way north to the emergency room at Riverside hospital with his F250 pickup and thirty-five-foot fifth wheel on the back. His wife of forty-seven years, Winnie, accidentally stepped in front of a lumber truck trying to stop her little dog, Mr. Squiggles, from getting hit on the highway. Mr. Squiggles was her baby. He came to them when she needed a child. Chet resented the dog because he acted as a wedge between him and Winnie from the day he arrived. Mr. Squiggles growled at Chet every time he reached for his wife. Winnie decided that he and Mr. Squiggles should bond, so it became Chet’s job to walk and feed Mr. Squiggles. That did nothing to bond the two. Winnie had gained over a hundred pounds and could barely walk anymore. The trip to Florida was the start of an adventure for the two of them when this happened. Chet glanced over at his nemesis. Mr.Squiggles was oblivious to what had happened. He didn’t see Winnie hit by the truck and didn’t return until after the ambulance left. Chet was going to abandon the dog out on the highway to follow the ambulance, but at the last possible moment, Mr. Squiggles bounded across a four-lane highway, narrowly missing the oncoming cars. He growled when Chet put him on Winnie’s seat. Chet was beside himself as he drove toward the hospital. Was she alive? He regretted getting Mr. Squiggles now. If it hadn’t been for that confounded dog, Winnie would be fine.
The hospital parking lot was large. Chet chose a corner where he could pull out the truck and camper. He knew he was fooling himself, thinking that Winnie would be able to continue the trip. Winnie looked pretty bad when he last saw her under the truck. Chet took the growly dog out and put him in the camper with fresh water and food. Mr. Squiggles would be fine for the time being. He hurried along to the hospital entrance. There he found out Winnie was already in surgery. Chet went up to the surgical waiting room and checked in with the nurse there. She took his cell phone number and told him she would call him as soon as there was any word. The doctor would come out and speak with him.
Chet paced back and forth in the waiting room. He bought some horrible coffee water from a machine and tried to read a magazine but he found he kept reading the same sentence repeatedly. He turned pages and looked at the pictures, instead. A television droned in the background, a soap opera. It was so cheesy it did draw him away for a few moments. Hours slipped by when his phone rang. He answered it thinking he still hadn’t called the kids. There wasn’t anything to tell them yet.
“Chet Cotter?” It was the doctor.
“Yes. How is my Winnie?”
“Are you in the hospital waiting room? I’ll be right down.” Chet punched the phone off. It must be bad if the doctor was coming to talk to him.
He shook the man’s hand.
“Mr. Cotter, your wife suffered a fractured hip. That is the worse of her injuries: a broken arm, two broken ribs. I repaired her hip and the arm while she was under, but the ribs, we can’t do much for them. They appear stable. The ambulance reported that you were in a camper, and you don’t live in Florida. I would suggest that you find accommodations nearby something with one floor to help your wife recuperate.
“She’s going to live.” Chet breathed a sigh of relief.
“She is not out of the woods yet, but she is a tough woman. She is in recovery right now, and someone will call you when she gets into a room. We will keep her here until she has learned how to transfer into a wheelchair. She could be here for a week or two, and then depending on your living circumstances, we can move her to a swing bed in the nursing home, or if you have a suitable place and can care for her, we will send her home with you. She can’t travel great distances and will not be able to navigate the steps of the camper.”
Chet left the hospital. It was time to take the dog for a walk, and he needed time to absorb what the doctor told him. Months, they would be in Florida for months, and how long after that before Winnie could travel? Or would she be in such pain she wouldn’t be able to withstand the rigors?
Chet marched out of the hospital and crossed the parking lot. He grabbed the leash from the cab of the truck and opened the camper door. Mr. Squiggles growled.
“Walk,” he said forcefully, and the dog allowed him to put on his leash. Chet walked up and down the side of the parking lot, waiting for the dog to do his duty. Mr. Squiggles sat and looked at him, refusing to cooperate. Chet broke down sitting on the camper steps.
“Winnie,” he cried. Mr. Squiggles did something he had never done before. He licked Chet’s hand. Startled, Chet pulled his hand away.
“I suppose without Winnie, you are desperate for company,” Chet scratched Mr. Squiggles’ scruffy neck. He climbed into the camper and went to sleep.
