Phoebe will always be remembered as the dog who saved my grandmother’s life…twice. I must confess that I know the story from family lore. Phoebe and I were the same age so when she was performing her amazing feats I was a toddler, oblivious to anyone else’s needs. Luckily Phoebe was way more advanced than I.
My grandmother, in her final years, was confined to a wheelchair. She was only in her 50’s and had always been hardworking, running a hotel where she had done everything from milking the cows to preparing all the meals for the guests. She was bitter about the dramatic change in circumstances that found her helpless…and alone for most of the day when my grandfather still needed to go from their home in Bedford Stuyvesant to the Garment District in Manhattan. The family convened and decided that she needed a dog. And so Phoebe entered their lives and became my grandmother’s constant companion.
Phoebe was one of those dogs who radiate intelligence and compassion. Although a mere mongrel, she was perfectly suited to her very esteemed position in our family. And my grandparent’s home, the bottom level of a brownstone, was perfect as well. “Mom” could easily roll herself out to the fenced garden behind the house, accompanied by Phoebenu, as she was always called.
And so the two of them passed the days, in quiet companionship and mutual understanding. Phoebe needed to be the caretaker and Mom needed the care.
Except when Mom became rebellious. That’s when the lifesaving scenes were played out.
Twice, not once, Mom tried to escape from her wheelchair. Each time she was in the garden. Each time Phoebe stood guard. Each time Mom collapsed to the ground, unable to raise herself off the earth and fearful that her life was coming to an end. Each time Phoebe came to her rescue.
Phoebe had few tools but she knew trouble when she saw it. A dog of lesser skill and acuity might have cried or tried to nudge Mom back into the chair. Phoebe, however, knew just what to do. She would raise a call for help.
One floor above was Mom’s son, Uncle Charlie, working away in his dental office. Phoebe knew this and knew that what she had to do was let Uncle Charlie know of the catastrophe. Her plan was simple and ingenious. She would bark until Uncle Charlie came down to rescue Mom.
And so she did. For hours. Until Uncle Charlie heard the call and looked out the window and saw Mom’s precarious and tenuous hold on life And so he rushed down and saved the day, praising Phoebe while he lifted Mom back to safety.
Phoebe outlived Mom and she was bereft, as dogs become when they lose someone they love. My sister had a dog like that. His name was Yogi, a beautiful white German shepherd, also with uncanny intelligence.
Yogi, a Sabra, resided in Herzliya with my sister and family and always recognized the approach of Shabbat. Perhaps it was the various clues and fragrances. Traffic abating. Soup cooking. Tables being set. Or was it something more mystical? I don’t know but I feel my nerve endings tingle when I hear this story.
Every Friday night our family would gather at my parent’s home in downtown Herzliya for a Shabbat dinner. Even when my mother’s health and age seemed to acknowledge that the meals were onerous for her to prepare, she persevered and put out a sumptuous spread, beautifully served, and deliciously packed with traditional Friday night specialties.
Yogi was definitely a welcome guest at these meals. My mother would place a water bowl on the kitchen floor, adjacent to a bowl filled with delicacies. Chicken from the soup. Scraps of meat. Bits of liver. An amazing concoction that Yogi inhaled and gulped down with gusto while he awaited the donations from the meal itself. This was undoubtedly the high point of his week. I am certain that it filled his dreams.
And then my mother was hospitalized and then she died. We, who understood, mourned a terrible loss. Yogi just didn’t understand.
For my father, above all, the loss was most grievous. His wife, his love, his companion of over 60 years was gone. And so it was, one Friday, that my sister got a phone call from Dad. Yogi had arrived at his apartment in Downtown Herzliya. He heard him barking by the door and not believing his ears opened the door. There was Yogi who bolted in and began his search. For my mother. For his bowl. For his food. For the formally set table with space underneath for a rather large dog. What had happened? He couldn’t understand. My father saw the confusion in his eyes. How could he possibly explain the inexplicable?
And, impossibly, on a subsequent Friday night, the scene replayed itself.
For Yogi this journey to my parent’s house was dangerous and dramatic. Major streets to cross. Directions to know. How did he do it? How did he know it was Friday night?
I’ll never know the answers. Yogi is now in Olam Ha Ba, as is my father. Questions that cannot be answered will never be answered.