Since last fall Estelle T. Burnham has had a new friend, a companion in hard times. Confined to a wheelchair, Ms. Burnham, 64, of Edgartown spends her day with a dog.
His name is Braun, and this one-and-a-half-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever offers her attention and care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Though Ms. Burnham has cancer and the prognosis isn't good, she considers herself among the Island's luckiest people.
Her loyal friend can make her laugh. He is sharp and pays close attention to whatever Estelle is doing.
Braun can answer the telephone when it rings, turn the lights on in a darkened room and fetch what falls out of Ms. Burnham's reach.
Braun is trained to help her get dressed in the morning and undressed at night. Sometimes it is just that little bit of help, like holding a sleeve or pulling on a sock, that can make a world of difference in Ms. Burnham's efforts to remain independent.
Braun is ready for just about any difficulty. At other times, the two are just having a good time together.
He is far more than a seeing eye dog. Capable of responding to 75 obedience commands and words, he is smart enough to call Life Line if needed.
Ms. Burnham says Braun is even learning how to do something totally counterintuitive for most dogs: Put trash into a wastebasket.
Ms. Burnham rolls her wheelchair back and forth repeatedly while she talks. Braun's attentive brown eyes watch her. When a telephone rings in another room, she tells him to fetch it.
Ms. Burnham is fighting breast cancer. Her first operation was in 1997. Prior to the disease, she was an emergency medical technician and worked for a spell with the Edgartown police department, helping with rape investigations. Later she took care of terminally ill patients as a nursing assistant with Martha's Vineyard Community Services' Visiting Nurse Service.
She rode a motorcycle and horses and she recalls fondly meeting James Cagney at Tashmoo Farm, when she worked there as a ring master at a horse show.
Throughout her life she took care of animals in need, both homeless and ill, and she has adopted more than her share of cats. Not far from her home, she sold eggs on the Herring Creek Road.
"I had sheep, goats and birds of all kinds. I had a parrot. I had a little gentleman's farm," she remembers.
"The hardest thing for me to do was to turn in my driver's license and my EMT card," Ms. Burnham says, adjusting her glasses to wipe away a tear.
Cancer has taken much from her. But with Braun around, the disease hasn't taken away her ability to love or be loved.
The two met last fall, through a widespread effort of many Islanders. They met at the National Education for Assistance Dog Services (NEADS), a dog training facility in Princeton, a small town in central Massachusetts.
They went to school together and their graduation was on Halloween day. Ever since, they have been inseparable. They even shop together. Three times a week, they go to The Anchors, the Edgartown Council on Aging.
Back home, every item she needs is located no higher than four feet off the floor. It is a crowded house, but there is order to where items are placed. Friends and family visit often, and Ms. Burnham also takes care of her mother, Lena Honig, 91, who lives in a small house next door.
"I know so many people who have helped me out. I am truly blessed," she says.
Braun may be young, but he has his own story, too. He spent his first year living in two different prisons.
At 16 weeks, the puppy was cared for by an inmate at North Central Correctional Institution in Gardner. When that prisoner was paroled, Braun was transferred to MCI Plymouth in Carver where a second inmate finished his puppy training.
"We need foster families. Those in prison have a lot of time," says Sheila O'Brien, executive director of NEADS.
Raising a puppy properly requires lots of human touch, especially if it will be in the service of others. It is a perfect relationship, Ms. O'Brien says. The puppy helps with the rehabilitation of the inmates while also getting close attention.
Last summer Braun was brought into the NEADS training school, where he began class.
The nationally known school trains dogs for the deaf and physically disabled, and the list of 85 people waiting for a canine companion from NEADS stretches out across the country.
Braun has two distinct personalities. When he is wearing his red service cape, he is all business. Without the cape, he is as playful as a puppy.
"You can't touch him when he is wearing his cape," Ms. Burnham says. They train the dogs to have a formal manner when they're working. Petting the dog is an unwanted distraction.
Braun often looks at Estelle for approval or a signal.
"Braun knows the time," Ms. Burnham says. He knows just when to get up in the morning, at 7 a.m., without the use of a clock.
"It is awesome how he can tell time," says Ms. Burnham, who sleeps in a hospital bed stationed in an open room by the kitchen. "He wakes me up by licking my hand."
Braun knows when to eat, when it is time for dinner and when it is time for bed.
"He will sit by the side of the bed with his bowl hanging from his mouth and that means it is time to eat," she says.
Other times, he rolls onto his back to treat himself to a scratching. "He puts his legs up in the air."
When he is out in public, he often wears a red saddlebag, his work attire.
On Wednesday of this week, Ms. Burnham and Braun went to The Anchors.
"You know the people there love Braun. They all want so much to pet him but know they shouldn't. People beam when they see him," she says.
Among Braun's vocabulary, the word nudge is a top one. Ms. Burnham explains that nudge means moving something with his snout. With his nose, he can turn a wall light switch on or off. He also can tug to open a door.
When Ms. Burnham says thank you, Braun lets go of whatever he is holding.
"Braun has enriched my life," she says.
Ms. Burnham still cares for three cats. Obe is a deaf yellow cat, and then there's Tap Tap, a tiger striped 9/11 cat.
"What is a 9/11 cat?" she repeats. "Oh, Tap Tap lost its owner from the World Trade Center."
Miss Kitty, part Siamese, rounds out the feline trio.
A New Englander who prefers to be stoic, she feels awkward talking about her illness, about the excruciating pain of a disease that is now inoperable.
"I can't tell you how much pain I feel. I always try to keep it out of conversations with my friends," she says.
Instead, she focuses on the positive. She is hopeful about Braun's future. When she is gone, he may find a new job, bringing help and cheer to another disabled person on the wait list.
Most service dogs work until they are 12 years old, she says. Her family has also expressed interest in keeping the dog.
"Oh, everyone loves Braun."
As for herself, Ms. Burnham isn't complaining: "I can't help but think that my friends are saying: ‘Oh, she is a tough old broad.' "