ONE BY ONE, WINTER STORMS SLAMMED INTO THE WEST COAST…

…snow piled up in the Cascade Mountains while howling winds raked the passes. Elk and deer hightailed it for the lowlands and cougar kegged up for the duration in their dens. Anyone or anything, with any sense, was hurrying to get under cover.

Those who have no shelter do the best they can under the circumstances.

At the Shepherd’s House, a shelter for men in some of life’s most difficult transitions, Chloe the dog, household greeter, sits by the door where she’ waiting and watching. She sees the hungry people line up at the serving table. As they file by she spots a problem. Like a hungry coyote hunting a lagging lamb near the rear of the flock, she ducks and dodges through the mayhem across the crowded dining room.

One man sits alone at a table. No one knows where he came from or how long he’s been sleeping in the desert. He might have been driven outdoors for any number of reasons…drugs, alcohol, PTSD, or mental illness. He’s a solitary man living alone on the edge of the civilized world.

During invocation Chloe sits underneath the table beside the lone man’s leg. As the meal begins, she leans her head on his thigh. Ignoring her, he shovels warm food into his mouth.

Not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer, Chloe slips her nose underneath his hand allowing him to feel her soft, black fur. Surprised in mid-gobble, the man glances down, as if seeing her for the first time. He quickly jerks his hand back to his thigh.

A short time later, she inserts her nose underneath his hand and flips it to the tip of her ear, distracting him from his much-needed meal. Startled and embarrassed, the man yanks his hand back to his thigh, nervously looking around the table.

After dinner, quiet, sated conversation dominates the dining room. The lone man is silent, avoiding human contact. Pressing her point, Chloe leans harder on his leg.

Touch is a basic human need, essential to emotional health. Deprived of human contact, at best, our emotional balance tips and we retreat into ourselves. At worst, our state of mind tilts till dangerously skewed. Without human touch, we become less than we could be.

A couple years previously, the Shepherd’s House board of directors decided to add a dog to their toolbox of aid for men in crisis. The next day, the house manager got a call about an animal that needed more TLC than she was getting in her previous home.

Chloe, the newest homeless shelter volunteer and former outside dog was terrified at first. As the only female resident in the building she slowly adapted to the needs of the men around her. Before long, with unerring accuracy, she could spot those most in need of unconditional acceptance.

“She brings joy to the guys, it’s a big job,” says the house manager.

It’s nearing ‘lights-out’ at the Shepherd’s House and conversation is dying in the dining room. Contagious jaw-wrenching yawns circulate each table. Emergency residents seeking shelter from the storm make their way into the chapel and find a spot for their floor mats.

The lone man, his humanity still untethered, takes his mat, and moves it to a corner as far as possible from the others. Chloe follows him into the chapel, clinging like a canine bumper sticker and lays beside him. Long after the lights have gone out and the shelter chatter ceases, the lonely man…hesitantly…reaches out and cups Chloe’s head with his hand.

Chloe relaxes and leans into his touch…

...humanity's tiny flame,  
guttering in the freezing wind:
"I can't feel myself,
does anyone know me?" he cries-
reach, solitary one, we remember you...

…on this dark and frigid evening, a tiny and tentative candle of humanity burns incrementally brighter. For tonight, there is a little more trembling and gentle joy in the world.

AUTHOR’S NOTE…

Chloe kept up her gentle and healing ministrations of forgotten people for years. Toward the end, her hips and hind legs could no longer hold her up. It became apparent her time had come.

Returning to the Shepherd’s House for the final time, the house manager stopped by a nursery and bought an apple tree. There, in the roots, Chloe’s ashes were buried for the final time in the front yard.

It took some time, but another dog showed up for Chloe’s position as greeter for homeless people seeking shelter from the storm.

Sleep well, we’ll talk again….

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