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A DOG, A RESCUE, TRUE DEVOTION

Even when Mina Rest lost her dog after Katrina, it turned out for the best.
Published Sep. 7, 2009|Updated Sep. 8, 2009

She slept while Hurricane Katrina devastated the only city she had ever known. As she had for seven decades, she slept alone.

Mina Rest never married, never had children. She was an only child, her parents long gone. But a Yorkie named Penny took the place of family. The spunky little creature claimed all the woman's love.

Four years ago in August, Mina awoke on the second story of a flooded New Orleans apartment building, with no air conditioning in the heat of summer, no television window to the hell outside. Just Penny.

Soon, a man knocked on the door.

"Yes, sir, can I help you?"

The man told her it was time to evacuate.

"No, I'm not going anywhere."

He lifted her out of bed and carried her downstairs and put her in a van. The van took her across the street to a park and a helicopter lifted her up and out of her neighborhood and to a busy airport. The military cargo plane landed in Tampa. She found herself in a new bed, at Tampa General Hospital.

This time, she was really alone.

Penny had to stay behind.

- - -

Jack Novoselski, a 64-year-old retiree who runs Tampa Bay Beagle Rescue, left his Carrollwood home for a busy animal shelter in Mississippi.

That's where he got the call.

The landlady of a flooded New Orleans apartment complex had a Yorkie that belonged to an elderly woman evacuated to Tampa. Nurses at the hospital said the woman wouldn't eat, only cried and talked and talked about the dog she had to leave.

Jack promised to take the dog with him to Tampa. He drove three hours through debris to arrive at an abandoned apartment complex, but an armed guard with a pump action shotgun just stared when Jack told him why he was there.

"There ain't no dog here, pal."

Eventually, Jack connected with the landlady, now staying across the river. Holding Penny in his arms, he made a call.

"Miss Rest? This is Jack ..."

- - -

Of the dozens of places she could have wound up, Mina had landed in Tampa. And of the hundreds of rescue groups in New Orleans, the landlady had called Jack's. This is where the real story begins - one of luck, or divine providence. One of finding your way home.

Because he had so many dogs to transport back in Florida, Jack had to give Penny to Mina's nurse. But a week later, he and his wife, Dee, made a trip up to the New Port Richey home where she had been placed to visit them both.

They walked in and saw a woman in her 70s, wearing her hair straight and long, as she must have half a century ago. Her skin was porcelain smooth, her accent Southern and proper. She held Penny, and smiled.

"I just never thought I would see my Penny again," she kept saying.

They were charmed.

When Thanksgiving came, the couple invited Mina. But something was different this time when they picked her up. The nurse assigned to Mina had been transferred.

Every Sunday, the couple took Mina out for lunch. But they became increasingly alarmed at her living situation. She lived in one of five bedrooms connected to a shared kitchen and common area. Her roommates were not like her. They were young and rowdy and liked to drink. She was growing confused. She gave them cash to get her food. Sometimes, she didn't get change.

Jack flew back to New Orleans to see what her old neighborhood looked like. The restaurant was closed. The store was, too. Jack couldn't imagine Mina living there - not soon, probably not ever. He had to tell her. When he did, she cried.

In February, he drove back to New Orleans, picked up all her furniture, drove back to Florida and set it up for her in an assisted living facility in Lutz. Then, he came to see her.

"All right, Mina, we're going."

"No, not today," she said, politely. "I don't think I'll be leaving today."

"Okay," Jack said. And he scooped her up in his arms and walked out the door.

- - -

Three years later, Mina was 81 and her heart was weak. She suffered from scary falls and anemia and couldn't find the bathroom on time. Eventually, she couldn't get out of bed. She didn't want to go to a hospital, she said. Not without Penny.

"I want to die right here," she told Jack, "with the sun shining on my face."

Jack contacted LifePath Hospice, which sent her 24-hour nurses on her worst days. Mina loved the company.

Jack visited often.

"You just can't kill a bad weed," Mina told him as he sat at her bedside. The end was near. He teased her, telling her which days she couldn't die. He had to watch a baseball game, he told her. It would be inconvenient. She smiled.

"You're my best friend," she always told him.

He always replied, "Any friend of Penny's is a friend of mine."

The sun shone on her face that afternoon in July. He held her hand. Penny lay across her feet.

- - -

Penny now lives with Jack and Dee and a couple of beagles in their Carrollwood home. But there is one last journey in this story.

When Jack received Mina's ashes, he thought of how she never got to return to New Orleans. They researched her family and found the cemetery where her mother's ashes are kept. A slot happened to be available just one space away.

Jack and his wife were already planning an anniversary trip there in August. They decided they would bring Mina along.

They found a priest and called one of Mina's old friends, and two weeks ago, among the sun-bleached tombs and historic family crypts of New Orleans, they returned her home.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.