In a blissful life upended, gift of man’s best friend endures
At 61, Jeff Schwartz loved many things: good design, natural light, the tongue sandwich at Michael’s Deli, cocktails on the coast of Maine. His wife and son, especially. Still, it was no slight on them to say that his heart belonged to Buddy, a mini-labradoodle with a caramel coat and a pinkish-brown nose.
The feeling was mutual. If Schwartz hugged his wife, Nancy Moss, Buddy would jump up; if he draped an arm around her on the beach, Buddy would nose in between. Schwartz always made room. And no day was right unless it began with an early morning walk, taking Buddy out to a diner or bakery and then down along the Esplanade, four or five miles in all.
That was how it started last Jan. 23, when they set out from Marlborough Street in the Back Bay nearly an hour before dawn: an empty-nester and his 9-year-old dog, striding in the cold beneath a waxing crescent moon, the city stirring awake. He thinks they were heading to the Buttery, but he will never know for sure, that day now a permanent blur.
A mile from home, Schwartz and Buddy got a walk signal at Dartmouth and Columbus. Together, they stepped from the curb.
* * *
He never saw the school bus; the driver never saw him. She was carrying 20 Metco students out to Concord-Carlisle High School, as she had been for years, her 10-ton Blue Bird behemoth pointed east on Columbus Avenue. It was 20 minutes before sunrise. She caught the green light; the walk signal lit for the crosswalks running alongside. She turned left, striking the man and killing his dog.
That was how the news covered it, with the dog’s body lying there under a sheet that didn’t quite cover its paws, the bus pulled over and police tape blocking the intersection for hours. The man was in the hospital, his condition unknown.
But then, even paramedics didn’t know his name yet, his wallet and jacket tossed aside in the life-saving scrum. It would be 2½ hours before his wife got the call, after police determined Schwartz’s identity from the tag on his lifeless dog.
When she reached Tufts Medical Center, his right leg had already been amputated below the knee in a desperate effort to stop the bleeding after he flatlined in cardiac arrest. If he had been struck farther from the hospital, if his heart had not been strengthened by all those walks with Buddy, he might not have survived.
Schwartz had broken bones and brain trauma, but his condition was too fragile for an MRI to reveal the extent of the bleeding inside his skull. Though he stabilized soon and the brain scan showed the bleeding subsiding, he spent a month in a near-coma state, a tracheostomy tube plugged into his neck, a feeding tube stuffed down his nose.
As Moss squeezed his hand, she felt grateful her husband had survived. But she was terrified that he might never again be effervescent Jeff, a quick-witted polymath who had left behind finance and health care management to study interior design, and who loved to sing and travel, write fiction and tell jokes. She worried about how hard his life would be on one leg. And in mourning herself, she dreaded most of all telling him Buddy had died.
In the fourth week, when he was squeezing back and mouthing more words, Moss decided it was time. Schwartz’s chest heaved and his eyes watered and the tubes went up and down; together they sobbed, crying amid the beeps and the hiss of the ICU.
The moment was every bit as anguished as she had feared. And then a few days later she had to do it all over again. By then Schwartz could hold a pen and write a note, the letters cramped and deliberate as a child’s. He asked two questions.
Where do we live, and did Buddy survive?
* * *
As his body and brain healed, his caregivers braced for a wave of sorrow over his lost leg, but it never seemed to come. Schwartz had always been the optimist in the relationship, and now he studied his amputation in the mirror and felt comfortable with how he looked. He met mentors who were living full lives on prosthetics, and believed that he would walk and kayak and meet with clients again, too.
Still, he felt an emptiness in his heart. He embraced the feeling of living “a second life,” treasuring the sort of notes from friends usually saved for funerals, cherishing a rejuvenated relationship with his 27-year-old son. But something was missing.
“I was dog-starved,” he would later say. “Buddy-starved.”
Given a choice, he told his wife, he would have picked Buddy over his own leg every time.
On the 52d day, a rapidly improving Schwartz was finishing dog therapy at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital — as soon as he learned that dogs visited, he asked that each one come by his room — and chatting by phone with a friend. And then his speech began to slur. The doctors rushed him to the ER, fearing a stroke.
