Towed

Lilly and foot

I am trolling through “Documents” on my laptop looking for things to kill. The electronic responsible for holding all my crap has been moaning with the weight of several years’ worth of paperwork. It needs a cleanse.

“Make-up letter to ex-boyfriend.” Delete. “Break up letter to ex-boyfriend. “ Delete. Why not just delete the whole boyfriend file? I should make a few templates first…

“Hospice.” Click. I open a few docs about my schedule… delete delete… medical tests… delete… then find one listing several patients at Morningside House who might enjoy a dog visit. I’d forgotten I had this. These were patients staying in the dementia ward. So, you figure they’re in a hospice facility with dementia-they’re pretty far along in forgetting. One name caught my eye: Samuel Brickton. So THAT was his name.

Lillian and I make the run to Morningside House about once per month now. We see Sam every time. He is younger than most, probably late 50’s. Someone said he used to be a firefighter. He is always in the same corner of the common area, in the same chair- strapped in so he won’t slide out. We always approach him but we’re never certain if he likes us. He can only chatter in nonsensical syllables, coming faster as we get closer. He reaches out to pet Lilly but then flails. Is he waving us closer or shooing us away? He struggles to control his movements. He wants to tell us what to do, but his thoughts are trapped in jabber. I need to be rescued. Lillian, convinced everyone loves her, is not deterred. Sometimes she’ll plop her head on the tray attached to the chair and I’ll guide his hand toward her. More syllables. I wished I’d had a clue.

And here, in my own computer was one. The document explained his condition was two-fold- an ALS-type of palsy along with a fatal form of dementia. I hoped the Internet would reveal something I could ask about – like his former job or family- to trigger a clear response.

Like all good researchers, I typed his name into Google.

And there it was. His obituary.

He had died just a few days after our last visit. And we were due to go back in three days.

Lillian is a beautiful girl, particularly when she’s just had a bath. We strode up the sidewalk toward Morningside House where several residents sat outside. They ooo’d and aaah’d.   They’d had veggie lasagna for dinner and Lilly was happy to clean up the dribbles. We are getting to know a few of the chattier patients- especially the real dog lovers. They are inflating Lillian’s already substantial ego.

One of my favorites is a woman I call “Brooklyn” because she’s always reading the New York Post. I tell her my fantasy job is New York Post headline writer. She says, “Yeah they’re always trying to be SMAAAAAAAHT.” They are mostly women, giving the men celebrity status. One man travels with a fanny pack attached to his walker. Lilly and I are pretty sure there are treats in there. Or maybe pot. Or condoms.

We negotiate the automatic doors and head for the elevator. I punch in the code to get into the dementia ward. I think well, that’s one pin that doesn’t have to change.

The first thing I see is the glitter eye shadow. Stacey the ward nurse pops up and hugs Lillian. Lilly believes she is born to be worshiped. Probably, she was.

“I just LOVE her,” Stacey crows. And she leads us, her long curly hair, black from the roots to her shoulders, then red down the rest of her back, swings with her step. She is the shiny bubble that bursts into a cartoon fairy. A loud fairy. She yells out each patient’s name, trying to break through their oblivion.

“MARY! MAAAARY!” Mary doesn’t seem to see us, so Stacey takes her hand and puts it on Lilly’s nose. Mary giggles.

Another woman tries in many inverted parts of words to explain why she does not want to pet the dog.

Stacey bends over and yells directly into another white-haired wheel-chaired woman’s brain, “IRENE, DO YOU WANT TO SEE THE DOG?” Irene babbles something then gets a load of Lilly. “Oooooooh!” Babble, babble… then clear as a bell, “I want to ADMIRE her!” We want to admire Irene and her long Irish nose and sparse grin.

We come back down the hallway, and I look toward the corner. The chair and tray are folded and turned backwards against the wall. Lilly doesn’t really notice. But I feel it in my marrow.

She tows me toward the elevator. The second floor crowd will be comparatively rowdy. There is more life to kiss.

My Captive Audience

Terese
Photo: Gregory Gadson

Well. I never thought I’d be doing this.

I am not cuddling a cat, sewing my own clothes, or kissing a girl.

I am standing in line at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp for women, waiting to be frisked.

I am going to visit my friend.

