Bubble Wrap for the Soul

I didn’t cry until I heard his voice.

On my way to the gym in the early morning darkness, even NPR couldn’t make him sound better. How dare he try to sound conciliatory. Just one more artless con, I thought, spilling tears so fat I heard them splat onto my spandex.

I bumbled through body pump class, staring straight ahead, knowing that any number of people in the room had colored in a dot next to the name of an international joke. I recalled the November, 2004 cover of London’s Daily Mirror, which featured a picture of George W Bush and the headline, “How Could 59,054,087 people be so dumb?”

The only folks I could see benefitting from this election are the cast and crew from Saturday Night Live, but I’m not sure Alec Baldwin really wanted a fulltime gig.

At Starbucks, I ran into my friend, Susan. We hugged and cried in the parking lot then walked in together. I pulled my jacket around me tighter. I wished I had on baggier clothes. Lots of them. Because now it’s apparently okay to leer at women and make disgusting remarks. It’s so okay, that people elected a man clearly prone to this behavior, as their president.  I looked at the floor and Susan and bags of coffee. She talked about her daughters. I thought about a moment earlier in the campaign when I’d seen a little girl watching him speak, and I’d wanted to cover her ears.

Driving home though, I was forced to note traffic milling along at its normal pace.  Buildings still stood, the sun was rising. Indeed, the heavy curtain at the temple of Jerusalem had not torn. America didn’t seem broken… at least the Edgewater part of it. But I felt broken. Or at least soundly kicked.

Back home the girls hovered, nosing at my hands and leaning into my legs. I’m amazed at how they understand when I’m sad and do their best to bubble wrap my shriveled little soul.

My friend Jenn had asked Lillian and me to pay a visit to their neighbor, Andy, who was now in Hospice. She and her husband Craig had helped him out – cleaning up his yard and keeping an eye out – as his disease claimed more and more of his mobility.

I did not feel like visiting with strangers, but I’d said I’d go, so I bathed both girls and headed to Pasadena.

“Oh look who’s here!” one of the nurses called out, gleefully.

God, who could be happy today?

“Our regular therapy dog is out this week. People will be so glad to see you!”

Normally there are only a few patients well enough to visit, but there were many, along with their dog-loving visitors. We spent some time with Andy, who petted Lilly, gave her a treat and called her “pretty.” We traveled the halls, bestowing licks and love and accepting the compliments of sick and weary strangers with sloppy, happy grace. Lillian does not mind admiring glances. We stopped back in on Andy before we left.

On the way home we went to Jon’s office where both Lillian and Delilah frolicked from room to room, putting on a great show of irreverence and misbehavior. The girls obviously hadn’t listened to NPR that morning, and had ignored Chuck Todd the night before. They were soft, furry, exploding swirls of pure joy.

Later that same evening, I attended a fundraiser, dreadfully certain that I would be surrounded by victorious Trumpettes. But two women, for no apparent reason, immediately befriended me, and I had quite a nice time getting to know them and about the cause: FoodLink, which at that moment needed emergency cash to buy meals and diapers for local families.  I offered them free writing services.

The next morning, I checked to see if the President-elect had become bored with his national prank. No luck. I summoned my seeped energy to attend a veterans’ event hosted at the Washington Post. My friend Gina had invited me to watch what turned out to be an interesting series of interviews. She bought me lunch after. And she gave me some great tips and leads to find a few new clients. She was sad too, but still generous, kind and helpful.

Sometime that afternoon, I got texts from Jenn and Craig. Andy had passed away. They both thanked me for visiting. He’d mentioned us. It seemed a bright moment for him. We’d done a good thing.

The fog was beginning to lift.

I appreciate President Obama’s calls for unity. I’m humbled by Michelle Obama’s ability to politely host her incoming replacement. But I’m not ready. Not yet. Because I cannot unite with hate, exclusion and bigotry. I don’t embrace narcissism. I’m still shaking off the shell-shock  -the realization that half of this country threw its support behind an immature bully, who has so little regard for others.

But the last 48 hours have reminded me:  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Each act that attempts to tear us down must be met with a powerful thrust of thoughtfulness. Every bruising blow must be mended by the sweet salve of kindness.  Insults- paid forward with hugs and dog kisses.