It turned out to be a seizure, a legacy of brain trauma, and for four months medication kept it from happening again. He relearned to swallow and strengthened his core and sharpened his cognitive skills; he regained some of the 45 pounds that had withered from his frame. On the 90th day, finally, they let Moss drive him home.
And then: six weeks in a wheelchair, awaiting a prosthetic, the hardest time yet. Their Maine cottage in Biddeford Pool had been his refuge, a forlorn Coast Guard barrack that he had gutted and redesigned — with a soaring hearth lined with flagstone and barnwood, with ample windows to bathe everything in light. Now it felt like prison. He could only watch as others walked by on the beach below, flanked by their dogs.
Back home he wheeled to the dentist in Copley Square, where a cocker spaniel named Windsor climbed into his lap. The next thing he knew, Dr. Geoffrey Davis was raving about a place called Shultz’s Guest House, a nonprofit that rescues dogs from Southern kill shelters and fosters them on an idyllic Charles River estate. Schwartz scratched Windsor and let his mind wander. At home, he began studying the Shultz’s website with longing.
He had barely stood on his new leg when he declared a few weeks later that he would rejoin his design and architecture practice by September — and rescue a dog, too. His wife thought he was dreaming; his physical therapist reminded him how often he’d have to bend down to pick up after a dog, something he’d yet to master on a prosthetic leg.
“I understand,” he said. “But mark my words.”
* * *
He seemed to be willing himself all the way there, doing so well that they stopped his seizure meds in late July. Three days later he was standing at the CVS pharmacy counter when his speech started to slur. “I’m having a seizure,” he said. He keeled over, breaking his right hip.
Waking in the hospital after emergency hip replacement, he worried his timeline would be dashed. But he healed remarkably fast — talking his way home from a two-week return stay at Spaulding Rehab in just seven days — and by Labor Day could walk more than a mile with a cane.
So Schwartz and Moss went to Shultz’s in Dedham — to feel it out, they agreed, no pressure to take home a dog. One by one, they played with three puppies, but the chemistry wasn’t right, or they were too rambunctious for an amputee with an artificial hip.
“Wait,” Schwartz said, thinking about a dog he had seen on the website, a doe-eyed hound with an expression fragile and sweet. “Is Mandy here?”
They brought her out; his heart fluttered — that speckled white coat, those black-lined eyes like a silent-film star. Mandy was shy around new people, afraid of most men, but she warmed to him immediately. He tried walking her and she followed his lead, not pulling even once. He scratched her head and ears and massaged her gums; she calmly let him do as he pleased.
“She knew I was different,” he said. “She had a sixth sense.”
He and Moss were in tears — “blubbering idiots,” he recalled — and took Mandy home that day. Then Schwartz brought her over to his neighborhood vet, where they knew how he adored Buddy; the doctor and tech crouched down on the floor for the exam, putting Mandy at ease. When Schwartz pulled out his wallet afterward, they told him it was free.
* * *
A month later, he calls her “Mandalay” and “the Mandster” and “Mandy Moss,” giving her his wife’s last name.
Schwartz sang a capella at Brown University, and on a recent walk down the Esplanade he narrated for Mandy in a sing-song about overpasses and goose droppings and good-looking sticks. Though he used to rattle off 16-minute miles with Buddy, he moved alongside Mandy at a gingerly pace, cane in one hand, leash and treat bag in the other.
He spoke of wanting to live with purpose and said he is not interested in seeing the crash video or dwelling on the accident. He has some hard days. But his life is full, and he wishes the bus driver — Susan Dunn, who faces criminal charges of negligent operation and crosswalk violation — nothing but peace.
“I am more interested,” he said, “in getting on with my life.”
And then his voice grew quiet. He described the last weekend in September, when they took Mandy to their cottage in Maine. Together they walked down to the tide pools where Buddy loved to splash and play, carrying the box with his remains; they kissed it, and Mandy was silent and still. When Buddy’s ashes hit the water, Schwartz saw Mandy’s tail start to wag.