My “step” mom, Mama Gloria, my sister and I huddle together outside the door to the now empty room where my dad spent most of his time over the past 15 months.
Muffled bursts of gunfire from distant Camp Pendleton pierce the still of the night, reminding us of what dad once faced in real life. Seventy-four years ago, dad fought with the 69th infantry division at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII which proved to be a pivotal battle in the Allies’ war against evil in the European Theatre.
“Sam,” the white ragdoll cat, weaves between our ankles. He gives each of us an affectionate nudge with his head before entering dad’s old room. Sam pads upon the wide-open carpet, appearing to be lost. Every so often, he looks over his shoulder at us and meows: What happened to daddy and all his things?
As dad’s last breath approached two and a half days before, Sam hopped up on the hospital bed and curled up in a ball at his daddy’s feet. Just hours before, Sam kept darting into dad’s room as workmen disassembled and carried away the equipment used during dad’s hospice care. While we were going through dad’s things, Sam pawed at a pile of dad’s stained old clothes destined for landfill. From the cotton, polyester and silk remains, Sam hollowed out a nest. He promptly sank into this depression, possibly to soak up every vestige of dad.
Dad was a complex guy and not always easy to get along with. But now, watching Sam mourn the loss of his constant companion, it seems easy to distill the nectar of dad’s life down to his most endearing qualities.
I have much to thank my dad for: my sense of wonderment about the world, my love of nature, the arts and sciences and a reverence for play which has kept me sane in a world that often takes itself too seriously. But perhaps the greatest gift dad gave me was a love of companion animals.
After returning from the war, dad took a fancy to German Shepherds and collaborated in raising them. Dad particularly loved this breed because of its trainability, dependability and fierce loyalty to their human families. One of my earliest childhood memories was staring into the kindly face of our shepherd, “Kane.” I remember feeling invincible with him at my side and having dreams of riding him bareback through a forest.
Many years later, dad kept horses on his farm in Hidden River, Florida. Since then, dad has had a file of furry companions including Dapples, a long-haired dachshund, Buffy, a cockapoo/mini-samoyed mix, Andy, another German shepherd, Rags, a golden retriever with the biggest smile known to man or beast, Romeo, a Pekingese, and Skipper, a spunky Papillon who would paw a blanket into a ball and hump it anytime dad said, “Time for a back rub!”
Then, of course, there was Sam, who dad and Mama Gloria took in after the death of dad’s brother’s wife, Evie. Sam loved nothing more than to drape himself over one’s shoulders and settle in for some thorough human grooming behind the ears with his spiky tongue. Sam first greeted me many years ago by rolling onto his back and spreading out the contours of his body to resemble a bath mat.
Dad favored the carrot over the rod in his approach to building bonds with his furry family members - and it showed. Every pet in the Potter household was an attentive listener and engaged playmate, including Sam.
Since dad passed last Wednesday morning, Sam has moped around and has eaten less. He favors his little den made from his pet carrier with the gate removed or he returns to dad’s old room looking for traces of him.
My sister, Mama Gloria, my whole family and I will be searching for ways to fill our empty rooms too.