Mind’s Eye, Blind

“Cinnamon swirl, carrot, strawberry, caramel, chocolate, mint, mocha, or vanilla – pick four.”

I sat, wide-eyed, staring at my fiancé across the tiny table. We were about to get married. We were tasting cake.  It’s a lot less fun than it sounds.

“Um, cinnamon swirl… and – what were the choices?” I asked.

She sighed and I’m pretty sure, rolled her eyes. She was maybe in her late 20’s, and she ran the place. In a slightly harsher tone, she repeated the list, we made our picks and she turned on her heel toward the kitchen. I thought about Seinfeld’s soup Nazi. Clearly, we had violated some unwritten bakery etiquette.

The cupcake Nazi returned with our cake cubes. We straightened in our chairs, delicately picking at the samples, lest our knuckles be wrapped with a spatula.

“Now, we can do a texture, a fondant, – what are your colors?  Do you have a theme?  What’s your vision?” She rounded her lips like a big cherry lifesaver.

“Ummmmm. I just- I like teal but that doesn’t seem very appetizing on cake…”

The truth was, I didn’t have a theme, or a vision. I was 53 years old and never thought I’d get married, so I hadn’t thought about it much. Did I have to have a theme? Like Star Wars or Snow White or something? Can’t “We’re getting married!” be a theme?

We paid for my chai and Jon’s coffee, eyed some confection called “unicorn poop,” and trudged to the parking lot.

“I thought this was supposed to be fun,” I told Jon tearfully. I was an old bride, and clueless about cake. And themes. And dresses and playlists and seating charts and registries. I had three bridesmaids, all in their forties, who, it seemed to me, ought to be able to dress themselves. Our guests – I suspected, would figure out with whom they would like to sit without direction. Our only goals, from the outset, were inclusiveness and revelry. I did not think anyone needed to be choreographed.

At lunch one day I confessed to my friend, Lynn, that I didn’t really know what I wanted.

“It’s really not for you.” She smiled. “It’s for everyone else.”  I agreed. And I began to think more along those lines.

Several recent brides told me that I really would not enjoy my own reception.

“I didn’t see my husband the whole night!” complained one.

“I never ate, or had a drink,” said another.

“I had bruises on my arms from people pulling me around,” still another warned.

I braced for a very expensive mediocre time and hoped to avoid injury.

In the weeks that followed, our guest list blossomed. Relatives and friends were coming from England, California, Ohio and Kentucky.  People we’d only hoped might be there were hitting “accept” on our jonandterese.com website. We were flattered. I was terrified.

While the wedding dress people were less harsh than the confection queen, they still were very interested in my “vision.” The old storybook version of Cinderella has a picture of fairies arguing over what color Cinderella’s dress should be, resulting in a half pink, half blue number. That was as far as my gown fantasies had gotten. Forty-plus years later, “white” was pretty much all I could conjure. At one very foo- foo shop I stepped out of the dressing room and saw one of my bridesmaids,  Krishna, beaming. And so, it was decided.*  I didn’t truly love the gown until the seamstress got a look. As she tucked and pulled, I looked around her shop where several heavily beaded and laced gowns were bending their hangers. Mine was bling-less, with an elegant cut, helped along by a severe protein and vegetable diet. I marveled at our good taste. She thought we’d made a superior choice.

The wedding day zooming at us like a freight train, my groom and I spent the remaining weeks adjusting crowd numbers with oyster shuckers and crab catchers, and expanding our tent and table order. Jon and the groomsmen ran extra electrical lines to support the band and porta potties. We wrote and printed a detailed program and hosted Reverend Bill for dinner. We met with Doyle our friend and bartender, compiling an intimidating list of booze, beer and wine. I poured over wildflower orders for what would be a slightly chaotic DIY project. Each day, I eyed my neighbors’ feathery pampas grasses, which they’d promised me for centerpieces. Thankfully, the bridesmaids easily agreed on dresses and shoes,** despite some early raised eyebrows at my insistence on black. I worried that Lynn, who was hosting all three events at her beautiful waterfront home,(the rehearsal dinner, the reception and Sunday brunch) would grow wedding weary.