Chet was allowed to see Winnie for a short time, once she was out of recovery and placed in her room. Winnie was still out of it, she looked relatively comfortable, though she seemed restless. It was dark outside now, and the nurse rolled in a recliner at Chet’s request. He decided to spend the night next to his wife, even though the camper offered him a place to stay. Winnie didn’t look good, and he was afraid for the first time in his life.
Chet snuck out of the hospital; it was after midnight. Most of the public spaces were empty of people. He made himself a sandwich and took Mr. Squiggles for a walk. Then he took the eleven-pound dog and tucked him in a coat that he carried back to Winnie’s room. He wanted Winnie to know that Mr. Squiggles was OK. At the time of the accident, Winnie was more worried about the dog than she was herself.
“Mr. Cotter,” the nurse said at her station said. Chet nodded to her. “I needed to walk the dog and made myself a sandwich. Good night,” the nurse turned back to her work, and Chet slipped through the door.
He put Mr.Squiggles on the bed. Winnie moaned when he snuggled next to her. Her hand automatically caressed his head and felt down his body. A smile crossed Winnie’s face, and she looked peaceful. Chet knew he had done the right thing. Mr. Squiggles seemed to understand the seriousness of Winnie’s predicament. He just lay there on the bed and closed his eyes. Everyone went to sleep.
Chet picked up Mr. Squiggles and tucked him back into his coat. He left Winnie before the morning rounds.
Winnie wasn’t good the next day, and she was worse the following day. He told their kids to stay put, knowing they had their own lives, and Winnie hadn’t awakened yet, so there was nothing to do. He asked them to wait and come when he needed help caring for her. They agreed. Every night he snuck Mr. Squiggles into the hospital, and before the morning rounds, he snuck him out again.
He returned to her room, having snuck the dog back out to the camper. The hospital was grumbling about the camper in the parking lot. It had been over a week. Chet thought he could take the rig to a campground nearby. It would help to know what was going to happen to his wife. He didn’t want to get an apartment if Winnie needed to stay in a nursing home. The doctor hinted that direction. Winnie wasn’t responding much to anything. Chet walked Mr. Squiggles and made the decision. He called a campground where he would park the camper. He booked the lot for a week.
Chet felt better making a decision, even if it was a short term one. He went back into the hospital and stopped short at the doorway. Winnie’s machinery was going off. He watched the doctor slowly turn off the monitors and called the time of death.
“What are you doing? Why aren’t you saving her?” Chet shouted. The doctor pointed to the “Do Not Resuscitate” bracelet on Winnie’s wrist. Chet looked down at his own. They did this after the hospital shocked Winnie’s mother back to life many times after her stroke. She would survive for a few hours and then die again. It was horrible. He and Winnie made a promise right then not to let each other go through that experience. Chet sat with Winnie after they prepared her body. He was waiting for the undertaker he chose from a list of several names. He called his daughter first.
“Dad, come home,” Marnie urged.
“This trip was a dream of a lifetime. Your mother and I saved up to take it. I am taking her with me.” Chet responded and said as much to his son. He felt terrible that Winnie’s funeral wouldn’t be until after returning to Wisconsin, but that’s the way things were. Chet knew as soon as he got home, his kids would talk him into staying put. He and Winnie put a big chunk of money down on the camper and the truck. Their dream was to see the lower forty-eight states, and he made the decision he was still taking her along for the ride.
Chet made a few more phone calls. Parked at the Happy Acres campground. There was a few trees around him, though he could see another camper less than twenty feet away. Chet sighed as he drank his coffee. He thought about the funeral director. All he asked for was a no-frills cremation. He was taking Winnie’s ashes with him, and by God, he was going to complete this trip. Mr. Squiggles lay on the ground near his chair, sleeping. He seemed a bit lost lately, just like Chet did.
Chet put Mr. Squiggles in the cab of the truck. He growled at Chet, who shook his head. His first stop was to pick up Winnie’s ashes at the funeral home. He remembered a few short days ago, sitting across from the salesperson telling him what she needed. $2999.00 the price of a basic no-frills cremation. He would let the kids pick out Winnie’s urn when he got home. As he was getting ready to write out the check, the woman now added taxes and a burning permit fee.
