"Where'd the cookies go? They were here a minute ago!" my sister Sylvia shouted from the living room. It was Christmas Eve and she was crouched under the artificial tree, staring at an empty dish resting on the tree skirt. A few crumbs were visible, but otherwise, there was little trace of what had been there. Only a short while earlier, our mother had set a dish of crunchy oatmeal raisin cookies under the tree. She had made them for Santa Claus. But someone had gotten to the treats before Ol' Saint Nick had a chance to shimmy down the chimney. It didn't take us long to finger the culprit.
Sunshine, my sister's pet Chihuahua/terrier mix, was licking her chops as she came trotting from under the tree. She was dressed for the holidays, sporting a green and red doggie sweater with her name embroidered in cursive across the chest and a metallic red Christmas bow on her collar. Our mother had purchased the sweater for Sunshine by special order.
"Sunshine!" my sister scolded the dog as she scooped her into her arms. "I can't believe you ate all of those cookies. They'll hurt your tummy." But Sunshine didn't show any remorse. She simply gazed affectionately at my sister and seemed pleased that she'd discovered the treasure under the tree.
Sunshine had that same look of discovery in her eyes a few years earlier on the day that my sister first saw her. Sylvia was a college freshman, living by herself in a studio apartment and had just finished classes for the afternoon. As she walked back to her apartment, she noticed a chubby little chocolate and caramel colored fur ball sitting on the sidewalk near her front door.
"Hi doggie," my sister said as she leaned down to pet the animal. In response, the dog wagged her tail and craned her neck to brush her head against Sylvia's hand. "You're a real sweetheart," she said to the dog. "I'm sure you have an owner who will be along any time now to find you."
Sylvia noticed the dog was wearing a collar, but no tags. "It was nice meeting you, doggie," my sister said as she entered her apartment. That night, a heavy rainstorm swept through the area. The downpour seemed relentless and didn't let up until the next morning. After the weather cleared, Sylvia stepped outside to run some errands. To her surprise, the dog was still sitting there on the sidewalk and had apparently sat there throughout the storm!
"Hmm. I wonder where your master could be," Sylvia said. "I don't want you to stay out here and catch a cold. I'll take you in until someone comes looking for you." The dog had a warm dreamy look in her eyes and my sister fell instantly in love with her. Sylvia knew the dog would brighten up her life so she called her "Sunshine."
Days passed, but no one ever did come looking for the little dog, even after Sylvia distributed fliers in the neighborhood. In the meantime, Sylvia began to notice that Sunshine had some health problems.
Sunshine had a wheezing condition. My sister initially thought it was the lingering effects of that night outside during the storm. But whenever Sunshine got excited - at feeding time, during rides in the car, or when it was time for one of her walks - Sunshine would start hacking and squawking like a wild goose. Sylvia figured a doggie checkup would be a good idea. What she found out was disturbing.
"Your dog has a collapsed windpipe," the veterinarian said. "That's what's causing her to wheeze and cough. It almost always happens in toy breeds or terriers and Pomeranians. The disease usually becomes problematic in middle age, but can happen at any age."
"Why would she have this?" Sylvia asked. "Is there anything we can do? I... I mean is there any medicine I can give her?"
"In your dog's case, we don't know what's caused it. And there's really nothing we can do," the veterinarian said. "It's not life threatening, but do try to keep her from getting excited. When her windpipe collapses, she's gasping for air and that's not good for her."
A few weeks later during a follow-up examination, the veterinarian diagnosed additional ailments. Sunshine had a heart condition; fluid was gathering around her heart. The vet instructed Sylvia to keep Sunshine's walks to a minimum and to carry her whenever they had to go up a flight of stairs. Sunshine also had cataracts, which accounted for the dreamy look in her eyes. In addition, she had tumors in her ovaries and she was suffering from significant hearing loss. The vet couldn't determine Sunshine's exact age, but he figured her to be an older dog, somewhere between 10 and 12 years old.
Sylvia left the vet's office shaken. In one hand, she had a bottle of pills to drain the fluid from around the dog's heart and in the other hand, she had two reminder cards for the surgeries Sunshine would have in a few weeks to remove the cataracts and her ovaries.
Sunshine licked Sylvia's hand as she lifted the dog into the backseat of the car.
"I love you so much, Sunshine," Sylvia said, trying to fight back tears. "We're going to get through this together. I promise."
Sunshine was a trooper. She was brave during both her surgeries and patient whenever my sister would slip the pills for her heart condition down her throat. Sunshine would always lick Sylvia's hand after she swallowed her pills, as if to thank my sister for all the tender care she was giving her. And whenever Sylvia would leave the apartment without Sunshine, Sunshine would sit and hold vigil at the front door for more than 20 minutes, to see if Sylvia would return. Then, looking dejected, she would slowly walk away with her head bowed, ears flapping, and climb onto Sylvia's bed and lie down with her hind legs stretched out behind her.
Sylvia discovered that she and Sunshine had similar interests. They loved watching the soap operas together. The dog would curl up on the pillow next to Sylvia and seemed to focus on the screen as if she knew what was going on.
The two of them would take leisurely walks at a local botanical garden. Often, Sylvia would dress Sunshine in a black and white tuxedo sweater with a red bow tie pattern on the front. Sunshine took pride in her personal appearance and would trot through the park more lively than usual, with her head cocked back slightly in a self-assured manner.
When the weather was warm, Sunshine enjoyed lying in the sun on the apartment balcony. Sylvia would take the opportunity to give Sunshine back and shoulder rubs until the dog drifted off to sleep.
But even more special to the two of them were the trips they took home to see our mom and dad. Typically, as Sylvia drove, Sunshine would stand on my lap on her hind legs, rest her front paws on the inside passenger door and watch the cars and trucks zip past.
And one of the most memorable trips was the one we took home for Christmas.
As I watched Sylvia scoop Sunshine up into her arms and wipe the cookie crumbs from her muzzle, I couldn't help but think of how far they'd come together.
Sunshine, the dog that only a few years earlier was physically broken, without a home, without shelter and without someone to care for her and my sister, the college freshman living by herself away from home for the first time, had found each other to love.
- Kindly contributed by Lisa Braxton