Even as we wrestled with every detail, I still didn’t have a mind’s eye.  It was all a jumble of jobs, hopefully ending with me somehow getting up the aisle, followed by some facsimile of a party.

Events began to unfold on Thursday with an almost in-law dinner. There were no incidents.

Our rehearsal was followed by a walk in the labyrinth on the church grounds. Jon and I had planned to walk it alone and were surprised and honored when we were joined by the Buckley family, bridesmaid, Jenn and her husband and groomsman, Craig. The crabs were sweet and the wine flowed freely afterwards.  Dan Haas, a local musician, played just right the sort of music. I had a fabulous time swooshing around in a splurged-upon dress, visiting with college friends, and cousins and watching a few become uncharacteristically overserved.

Saturday began with a 5:30am run with Jenn, which did a lot to settle my nerves. Then we ran the dogs which settled them as well.  A cleaned-up Jenn, along with Claire and Krishna showed up on queue with breakfast – and the hair and make- up frenzy began. All of the sudden it was time to get dressed.  Everything was coming together. I was oddly calm.

Jon and I had our “first look” photos taken at home along with some family shots. He looked handsome and happy in a plain black tux, a pocket square I’d picked out and the boutonniere we’d fashioned from a black calla lily and a rose.

I rode to the church with Claire and her husband Chris, who kept me hidden from the 200 guests, swarming the doors. As I stood outside, holding my brother’s arm, waiting for Trumpet Voluntary (Purcell) to begin, I marveled at the day. The flowers were stunning, the bridesmaids gorgeous, Lillian and Delilah, decked out in sparkly collars and haute black leashes, were behaving like perfect attend-dogs.

Because Jon was raised Quaker our ceremony included an element of “Meeting for Worship” in which everyone is invited to speak.  I’d pictured a silent, confused and bored congregation. But a few Quakers and non, spoke warm and beautiful words, sweetly bringing laughter and of course a few tears. Best of all, when the “meeting” closed with the sign of peace, Jon and I lapped the entire church. I worried that it took too long, but I loved seeing everyone close up in that moment.

Our guests gathered on the lawn for a 200 -person team photo, everyone wearing victory medals Jon had designed.  Then we were swept away to a nearby marina, where a chartered boat waited to take the bridal party to Lynn’s. It was one part of the plan I’d requested, but my “vision” had still been cloudy… how would I navigate getting onboard in my dress and shoes? What if it was windy? Would we all arrive with our over-goo’d and sprayed hair standing skyward?

We pulled away from the dock, the sun gleaming on the white deck and our rhinestone shoes. I looked around the bay where I’d spent countless hours kayaking, SUP boarding and swimming. Now my new husband and I were being motored across those same waters toward all of our friends and family.

As we rounded the point, the billowing tent and lawn party came into view.  Guests milled about with snacks and cocktails in hand as the band played its first set. It looked like a scene from movie. I scanned the crowd for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. But no, those were our friends. This was indeed, our party.

I snapped a photo in my mind. Finally, my vision. And I understood why I didn’t have one until that moment. It was simply more grand, more elegant and more perfect than I could have possibly imagined.

cake top with bobblehead

*please see earlier blog: Say Stress to the Dress 

      **please see earlier blog: Big Box Bridal

Collared

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It’s about fifteen degrees outside late on a Sunday afternoon and we’re giving the dogs a quick run in an open field behind the local high school.  We’re heading back to the car when both Lillian and Delilah run into the woods.

“Girls, come!” I yell, holding a chunk of cheese.

Lilah runs toward us immediately, but Lilly does not.  I call her again. I feel the cold metal parts of her leash burn into my fingers. The sun is close to setting.  It’s going to be a damned long, cold night’s search in the woods if she does not come back, I think.

And suddenly there she is, bounding toward us.

“She would have had to find us in the car,” Jon comments, reading only parts of my mind. I would never have returned to the car without her. Truth be told, he wouldn’t have either.

