By Sean Dietrich
A snowscape. The long Minnesota prairies were covered in powdered sugar. A lone dirt highway cut through the cotton-white flatlands, which were featureless except for telephone poles, cattle fences and an occasional muddy mail truck.
There was a small house seated on this horizon. A one-story, unassuming frame home, with a barn.
Inside this humble three-bedroom lives an elderly widow. She’s lonely. Hopelessly lonely. But then, this is a pandemic. We live in a new world, with new rules. Isolation is the prescribed way of life now, and it comes with consequences. What the virus took from her was her friendships. And her smile.
Not so long ago, she was going to church three times per week, reading Bible stories aloud to kids in Sunday-school classrooms, teaching them to sing about Zacchaeus, who was a wee little man (and a wee little man was he).
Today, her church doesn’t hold services, except online. She hasn’t left the house in months. And she certainly hasn’t been singing.
Hard? Yeah, it’s been hard. Hardest period she’s ever known. As a lifelong farmer’s wife you’d think she was used to solitude. But nobody can truly prepare you for the social desolation following the loss of a spouse.
Neither does anyone forewarn you that loneliness will slow down your biology, or that your brain will begin firing less rapidly. But it’s true. Your body becomes tired, you have no appetite, you lose basic conversational skills and your sense of self-image disappears. Sleep becomes a myth. So does laughter.
And the pandemic made it worse. No more supermarket runs; her groceries get delivered now. She has the internet, but the screens are making her eyes ache. She has satellite television, but nothing is ever on. She pays for approximately 529 streaming services, but she never watches them and can’t figure out how to cancel subscriptions. No more Sunday-school songs. No more smiles.
In many ways, these hard times have aged the woman. They have made her listless. Made her ragged. And I tell you all these things so that you can understand the enormity of what happened to her one afternoon a few months ago.
That day, the old woman peeked out her door and saw something sleeping on her porch. It was 16 degrees on the whistling snowscape, there was crystalline ice on her windows.
A tiny dog lay huddled against her house. He was small, wiry haired, tucked in a tight ball, back facing the wind, shivering. He wasn’t wearing a collar, there were ticks all over him. And there was something else. He was sick.
Sickened strays are not rare in the Minnesota countryside. Livestock farmers leave poison out for coyotes in food bowls. It’s tasteless poison, and fast-acting. Sometimes dogs eat it by accident and die before they even know what hit them.
She tried to invite the old boy inside, but the animal could not walk. So the woman lifted the tiny dog’s limp body. His little tongue was hanging out. His tail was slack.
When the animal was propped against the washing machine, she surrounded him with electric heaters and a heating blanket. But he wasn’t responding. He wasn’t eating or drinking. He was too weak to even wag.
That night, she stayed beside him. And because she didn’t know how else to pass the time, she read aloud to him the way she used to do for her kids long ago.
She could see that he was listening to her voice because whenever she paused reading, he would raise his weary eyes to look at her. And she would continue.
He was getting worse. Much worse. She was positive there was no hope for this wee little creature. He could hardly keep his tiny eyes open. She called a veterinary doctor who said there was likely nothing to be done at this stage.
So the old woman spent Friday, Saturday and most of Sunday afternoon beside him. She kept her hands on his scruffy coat. She uttered prayers like, “God, take this tiny animal home.”
Or: “Let him die in peace.”
Or: “Don’t let him suffer.”
Monday evening she went to bed and was convinced he would be dead by morning. But early Tuesday, before sunrise, she awoke from a light sleep to a banging noise. It was a faint knocking sound. Like a soft bass drum.
She crawled out of bed, dressed herself in the international old-lady outfit —nightgown, housecoat and slippers. When she opened the laundry room door, she saw a canine tail gleefully banging against the dryer.
BOOM BOOM BOOM!
She didn’t mean to, but she started to weep when she saw his happy little face. Namely, because this old Sunday-school teacher knows a true miracle when she sees one.
She fed him warm milk, soaked bread, cold cuts, cheese, smashed hotdogs and any leftovers she had in the fridge. By the end of the day, he was walking around like nothing was wrong, eating crackers.
And something happened inside the old farmer’s wife’s heart. For the first time in months she felt like celebrating something. So she did exactly this.
She made spaghetti and meat sauce for supper, with a complicated salad, homemade vinaigrette and garlic bread. She ate an apple hand pie for dessert. She drank wine. She watched a movie with her new friend beside her. She grinned until her cheeks hurt.
That was two months ago. Today her new pal has his own doggy bed, his own chew toys, rawhides, rubber Kongs filled with peanut butter, a stuffed UPS-man doll, and bags of organic dog food which cost about as much as tactical government helicopters.
I asked the old woman if she ever settled on a name for this dog.
“Of course,” she said. “I named him Zacchaeus.”