It is Mother’s Day.

The sun has been rising over the asphalt for more than two hours.  Every once in a while a guard yells out instructions. Have your ID ready.  No chewing gum.  Carry only your car key. And you know that lady yells that stuff 3,276 times per weekend.

“Did you fill out the form?” a helpful prison mom asked me.

“I didn’t know there was another form,” I answered, form-weary.

I checked the final set of boxes.  No, I was not carrying a firearm. No, I was not a felon. Yes, I was acquainted with the prisoner before her incarceration.  This was not a blooming Internet romance.

“Once you are through that first set of fences, be sure you stand ten feet away from everyone else in line,” a pleasant Midwestern couple advised.

I would be more alone.  This made me happy.

Not that the line was all that salty. It was a surprisingly put-together crowd. There were mothers visiting their daughters. Daughters visiting moms. Dads brought little girls with fancy store-bought hairdos.   Each of their females wore beige, not orange.  Each of their females was at her bunk, waiting for the phone to ring. Each of their females could be greeted with one regulation hug.  None of their females had done it.

Having finally reached the point of pat-down, I was told to pat my own ass.  It seemed a lot like checking my own box.  Do-it-yourself security.

I patted, signed something else, then waited.

It was only about ten minutes before my friend emerged.  She looked good.  No, great.  Really, really great.  We regulation hug.  I think “prison becomes you,” but I don’t say it. She calls prison “mean fat camp,” but Jillian Michaels wouldn’t have lasted a day in here.  My friend is down more than 30 pounds.  We rush the vending machines, which will provide our only source of sustenance for our time together.  I think of all the big, fat Greek meals she’s cooked.  I think of the pea soup, and what have you that she would leave outside my door.  We futz about looking for two empty chairs.

We sit, and it’s loud and we are literally and figuratively guarded in these close quarters. Everyone is extremely polite, including me.  I’m puzzled until I realize it’s just not a crowd where you want to push the envelope. The question wouldn’t be on the form if no one ever tried to pack in here.

After an hour she has to go into another room for a head count. In case I had hidden a firearm in my self –patted ass pocket and had quietly busted her out.  Would I be in more trouble for helping an inmate escape…or lying on the form.

Now we are permitted to go outside. We find a bench in the sun, and sit, snacking. And then the noise, the people, the fence all fade. We are in her living room, in our shared Adams Morgan apartment building, where I’d spent countless hours, over many years, gossiping, drinking wine, she cooking, me eating. We have a lot of catching up to do.

She tells me she has opted to stay in the transitional unit so she gets different roommates frequently.  The last one had a perfect blonde bob.  Until she turned her head. The other half of her skull was shaved and covered in tattoos.  A half-cap. All Wisteria Lane on one side, Jack’s biker bar on the other.

I remember that she hates beige.

She tells me her brother sent her a book called “Eight Minute Meditations.”  The thing about prison that bothers her the most (besides the being locked up part) is the noise.  She says there is always someone yelling. She seeks the quietest corner she can find and remembers her serenity mantra, “ShutTheFuckUpShutTheFuckUpShutTheFuckUp.”  She says it works.

I worry out loud about her occasional temper.

She says she only got angry with another prisoner once.  The woman was trying to explain to her that those incarcerated for participating in the drug trade lived by higher standards and morals than those white collar criminals who’d pocketed other people’s cash.  Because buying and selling lethal street drugs is an honest business, no matter how many people wind up dead. This. Got under her skin.

We discuss her childhood friend whom I’d dated, her family, my family, her husband and her 10-year-old daughter.

I do not want to bring up the obvious comparisons to the popular television series. But she does. Because the Russian character, Red, is based on a former Alderson inmate, who is not actually Russian, but Greek.   So when the woman violated her parole and was sent back to Alderson my friend sat with her at lunch one day. And she leaned over and spoke to the woman in Greek.  And there in the lunch room of the women’s prison, together, they sang a little Greek song.

She tells me about the corruption.  She talks about abuses of power and green, watery sandwiches on Thanksgiving. I avoid topics like cool cocktails and good food. We try to remember how long it had been since I moved out of Adams Morgan. We talk about when she will leave “camp.”

