Who would have thought that a silly dog with attitude would pull my family through the worst crisis we had ever faced?
My dog, Coffee, is a little black-and-brown Australian terrier. He’s not a particularly bright or obedient dog. He’s not even especially loyal. He comes when I call him only if he feels like it or if I have food in my hand. He confuses every command I give him and has no inkling when I’m upset or injured, so there would be no chance of him ever rescuing me from a perilous situation like the smart dogs you often read about.
But I’m the first to admit that a big part of the problem with Coffee’s attitude is his upbringing: he’s spoilt rotten. My dad is the biggest culprit. While Dad can instil fear in my sister and me just by the tone of his voice, I have never heard him raise his voice at Coffee – no matter how naughty he is. In fact, one look from Coffee at the biscuit tin is enough to send my dad flying to get him a snack. Whenever we protest about the unfair treatment, a guilty smirk creeps across Dad’s face. It’s become a long-standing family joke that Coffee is the closest thing to a son Dad will ever have.
Then, five years ago, our lives were turned upside down when Dad suffered two major strokes in the space of a month, caused by a massive brain hemorrhage.
At the time he was in Hong Kong on business and, luckily, my Mum and sister were with him. I was in Melbourne, studying at university, but left Coffee with a relative and hopped on the first plane as soon as I heard the news.
Unfortunately, the prognosis wasn’t good and the doctors told us that, most likely, Dad would not pull through.
For four long months it was touch and go as he remained unconscious in intensive care. Mentally he was non-responsive. However, physically he was still able to move and would frequently thrash about trying to pull out the vital tubes that were keeping him alive. Within a 30-minute period, he would make an average of five attempts. His movements were often swift and strong and we had to take turns standing by his bedside, on guard, to protect him. We were exhausted after every “shift” but grateful, despite the doctor’s warning, that he was still alive.
As the months went by, I started to miss Coffee terribly. I couldn’t help but talk about him constantly, often recalling the silly little things he would do. Although this no doubt irritated the other visitors, Mum and my sister enjoyed the light relief immensely and any Coffee stories would always make them laugh.
In fact, it was the only way we kept up our spirits during those tense four months, and the intensive care nurses often commented that we were the happiest family in one of the most serious situations they’d ever seen.
In time, we became able to assist the nurses in conducting their routine check-ups on Dad. One way of testing whether there was any improvement in his mental state was to ask basic questions that would generate yes or no answers from him.
“Is your name Francis?” “Are you a man?” “Do you know where you are?”
These were some of the questions we would ask him daily. Sadly, we never got the answers we were hoping for.
Then one day, as I was reeling off the standard list of questions, my mind started to wander and, before I knew it, I was thinking about Coffee again.
Without even realising it, I blurted out: “Is Coffee a tiger?”
Thinking I was being silly, Mum turned to tell me off but stopped suddenly when she saw Dad move: slowly, the corner of his mouth began to turn up.
Even under the tape that kept the oxygen tube in his mouth, it was unmistakable: he was smiling. It was the first sign in four months that Dad had showed any awareness of what we were saying. After that, Dad’s condition stabilised and he was moved out of intensive care. However, there was still a long, hard road ahead.
Over the next nine months, Dad had to go through extensive physiotherapy to relearn all the basic things we take for granted. Even sitting up for longer than five minutes was difficult for him. Dad, who was a fiercely independent man with a successful career before all this happened, found it increasingly frustrating and degrading.
The only thing that ever bought a smile to his face was talk of Coffee.
Somehow, Coffee wriggled his way into most of our conversations.
I would remind him of how Coffee, for some reason, hates walking on grass. We had a massive backyard in Melbourne and every time we threw a ball, Coffee would run along the edge of the garden, on the brick pavers, to the closest point where the ball had landed, tip-toe onto the grass to pick it up, then run back along the pavers again.
When Mum, my sister and I would massage Dad’s arms and legs to prevent his muscles from weakening, Mum would often comment that he was the luckiest man alive to have three women massaging him, and I would always chime in:
“Now all you need is Coffee to give you a ‘lick-lick’ foot massage!”
No matter how many times I repeated this comment, the whole family would laugh.
It took almost a full year of extensive physiotherapy and rehabilitation before Dad was finally well enough to return home to Australia – and it was a homecoming I’ll never forget.
Naturally, Coffee was there waiting for Dad and, with no idea that he wasn’t as steady on his feet as before, Coffee promptly launched himself into Dad’s arms, almost bowling him over. But Dad didn’t seem to mind one bit: the smile on his face was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and the tears in his eyes said it all.
It seems unbelievable now to look back and realise that, during the worst crisis my family ever faced, it was humorous stories about a silly little dog which kept us all sane, but that’s the truth.
It’s not just smart dogs that save the day – Coffee is living proof of that.
Mona Chung-Chao, 26, works as an auditor in Melbourne, where she lives with her husband Ian, 26, and Coffee the dog.