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Rich: Sparkle leaves a warmth in heart

POSTED: May 31, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A friend e-mailed to remind me of something I had long forgotten.

"I still owe you a theater date," he wrote, referring to that time in New York City when business had delayed him and he had flown in too late for the Broadway play.

That began a back and forth of "do you remember," as one memory dovetailed beautifully into another about that trip.

"Remember shopping in Bloomingdale's? How much we laughed?" he asked. "We were doubled over."

And I laughed again recalling the joyous laughter of that glorious autumn afternoon. No place have I ever found that is lovelier or more exhilarating than New York on a perfect late September day when the sky is a vivid, humid-free blue and a light breeze drifts lazily between the tall buildings and tickles one's spirits.

Something else happened that magical day, a moment that would lead me to one of the strongest lessons that life has taught me. We had strolled down Fifth Avenue in the pleasantness of the mild day, chatting and giggling merrily.

We crossed the street in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral and that's when we saw him. Salt and pepper hair and beard, skin tanned deeply and badly weathered from however many years he had spent living on the streets of America's toughest city. In front of Saks, he had spread a blanket to panhandle from those who scurried by with barely a glance.

There on the raggedy, dirty cloth sat the most atrocious looking dog imaginable. She had the head of a German shepherd and the body of a collie, a mystical creation that looked like two dogs sewn together. Warily, her pale blue eyes watched each passer-by. In front of her was a rough, handmade sign that warned, "Please do not pet my dog, Sparkle. I rescued her from being a fighting dog and she is scared."

Our laughter halted and we approached the homeless man. His name was Billy, he said, and proudly explained how he had rescued Sparkle and became her protector.

"It's amazing how much you can love a dog, isn't it?" I asked. "I have one named Highway. I'd be lost without her."

Billy drew back his shoulders and, despite a couple of missing teeth, smiled beatifically. Pure light radiated from his face. "Oh, she's my absolute joy!" he declared emphatically. "She's my whole heart. I don't know what I'd do without her."

We handed him money and walked away, talking long into the night of how one hapless soul had miraculously saved another. Three months later, I flew to New York for a lunch meeting on a brutally cold day. It was 10 degrees with cruel winds.

"Saks Fifth Avenue," I instructed the driver.

When the cab pulled up, I saw Billy and his friend, Lauren, setting up shop for the day. On the same raggedy blanket, covered in every piece of clothing that her master could find, was Sparkle.

"Billy!" I called, hurrying toward them. "I've come to check on y'all."

As the hateful wind stirred a stinging in our eyes, we discussed their situation and the money needed to board Sparkle during the bitter cold. With that resolved, I spoke softly.

"Remember my dog, Highway? How much I loved her?" He smiled and nodded. My voice quivering and tears spilling over, I continued. "She died suddenly last month. My heart is broken."

Then came that unforgettable moment. As I crumbled into a sob, they gathered me into their arms to comfort me. We were three people thought to be divided by class, but the commonality of the vulnerable human spirit united us. What a powerful awakening. Well-clothed and blessed in life, I was comforted by two who weren't. The heart, I realized, knows not class or status. It knows only love and need.

Yes, I'd long forgotten the cancelled theater plans. But Billy and Sparkle? I shall never forget them.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter.



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