I look at my feet which are red and puffy. It’s hot and the vending machines are out of water. We decide to go in and check the time.  Visiting hours end at 3pm and I figure it’s about noon.

But it’s a few minutes ‘til 3:00.  We had talked for six hours straight.

As of today, there are 27 bottles of beer left on the wall.  That’s how she’s counting. And she knows she’s now a short-timer as fellow inmates are asking her for her stuff.  So far she has given away yoga pants because they are too hot and a bra, because it is too big. Weight loss for women is universally unfair.

I don’t even really understand, much less care, what my friend did or didn’t do, to get herself admitted to mean fat camp. It was a white collar crime.  A white collar mistake.  A white collar disaster.

And now, there is less than a month of e-mailing left.  She will come back into the world and I pray, pick up where she left off.

The irony with us is that while she’s been in prison we’ve been much more in touch.  We’ve been great pen pals. We writers like a captive audience.  And soon, she will no longer be that. And that part of prison, I will miss.

Taking a Swipe

Tinder

Yesterday, I reached the end of Tinder.

I logged on and the orange circular ripples which graphically emanate from your photo (Are those supposed to be pheromones?) smacked into no one.  It’s not that they didn’t attract anyone. It’s that no one was there.  I know this because once my aura stopped out-putting, my phone told me, “There’s no one new near you.”

I needed an app to tell me that.

Tinder is- I’m told- a “hook-up” dating app but my single friend, Tina, who uses it and who talked me into the daring download, has met one or two nice people to date, rather than escort.  It works like sonar, dredging up faces from the depths of God knows where, and puts them onto your phone. It tells you how far away they are, in miles, from you.  It does not provide an ETA nor does it scan for wives and girlfriends.  If you do not like the face, you swipe left. If you do like the face you swipe right. If the person you swiped handsome has also swiped you pretty then your phone makes a noise (Do not do this in a theater.) and a fancy “match” graphic appears.  “It’s like you won at the slot machine!” says Tina. But no money comes out.

Once, in a frenzied series of left swipes, I got a glance at a kind and cute face (he was probably holding a dog) but my hand failed my brain. I am now “matched” with a fat, hairy 61- year- old in a hot tub. There is no un-swiping, or de-swiping. I showed The Tinder to my friend, Jon. I made the mistake of letting go of my phone. Now I am matched with a man-and his geese. I said geese.

I have a girlfriend who is currently incarcerated.  I wrote and told her about Tinder. Even she thinks it’s preposterous and she’s doing time.

Generally, I have not had good luck on dating sites. One very charming fellow I met on “Zoosk” wound up in jail. Another, a doctor, told me I was too smart for him. Yet another CIA type canceled three dates in a row. Not willing to be whisked away on a flight to Syria, I canceled the fourth.

I’m not sure if I need an IT department, or help with my personal grooming.

I am aware my lack of Tinder loving care makes me sound like an old lady and I am an old lady for this particular genre.  I have tried “Our Time” upon which I am a spring chicken and therefore, practically consumable by the over-seventy crowd.   I tried E-Harmony and after answering two hours- worth of  what-color-is-your-parachute questions, it chugged away for a moment before finally admitting, there simply was no match for me.  Like most of my electronics, I am incompatible.

Tinder is clearly for a hipper crowd than mine.  I need more than a swooshing slide-by to peak my interest.  And clearly the depth of my charm is simply not fathomable online.  Tinder, I left-swipe thee and all that you emanate. It’s not you, it’s me. Wait, no, it’s you.  But I hope we can remain friends.

Exposed

We’re sitting and talking and laughing over lunch, like usual.

Greg pulls out his camera and starts clicking.  Like usual.

I squirm a little. There’s a reason my work has always kept me behind the camera.  He leans across the table and gets close to my face.

“Greg!  All my wrinkles!”

Colonel Greg Gadson is a double amputee.  I didn’t know him in The Before. I met him early in his rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  Over the past eight years we’ve become great friends. He’s become an impressive photographer.  I wrote a book about him.  So he’s told me a lot of stories.

One he told me was about humility.  He was walking on his canes and prosthetic  legs in Alexandria, Virginia on one of those cobblestone roads.  He fell, pretty much ass over tea kettle, his canes and legs all Pinocchio’d everywhere.  He tore the back of his pants. As he struggled to get up, two elderly ladies approached.  He felt helpless and exposed. He was, after all, a Colonel in the United States Army.  He’d been a bad ass.  He let them help reassemble and get back on his feet.  What else was he going to do?

