NEW PORT RICHEY — Tom Dobies dreaded this day.
He had comforted thousands of grieving families in 34 years as a mortician, but nothing could ease the burning in his throat Monday as the doctor arrived at his house.
Dobies had done everything to keep Lucy alive after the brain tumor. He had spent thousands of dollars on sophisticated medical procedures. For a man so familiar with the death business, he pledged to cheat it, to keep Lucy by his side as long as possible, as long as she wasn't suffering.
Friends wondered why he would spend so much money trying to hold onto a 14-year-old dog, a mixed-breed Labrador. His answer: "I love her.'' But it went even deeper.
Lucy had wandered into the carport at Dobies' funeral home in Holiday four years earlier, seeking shelter from a storm. She had been cold and wet and lost, and she met a man who had no interest in animals, a man who would be plenty happy never owning a pet.
"I guess you could say I was lost, too,'' said Dobies, 59.
Something happened when he took a few minutes to pet the stray. He still can't explain it, but the dog was so gentle as she licked his hand. He took her home, gave her a bath. He named her Lucy.
One day he took her to work. He stopped to meet with a family planning a funeral, and Lucy made them feel better. Children hugged her. Dobies had built one of the most successful funeral home businesses in the Tampa Bay area, and he knew immediately that he had something special. He gave Lucy a tag for her collar: Grief Therapy Dog.
He made Lucy a local celebrity, putting her picture on giant billboards along major highways.
Meanwhile, the man who wanted nothing to do with dogs started carrying treats in his car to lure strays so he could find them a home. He gave thousands of dollars to the SPCA and Humane Society. He bought German shepherds for area police departments. He even picked up dead dogs, took them to his funeral home and tried to find their owners.
"Lucy changed me,'' he said. "I didn't think it was possible.''
This week, Lucy's hind legs stopped working. Dobies and his fiancee, Pam Montana, carried her outside so she could do her business, but they knew. They gathered family and called the veterinarian, Dr. Caroline McCashion. Dobies held Lucy in his arms as the doctor inserted the needle.
"It was so peaceful,'' Dobies said.
He called the newspaper to place a large ad, announcing Lucy's passing. He set out to do what he knows best: plan a funeral.
He lined up an Episcopal priest and a Baptist minister and former Pasco County Sheriff Bob White to speak. He placed Lucy in a Grecian solid bronze casket. He printed memorial cards with a picture of Lucy and a prayer for animals. He shopped for flowers.
He delivered the casket to his funeral home in Holiday. As the storm began, he pulled beneath the carport for shelter.