“Burning permit fee?”
“Yes, that’s an additional seventy-five dollars. A medical person has to deem her dead before we cremate your wife.’
“Don’t you think the fact that she would be dead for three days, the hospital signed her death certificate is enough of an indication she’s dead?” Chet realized as soon as it came out of his mouth, he sounded like an ass. He was mad. It wasn’t this woman’s fault that the law was the law. He wrote out the check for over three thousand. Now he was here four days later to pick Winnie up, take her on a trip and bring her to her final resting place. He didn’t think he had any more tears in him, but sure enough, another one slipped out as he opened the door.
“I’m here to pick up Winnifred Cotter’s cremains,” he told the front desk. The woman excused herself and went into a back room, coming out with a small box. Chet took the box, amazed at how little a human being was once everything was burned away.
”I’m sorry for your loss,” the woman said. Chet carried her out to the truck. He opened the door and put her on the floor of the cab. Mr. Squiggles growled.
“And now for you.” Chet’s next stop was the no-kill animal shelter. He’d thought about it. Mr. Squiggles hated him, and he would be better off with someone he liked. He snapped the leash around the little dog, and he trotted up the sidewalk when he heard the barking and smelled the dog pee outside the shelter. Mr. Squiggles lay down in the grass cowering.
“Come on, they’ll find you a new home.” Chet picked up the little dog and walked in. “My name is Chet Cotter. I called about surrendering a dog.”
“Hello Mr. Cotter. This little guy must be Mr. Squiggles. And you say he’s thirteen?”
‘Yes, he was my wife’s dog. She passed away, and he never liked me. I think he would be better in a home with a woman in it.” The woman pushed a small buzzer under the counter. A pimply boy came out of the back.
“If you just give Billie the leash, he will take off the collar and return it to you.”
“I don’t want the collar. You can keep the leash too.” Chet said as he handed over the leash. Mr. Squiggles growled. Billie stopped in his tracks.
“Does Mr. Squiggles have a history of biting?”
“No, he only growls at new people. He’s never bitten, anyone.” Chet watched Billie try to move Mr. Squiggles through the door.
“It you’d sign here, Mr. Cotter. We will do our best to find him a home. It won’t be easy, though, given his age.”
“What do you mean?” Chet had the pen poised over the surrender documents and was scanning what it said.
“Well most people want a young dog. And his being a growling dog may deter some folks from taking him. He will always have a home here, ” she said cheerily. Chet’s hand shook.
“What kind of home do you offer here.?”
“Well he will get a five by five pen to himself.”
“Do you walk him every day?”
“No, I’m sorry. He will get out at least every other day. We only have so many volunteers. We do our best to give them exercise.” Chet could hear Mr. Squiggle’s barking and the panic in his voice. His hand shook again. He was mad at the dog when he called. If it weren’t for the dog, Winnie would still be alive. If it weren’t for the dog, he would have been there when Winnie died. He thought about his wife and how she loved this dog. Despite his angry feelings right now, some small part of him loved this crabby dog. He dropped the pen.
“I’ve changed my mind. Mr. Squiggles is coming home with me.” The woman buzzed the buzzer again. The pimply-faced boy stepped out from the back.
“Billie, bring Mr. Squiggles back, Mr. Cotter has changed his mind.” Billie ducked through the door bringing Mr. Squiggles on his leash. Billie handed him back to Chet.
“Thank you.” Chet walked briskly down the sidewalk stopping every time Mr. Squiggles needed to smell a strange dog and make his mark over their mark. A little part of him laughed. For an eleven-pound dog, he was fierce. Chet stopped to pick up Mr. Squiggles, who growled. He dropped the dog onto Winnie’s seat.
scolded the dog, who circled several times before finding a comfortable spot.
Chet pulled away from the shelter, deciding to follow the route he and Winnie
chose months ago. The next stop was Georgia. Perhaps he’d buy peaches there or
something. He looked over at Mr. Squiggles, who had stretched out across the
seat on his back. Chet knew he made the right decision in keeping the dog. Mr.
Squiggles was all that he had left of his precious love, Winnifred C.