Greg chatted with the waitress who brought us some wine.  I might relax with that darned lens.

We left and I walked with him to his truck. Standing at the window, saying goodbye, there was the camera again.  Very close.

“Greg, most women would complain you could see their pores.  But mine have been swallowed by wrinkles!”

“Your wrinkles don’t define you.”

He laughed.

“Do my legs define who I am?”

Of course not.

“Your wrinkles don’t define who you are.”

I was exposed.

He is still a bad ass.                                                                               IMG_6443

The “No” Room

20150321_122003

“Laugh Louder”

Huh. This was today’s message in the little flip book my friend, Jenn, gave to me. The book has one positive encouragement written per page, so it sits on my window sill above the kitchen sink and each morning I flip it. Today’s suggestion seemed off.

Well, it’s just a book.

I settled into my days’ work: looking for work. Unemployment is a full time job.

I sent off a proposal I’d been working on all week. There were more emails and unanswered queries. Soon it was time for Lillian, Delilah and my daily “off-leash.” Today we went to the little beach in our neighborhood where we ran into our neighbors and their very well-behaved dog, Sampson, who was on his leash.

Maybe it’s a form of dog bullying. Lillian and Delilah set about demonstrating their comparable freedom.

“Lillian DROP IT.”

Chew.

“Lilly DROP THAT!”

Defiant head toss. More chewing.

I’d identified the object as a small turtle carcass.

“LLLLILLIANNNNN DRRRROP IT!”

Swallow.

UK.

Delilah wagged her on.

Lillian then bounded across the street, into a yard, and began peering into the front windows, taunting what sounded like one of those small, hairy dogs inside.

“Lilly come.”

She ran to the rear window.

“Lillian! COME.”

It felt like shotgun territory.

“LILLIIAAAAN COHUUUM!!” I pleaded, following her, armed only with cheese.

I was not laughing louder. I was yelling louder.

Sampson was nonplussed. If Delilah had pom-poms, she’d have been shaking them. I’m pretty sure she mouthed the words, “You go girl.”

Lillian skipped back out to the front yard and bounded toward the beach where her sister was now swimming. Delilah then rolled in the sand. Lilly pounced her approval.

I finally herded my naughty, dirty crew into the car and we headed home for baths, and perhaps a swig of Listerine. It was Hospice night and I worried that Lillian was in much too brazen a mood to visit.

Clean and dry we arrived at Hospice and I clutched Lilly’s leash. Earlier, on the phone, my mother had advised that I give her a “good talkin’ to.”

“Alright young lady,” I started…

She sat, angelic and wide-eyed. Then I walked. And she walked alongside. Like a ballerina. She knew it was time to stop screwing around. Well, mostly. She greeted the chaplain with a nose-up-the-skirt. The back of her skirt. Luckily, dog is occasionally this chaplain’s co-pilot.

“Room number one will definitely want to see her,” said the nurse. “And room four will too. They like dogs. Room two is a no.”

We chatted for a while in room one with a woman who used to have a Boston Terrier, and another woman in four, who’d owned every sort of dog ever bred. Lilly was oooh’d and aaaah’d over like a pageant dog. She kissed and cajoled and – well- she just really enjoyed herself. She is beginning to love this work as much as I do, I thought.

We were wrapping things up when I heard singing, just one woman’s voice. I looked into the “no” room and saw the chaplain singing hymns to a woman in bed. The sick woman’s husband sat, entranced. His wife was slipping away.

“There’s a dog,” he said.

“Would you like to see Lillian?” the chaplain asked.

We went in, stepping gingerly. We may not have “drop it” down entirely, but we do understand “no.” At least my part of us does.

The woman’s eyes were closed. Lilly nosed her knuckles. The woman, who’d been unresponsive, moved her hand around as if to pet her. I marveled at the power of the pooch.

“Do you like dogs?” I asked the husband.