I may be the only person in the world who thinks the romantic comedy, “Must Love Dogs” wasn’t enough about the dogs. If the plot of the movie had been true to its title John Cusack would have fallen in love with Diane Lane and Mother Teresa, which was the name of the Newfoundland she was sitting. Mother Teresa needed a bigger role. Any single female dog owner knows this.

Lillian and Delilah have squatting rights, which have less to do with their potty training and more to do with their time in service.  It was they who kept me safe, loved and warm through many a lonely weekend. They are the ones I struggled to train. I am the one they struggled to teach.

Jon understands this.

Here is how I know:

One September evening, I was very late for our dinner date. There were several complications. I’d been delayed leaving work, there was an accident on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and I’d just had a dysfunctional sweat gland removed from the bottom of my foot, (yeah I didn’t know there were any there either) making it really uncomfortable to walk. All of this culminated in a plan for me to drive my Volkswagon to the top of the Naval Academy Bridge and pick up Jon, who had gone for a walk, rather than sit at the bar waiting.  As I pulled up he motioned me to get out. Which I did, under protest. It’s a busy bridge. But it’s a beautiful view.

We gazed for a minute over the Severn River and beyond, to our beloved Chesapeake Bay. Then Jon dropped to one knee and asked me to marry him. It wasn’t like this thunderbolt thing. It seemed a natural, wonderful step in our exciting new journey. The ring fit perfectly.

 

 

 

Happily coupled and full of our great news, we went on to a long celebration dinner, then home to call my mom.

But before I picked up the phone, there was one more thing Jon thought to do.

He reached into his bag and pulled out two collars, each embellished with a bit of bling. And he kneeled down and buckled them around each furry neck- Delilah in hottie red, Lillian in a sleek black number.

We are what Verizon refers to as a “bundle,” and what car sales people say “comes standard.” My girls are the batteries that are included. And we have gotten incredibly lucky.

So far this blog has been mostly about our encounters in dog parks, visiting elderly people, and generally getting into trouble. It’s been a lot about what my girls have taught me about other people and about myself. I’m counting on them through this next adventure.

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

The Squeeze

I’m in Nordstrom looking like I’ve been tarred and dog-haired.

“Can I help you?”  “….find a shower somewhere?”  I finish the sentence in my head.

“I’m good,” I mumble, keeping my baseball cap- covered head low, like that might disguise my odor. It was around 3:30 in the afternoon.  At seven that morning I’d run 5.7 miles with two two-footed girlfriends, getting home just in time to throw my four- footed pals into the floppy roofed Jeep and head to the vet for their 9am appointment.

Lillian doesn’t mind Dr. P too much.  Delilah is more skeptical about him. He rocks my doggie world.

Delilah went first. I thought she would be a little skittish. She was satanic. It took three of us to hold her down for shots.  After that, apparently Dr. P had chosen some sort of medieval tool to trim her nails, as she was literally shrieking. I looked at his hands more closely. He had not. It was 9:15. Why didn’t they sell cocktails here?

 Lilly was easier.  Dogs live in the moment.  We left the vet at 9:23. By 9:23:01 they were happy again. I was shell shocked. And caked with dog hair.

We went to the dog park, where a recent layer of snow had created more mud, which mixed into a tacky paste with the hair and my now 8- hour- old sweat.  Then we went to Nordstrom.  The girls stayed in the car.

“You’re making your second pass, so you clearly need some assistance,” said the helpy, perfectly well put together and handsome menswear salesman.  No. Consultant.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” I said, keeping my distance, “I am going on a third date tonight. Third.”  I held up three gritty fingers for emphasis.

“And you’re getting him something?”

“Well, that’s just it. It’s his birthday.”

“Oh yeah, you gotta get him something.”

“I know. I ordered a stuffed bulldog online but it hasn’t arrived yet and it’s tonight.”

“A stuffed bulldog?”

“Well, he – yes.”

He camouflaged an involuntary eye roll.

