Gorman Johnston couldn't bear the thought of parting with his dog, Abner.
His story dates back to 1998. Gorman and his wife, Doris, took a drive to the country. They visited a farmer who'd bred a litter of Brittany spaniels.
Doris had been battling cancer for 11 years. She needed to get more exercise. Perhaps a dog would give her more incentive to take walks every day.
There were only three puppies left when they arrived. One ran to Doris and immediately made his affection known. Gorman and Doris knew right away they'd found their pup. Doris named him Abner after her childhood dog.
Abner produced the desired results — Doris took him for a long walk every morning. The two were soon inseparable. As she sat on the couch reading, Abner lay at her feet. As she lay in bed sleeping, Abner kept watch at the foot of her bed.
In January 2005, Doris' cancer finally caught up with her. The day she died, Gorman was so busy tending to the necessary arrangements, he didn't realize Abner was missing. He searched all over the house before he found him.
Abner was sitting on Doris' side of the bed, panting nervously.
Gorman did his best to carry on after Doris was gone, but it wasn't easy. They'd been married 53 years, after all. He missed her desperately. Thank goodness he still had Abner.
But his health began to deteriorate. He'd had heart issues for years, but he was so busy caring for Doris, he had no choice but to keep going. Without her, his heart weakened rapidly.
Gorman knew he couldn't take care of himself anymore, but he didn't know where to turn. He'd have to find a retirement home, but what to do with Abner? Most homes don't allow pets. The thought of parting with Abner weighed heavily on Gorman's mind.
That's when Providence intervened.
For nearly 20 years, Gorman had been a volunteer at the Little Sisters of the Poor in Pittsburgh, PA. The home provides high-quality care and compassion to the elderly poor. The sisters there had cared for Gorman's mother in her last days; he began volunteering shortly after she died.
Gorman performed a variety of odd jobs over the years — whatever the sisters needed. In the process, he befriended many. Two good friends, Dan and Kitty Hilinski, began volunteering in 1994, after the sisters cared for Kitty's mother. Dan and Kitty were aware of Gorman's predicament. They had the perfect solution.
You see, after so many years of giving, Gorman was suddenly in a position in which he needed to receive. Just as he was no longer able to care for himself, a space opened up at the Little Sisters' residence. Gorman had found his home.
Abner did, too.
Dan and Kitty adopted him. And because they spend four days volunteering every week, Abner visits Gorman plenty. In fact, Abner has become the house dog, bringing cheerfulness to many residents at the home.
Though there's no shortage of cheerfulness at the Little Sisters of the Poor. Since it was founded in France in 1839, its mission has been to give dignity and love to the elderly poor — to people of every background and religion.
And, boy, do the sisters deliver.
Sister Regina took me on a tour of the residence. I was struck by the laughter and camaraderie on every floor — even in the infirmary, where people are near their end, the joy was abundant.
You can advance more joy. Instead of donating money to the latest trendy cause this year, why not improve the lives of elderly folks instead? The sisters get by without a dime in government handouts. They literally beg for food, clothing and funding to aid the residents in their care.
To offer your assistance, contact the sisters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-307-1268. Or, to find the Little Sisters residence nearest your town, go to www.littlesistersofthepoor.org.
The next time you pass through Pittsburgh, be sure to pay a visit to the home. If you're lucky, Sister Regina will take you on a tour. You'll be moved by the grace and dignity you'll encounter.
Don't forget to bring a treat for Abner.
[Editor's note: Click here to see a story the local TV station did on Abner and the home run by the sisters.]