“I LOVE dogs!” he rather yelled. He was hard of hearing. Lilly went in for a full frontal face cleaning. He began to giggle. She crawled up his lap and loved on his whole head. The man threw his head back, howling with laughter. She put her paws on his shoulders. He leaned back in his chair and guffawed.

His daughter walked into the room, smiled at us, and put her hand on her mother’s head.

“Did you make my daddy happy?” she called to Lilly.

Her daddy was still laughing. Louder.

In Like a Lion…

I wonder when my dogs will just get sick of me. In exasperation, they will throw their front paws up in the air, tie up little knapsacks full of treats and toys and stomp out the front door. They will do this because over the past few weeks I have become a doter. I may quite possibly have become – ready? Co-dependent.

I lotion their dry winter skin. I move furniture so they might comfortably lie where the sun throws patterns on the floor. I talk with them about politics and religion. I frequently kiss them all over their heads. I meddle.

Three weeks ago I lost my job. Abruptly.

Sometimes they are the only people I speak with all day.

Our routine has taken a hairpin turn. Oh, I still get up at some ungodly hour – it’s genetic. But now instead of shooing them downstairs before I rush out to the gym, I grab my laptop. This is their cue to stretch, abandon their beds for mine and re-curl, one at my feet and one at my side. I find it reduces my heat bill.

I shoot resumes about the Internet for a spell before then heading to the gym, then home to shower and move my laptop to the couch. Often, the girls and I exchange glances. I get a cold nose. They get an ear scratch. There are periodic cuddle breaks. Nearly every afternoon we have some sort of leash-less adventure. We discuss presidential candidates, (Their favorite is Rand Paw- clearly a name recognition thing.) and the relative nutritional value of deer pooh. We ponder relationships. Occasionally they ask why I’m always wearing sweatpants. Lilly rolls on her back and I scratch her belly. Delilah puts her head on the keyboard and I let her. I get tired of using it anyway.

There are occasional networking events. I think they are relieved that I am going out. In clothes that don’t have a drawstring.

We are adjoined at our uneven hips, communicating with our eyes, anticipating each other’s movements. We are three little beers left hanging in a plastic six pack holder.

I have not shed one tear over the loss of my job, but there have been some borne of simple anxiety. A few times I’ve let myself go to the darkest place: What if I can no longer take care of them? What if I had to turn them over to people who could afford them? That’s the crying part. That’s the heaving, sobbing pooh-storm. It upsets them. So I stop. And I feel ashamed that I cried about my dogs when most of my co-workers, who landed on the curb along -side me, have children. A few have children on the way. Some have children in college.

These are the dog days of March. In like a lion. Out like a Ridgeback chasing a lion. It will go quickly and we’ll be back on our paws in no time.

Meantime, I’ll dote. I’ll dog whisper and they’ll ignore me. I’ll put vitamins in their food and trim their nails and be their stay-at-home mom. They are brilliant company. I am annoying. We are a family.

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Morning work session

A Farewell Kiss

If you read this blog, you know that every two weeks Lillian and I have been visiting the Hospice of the Chesapeake’s Mandarin House.

I’m still new to these visits, so I’m a bit nervous when I ring the front door bell. “Hospice” suggests the folks there are getting ready to check out, right? But some of their patients get better and leave. You can never be sure which sort of exit you’re dealing with.

Stephen was clearly headed more toward heaven than the highway. He was young, but his disease had taken his ability to move from the neck down. He could only nod. He could not speak.

The staff told me he had his own therapy dog back home. We were certain he’d be happy to see Lillian.

What I struggle with is, how much Lillian. Lilly is 90 pounds of flopping, exuberant Rhodesian Ridgeback. She can be a lot. Since Stephen couldn’t speak I wasn’t sure how liberally my dog should be applied. We nosed our way into his room and Lilly sniffed around at his elbow.

“Would you like to say hello to my dog?” I asked.

Boy, could he nod.

Lilly put her paws on the side of the bed and stuck her nose in Stephen’s face. I stood ready to pull her back. But that’s when I saw what else Stephen could do . He could kiss back. He puckered his lips while Lilly launched into a full face soaking. She even got his ears. Stephen had the look of a man being baptized. Lilly was pretty proud of herself for finding such a willing mug. We hung around for a bit, then left to visit other patients but came back for some farewell smooching.