That is how we will fight.  We will put on our furry bubble wrap and hold on to our truths and our values. We can run happily from room to room and bring joy to others.  That is how we will fight and how, in the end, we will win.

 

girls-with-flowers

Promises

Families gnaw on pizza crusts. Heavy doors slam visitors in with their loved ones, while smokers head out for sustenance.  Teenagers throw fastballs in the common room. Their forced, irreverent laughs bounce off floral upholstery. Hospice nurses move about, mission- focused. They are lenient with those who are grieving.

Lillian and I stop short in the foyer as we hit the din. The end, the fast- moving part of dying, is sucking up the serenity that normally lies like a fog over the Mandarin House.  It seems tonight, there is more than one patient calling it quits.

Lilly, who normally wags her way around Hospice of the Chesapeake, lets out a single, puzzled “woof.”

A staffer looks up, frowning.

“You have to go outside.”

“Of course,” I answer, sinking at the notion.  Woofing is not allowed.

Cricket whirrs past us, looking up but barely meeting my gaze.  “It’s just so busy tonight,” she says softly.

She whips her tiny frame into the office. As we turn to go, a familiar, dark- haired woman comes quickly around the corner, looking past me. “He’s gone,” she says, beating us to the porch.

We join her, because this was where we have to go.

“Would you like us to sit with you for a moment?” I ask.

“No.  My husband just died.”  And then I remember.  I’d seen them, two weeks before. He’d been doing well, fully dressed, sitting up and ready to go home.   I also remember he’d enjoyed visiting with Lillian, but the woman didn’t like dogs.  Feeling helpless, I move on to my car, Lilly jumping in the back.  I walk back in, wondering if there was something I can do. Cricket passes me again, this time grabbing me in a brief, tight hug.  “Thank you.” She says slowly, so I’d hear. Then she moved on.

I’d done exactly nothing.

Sometimes you can just feel the good.

I met Cricket early on in our visits.  It was a much quieter night, and Lilly and I visited mostly with her and the other nurses. She told me she used to be a post-op nurse for joint replacement and spine surgery patients. Born in Incheon, South Korea, she was adopted by Caucasian parents when she was three months old and raised in Middle River Maryland. And she told me about Barney McLovin’, her Great Dane.

He was a Blue Mantle Merle and weighed 179 pounds. “I could walk with him at midnight through the mall parking lot. No one would bother us.  He stayed right next to me- I didn’t even use a leash.”  Not that a leash would have helped. Barney clearly more than doubled her weight.  She showed me pictures. His big, spotted, debonair face charmed the Facebookery.

“He died when he was only four and a half years old,” she told me through tears. “We tried everything to save him.”

She scratched Lillian’s neck. Be the Barney, I think.

I also noticed on Cricket’s Facebook page, a man in a wheelchair. She tells me that’s her husband, Dean.

Cricket believes God brought her to Hospice because she was going to need some practice at losing people.  Her elderly parents were beginning to fail.  There was Barney.  Her best friends are between 50 and 70 years old.

And there is Dean.

It happened when he was young, one summer day in 1983.  He was swimming with his brother and dove into shallow water.  He’d done the same thing the day before but the tide had gone out.  He’s been a paraplegic ever since.

They met online.  He is 20 years her senior.

“I just fell in love with his eyes,” she told me.

I just cannot get my head around all the caretaking.   

They’ve been thinking of getting a Ridgeback. Lillian knows and flaunts herself whenever she sees Cricket.  I tempt her with pictures of Lilly and Delilah together. But she says they’re waiting, because of her parents’ declining health.

And then suddenly her father died.  He was okay that morning. He died that night.

I asked if she was right – if Hospice had helped prepare her to lose someone close.

She said he was battling cancer but died suddenly of a heart attack.  So while she was somewhat unprepared for the moment, she’d had important conversations with him – like about taking care of her mom if he died. She told him to not be afraid of dying – Hospice taught her that death is “a new amazing journey into incomprehensible peace.”  She said, “God promised to never forsake us and bringing me to Hospice was His way of keeping His promise.”

But the way I see it, The Big Guy isn’t just keeping his promise to Cricket. He’s keeping his promise through Cricket- to her dad. And to Dean. And to Hospice. And to Lillian, and Delilah and me.

 

Cricket with her dad and husband.

Cricket, Dad and Dean

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.

The “No” Room

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“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.

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