The average stay for patients at hospice is two weeks. It must have been the beginning of Stephen’s – because when we returned, he’d made his exit, definitely to heaven, where dogs… and men… have wings.

Dog and Man

It’s the summer of 2000, and I’m standing in the galley kitchen of my one bedroom apartment in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, explaining to my parents on the phone that I was about to be a mother.

To a puppy.  A Rhodesian Ridgeback.  Her name would be Loretta.

“You can barely take care of yourself!” my dad groused. “That’s just stupid!”

My dad’s reaction hurt.  I’d craved canine companionship for years, even sometimes imagining a dog by my side as I walked along Connecticut Avenue, or ran by the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial. Finally now, in my mid-thirties, and living in a dog- friendly building I could both afford and manage a new family member.

Loretta arrived and acted like a puppy and then a dog and we were besties. She was beautiful and ill-behaved and had a great sense of humor.

Dad didn’t say too much.

Then he got sick – the kind of sick that goes slowly.

He eventually got so sick I moved to Phoenix to help take care of him.  Loretta stayed in Washington with a friend.

All was well until she ate my friend’s chair.  A big over-stuffed chair. The separation had gotten to her and she’d over stayed her welcome. I flew to Washington, wrote a large check to cover the damage, then flew back to Phoenix, dog- in- crate.  Loretta and I settled in, me teleworking  at sunrise from the living room, with Loretta curled up at my feet.  Dad would get up every morning and slowly shuffle on his walker, oxygen tank attached, into the kitchen. And every morning Loretta would bark at him. She would run around the living room woofing like he was Charles Manson. I was mortified. I wondered if somehow she knew about the remark he’d made years ago, suggesting she was a bad idea.  More likely the walker and tank just freaked her out.

He tried to be nice to her. He gave her treats. We made him the designated feeder. Ridgebacks can hold a grudge.

Dad passed away in January of 2001.

I’ve wondered what his reaction was, up there in heaven, when I got two Ridgebacks. Because yes, that is crazy.

If you read this blog you know one of them, Lillian, is a therapy dog.  On our last visit to Hospice  we met a nice family who was very close to losing their dad. We went to his room and he laid there – his mouth forming a perfect “O” as he slept.  His daughter laid her phone near his ear – it was playing Frank Sinatra.  Lilly nosed around at his hand. Mostly she visited with the family.  She was a good distraction. They have been on my mind.

Dad had died in Hospice.

Last week some friends and I gathered with a medium.  Her name is Allyson and she connects with people in your life who’ve “crossed over”.  It was no shock when she announced my father had turned up.

“Hi Dad…miss you!” I called.  Allyson said he was asking me to slow down, to not “burn both ends of the candle” and to “stop and smell the roses.”

Ok I thought, thinking it was funny because I inherited his lousy olfactory skills.

Allyson told me a few other things.  My aunt was there. And Dad says Happy Christmas.

“And,” Allyson said, “He thinks your dogs are nice.”

He’s been watching.

dad and me

Going With Our Guts

“Ohhhhh. I don’t think so. Noooo. I just don’t think these dogs are cut out for that sort of thing,” said the breeder.

It’s early in 2011 and I’m on the phone explaining to the woman at South Fork Kennels, in Idaho, my intentions.

“Well, my hope is for both to be therapy dogs. I think people would really enjoy seeing Ridgebacks – they’re just so different from Labs or Goldens.”

“You mean they would visit – like go inside places like hospitals?” she asked.

“Well, yes, to cheer people up.”

“You’ve had a Ridgeback before, right?”

“Yep.”

“So you know what you’re dealing with.”

“Absolutely.”

I hung up. And then, I began to doubt my gut.

My friend Claire and I picked the girls up at BWI’s Cargo area, late on a January evening. We walked into a back room where they were sound asleep in their travel crate, all woven together, so it was hard to tell one from the other. Even the loading dock crew was smitten. They were beautiful. They were made to be shared.

So we went to school. First we attended PETCO’s basic, four-week training for puppies, where we practiced heeling and sits and stays, all the while surrounded by bags of dog food, treats and toys. We did more than one Kramer-like slide into a well-stocked barrel of pig’s ears. Sometimes store customers would gather to watch. Once a guy yelled out to me, “You got TWO Ridgebacks? You’re crazy! We had one – you know they won’t go outside in the rain!”

“Yes, I know. Luckily they have big bladders.”

“And ours learned how to open our kitchen cabinets!”

“No one ever called ‘em stupid, ” I answered.

I went home, and pulled on all the knobs.

We continued our education in Davidsonville, Maryland, enrolling in the beginner AKC program. After six weeks, we graduated, Delilah first in the class. Lillian was third. Of three. Delilah gloated. I wondered if Lillian, being the more statuesque of the pair, wouldn’t be better to pursue a career as a super model. But even then, she would have to hold still.

We were then permitted to begin intermediate training where we work, still, mostly on our manners. We’ve attended actual therapy dog classes. We’ve taken therapy dog tests. We’ve approached random people in wheelchairs. We’ve goaded friends, neighbors and complete strangers into helping us train. We’ve been welcomed. We’ve been kicked out. We’ve been cheered on. We’ve been doubted. We’ve licked little ears and stepped on big toes. We’ve walked amongst hundreds of Annapolis tourists testing our skills with people, and spent countless hours at dog parks, testing our skills with other dogs.

I celebrated each success. I despaired at every misstep. I wondered how it might be that my sweet dogs who love people might not pass a test proving that they are sweet dogs who love people. I was told to train each dog alone, doubling my training time, and causing me to worry during Delilah’s hour, that Lillian might chew a hole in the roof. Then during Lillian’s hour I grew anxious over Delilah’s tendency, when left alone, to wail like she was being stabbed. I thought they might never stop devouring their own beds, and wondered how that trend might manifest in a health care setting. I pondered how many containers of applesauce would go missing before my dogs would be kicked out, and if Lillian-the-Gooser could resist an open hospital gown. I had no idea of their bed-side manner, except that they preferred to be bed-top.

Nearly three years, and many nay-saying conversations later, Lilly and I stood, exercised, bathed and ready to visit some folks at Hospice of the Chesapeake. (Delilah had opted out of the therapy thing. She seemed to rather play “Dawn” to Lillian’s “Tony Orlando.”) I was excited. Lilly is always excited. We drove to the inpatient care facility, and parked out front. It, of course, was a quiet place. We were not, generally, a quiet pair. We rang the bell and walked in, Lilly hoovering about. A nurse gestured, “Rooms 1, 2 and 3 will be okay.”

Our first patient, I’ll call “Ruthie”, was a woman who seemed to float in and out of reality. Maybe she wouldn’t notice if Lilly did a cartwheel or whatever. This woman was a holler-er.

“I used to have a dooooooowwwwg!” she hollered.

“What kind of dog?” I asked.

“My huuuuuuuuusband’s dooooooooooowgs!”

I stood back, wondering if Lilly would be upset by the hollering.

“Would you like to pet my dog?” I hesitated, unsure of the whole situation. But Lilly stepped forward and dropped her head in Ruthie’s lap. And wagged.

“That’s a big dowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwg!” Ruthie yelled.

“Yes, she is.”

In the next room, “Charles” wasn’t able to speak much but his visitor told us “Charles” owned a Golden Retriever. Again, I was apprehensive. Goldens are gentle and non-intrusive. The man reached a very thin arm over side of the bed and Lilly put her head under his hand. He patted. Then, ever so Golden-like, she gently set her head in his lap. And she wagged. Luckily she reserved her signature the full -face scour for the visiting gentleman, who laughed, wiped his face and said, simply, “I have been loved.”

Our last visit was with Don, who was up and about, and we chatted about his former life as a horseman and his various arts and crafts projects which dotted the room. Don had a Doberman. He showed us a picture of his younger self with his handsome charge, then sat on the side of his bed and grabbed Lilly’s head, playfully rough housing. More wagging, and she was careful not to entangle herself in his oxygen tubing.

“I would like you two to come back,” said Don. Can you?”

I was taught that the average Hospice patient is only there for about two weeks. We are scheduled to visit every other week. I rather assumed most patients, we’d never see again. I pushed the thought from my head. Don seemed pretty chipper. I told him we’d do our best.

Back in the car, I was relieved. Lilly was nonplussed. There had been no miracles. But there had been no incidents either. It was difficult to measure success. Stupidly, I’d not realized that visits would be so quick, that the very sick aren’t up for a lot of chit-chat. What I thought would be moments of cheer, were really seconds. But if you’re packing up for your next life, seconds must count in this one, right? One thing was becoming clear. I, the human, I was over-thinking. Compassion isn’t learned behavior nor is it acted out. As we’d entered each room, Lillian just went with her gut. Maybe my dog was teaching me to go with mine.

Lilly hospice

Skirted

aamcJPEG

“She’s quite … big,” the volunteer doggie orientation lady offered, as Lillian and I walked through the narrow hallways of the volunteer auxiliary office at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

“She’s just big boned,” I answered. The woman did not laugh. She was clearly not a dog person.

“Do you have a dog?” I asked.

“No, my husband doesn’t like them.”

Seriously, you married a person who doesn’t like dogs? Why didn’t you just, I don’t know, go to prison?

We entered her office and I sat down on the edge of the big black chair while Lillian checked the trash. Then she made sure the mop boards were free of debris, before laying down with all the grace of a falling oak tree.

Heidi gave me a bunch of forms. So I filled in blank spaces, and we chit chatted. At short intervals auxiliary members would wander into the room and ask questions, starting them sort of in the middle.

“The paper…where … it goes in – in the back room, the copier?”

“The flowers, his wife, we’ll give them, he’ll take but how do I tell him?”

It was a little like being on Jeopardy.

Each time someone interrupted, Lillian jumped up to say hello. Then she laid down. Someone else would come in. Lillian stood up. Then she laid down. It was like we were at a Catholic Mass.

We went down the hall, then through the lobby then outside to another building so they could take my blood, to be sure I was healthy enough to cavort among sick people. Here I was required to fill out more paperwork, on a clip board, on a slippery counter top, with one hand while holding Lilly with the other. Lillian is what you might call a two-hander. She is 90 pounds of muscular exhuberance. So my handwriting was sloppy. So was my dog handling.

“Whoooouuuup!”

I twirled around to see the wide-eyed face of a woman just goosed. Lillian is a gooser.

“Uh, sorry, she just really loves people,” I mumbled as the woman adjusted her skirt, then pressed herself, in her chair, up against the wall. “I don’t really like dogs,” she tried to explain.

I don’t really like bringing mine, one-handed, to a place where people don’t like her.

We escaped by being called into the small lab where I would be most challenged: single- handing Lillian with a needle stuck in my arm. I sat down and silently prayed that she would hold still at least as the nurse fished for my vein. Remarkably, Lillylaid on the floor perfectly still, throughout.

Girl knows when it’s important.

Next we got our ID badges… I bought my AAMC Volunteer smock, and we were done!

We went home, picked up Delilah, and headed to our favorite park to celebrate. All these months of training and form-filling had paid off. We were finally a therapy TEAM! I watched the girls tear around the grassy field. Finally I would be able to share their boundless love and energy with people who were sick or lonely. Certainly Lillian (and hopefully, eventually, Delilah) would bring some cheer to people who need it.

We went home to settle in for the evening, and I saw a message on my phone.

“Hello, this message is for Terese. This is Heidi, from Anne Arundel Medical Center. I was talking with some of the people who saw Lillian today. We think she may not be appropriate for this program. Please call me…”

My happy little heart broke in two. We’d passed! I had my badge! Lilly had a badge! I was smocked! Less than six hours in, and we were being benched.

A couple of days later I returned the badges and the smock. I may not have been that nice to the Heidi ladies. They said we could try again in a year, when maybe Lilly wasn’t so “puppy-like”.

I like that Lilly is puppy-like. And that she occasionally goes up a lady’s skirt. And I understand that not everyone appreciates that. Ridgebacks are not Labradors or Golden Retrievers. They can be stubborn and willful. But mostly they are loving and joyful. They, or rather we, are a force to be reckoned with. And we are on a mission. We are not giving up.

A few weeks later I am sitting in my 19th hour of human training for Hospice pet therapy. I am worried. I tell the group our hospital story.

“Well,” I confessed, “She may have gone up a lady’s skirt.”

The volunteer coordinator, a young, pretty soft- spoken woman, threw her head back and laughed loudly.

We are encouraged.
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