“What’s your price range?”

“It’s only our third date!”

He led me dutifully from table to table.  He showed me a plaid number.

“Straight guys wear that?” 

“Well, what does he like?”

“Me, I guess.”

He ever so subtly glanced below my gaze.  I kicked a mud crumb under the table.  I bought a tie.

The make-up department girls looked at me wistfully as I bolted out of the store. No. Out of the experience.

I went home, and pulled into the driveway as the UPS guy arrived and handed me the bulldog.  It would now be a tie-wearing bulldog.

A shower and some shaving later, we were at dinner, after which, I presented the over-dressed dog.

He complimented the tie and gave the dog a squeeze.   The waiter brought us a dessert to share.  He (the date, not the waiter) set the tie aside.  He continued to occasionally pick up the dog, looking into its poofy, smushed -up little face.

Being a chronic dog-squeezer myself, I find this promising.  

    
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This edition dedicated to Gates, in honor of a life well lived in support of one of our nation’s great “hospitalitans.”  

                                                                               

First Patient: Mom

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“Please get better control of that dog,” Laurie, the pet therapy evaluator-not-judge said, with more patience than we deserved.

I wasn’t sure how getting better control was possible. We had trained. We went to school once, sometimes twice per week, for two years. We added additional, expensive classes specifically to train for these evaluations. We’d drilled our exercises, morning after morning, in the middle of our little street. We’d danced through hospital scene obstacles, like crutches and walkers. We’d acted casual in the face of crashing bed pans. We’d greeted politely.

But we were choking. Lillian was all over the place, breaking from her heel like she had fire ants, then planting a slick wet one on the evaluator’s face. She was the Bode Miller of dog tasks. Likely what Lillian did most was pick up on her mom’s nervousness. Dogs know everything.

Lillian and Delilah are lookers. And they’re pretty smart. And they’re a lot of fun. But I don’t believe smart, fun girls should just sit around looking pretty. They need jobs, careers even. They need to give back.

What better job for pretty, fun girls than to stick their noses in sick, sad, or otherwise challenged humans’ faces, and make them smile, even if it’s just for a minute. That makes that minute better than their last one, right? Who knows, maybe we could stretch it out to five minutes, without being asked to leave. (We can cut quite a swath.)

Disheartened, we careened through the final exercise.

“Congratulations. You passed,” said Laurie.

I actually got teary. Lilly actually relaxed. I don’t know how it happened but Lillian is now an eligible therapy dog. We did not qualify to go into high stress situations. But we would be allowed to hang out with the somewhat stressed.

A few hours later, I returned to the evaluation site with Delilah. Certainly we would sail through this—we’d accosted everyone in my neighborhood, begging them to practice polite greetings with us. Only the day before I called a man in his pajamas from his garage to walk up to us and shake my hand. Lilah would sometimes stand, but never jump.

Laurie approached us for the mock greeting. Delilah jumped up on her like she was holding a steak.

The next phase involved Laurie petting Lilah roughly, like a child or an elderly person might. My dog, who normally melts like butter, went stiff as a day-old carcass. I knew we wouldn’t do well with the ear grabbing, but she reacted like Laurie was the mayor of San Diego. Laurie stopped the test. Delilah would not be fun for a sick or otherwise upset person to play with.

“She’s just a little too timid,” Laurie said sympathetically.

“Timid?” I thought. How could I, a forever single, do-it-myself, “Excuse Me, Mr. President” journalist have a timid dog? Suddenly I had something slightly in common with Dick Cheney. And that kid on “Glee” s TV dad. But the word was “timid”.

On the way home in the car I wondered if Lilly would know Delilah didn’t make it. Would Delilah know Lilly had? What do parents of children do when their bigger kid makes the soccer team while the smaller, sweeter kid, gets cut?

My friend Krishna called, and for the second time that day, I cried. Delilah looked out the car window and barked at some guy wearing a big hood. I couldn’t believe I was taking it this badly. Being a good friend, Krishna took my sadness with all seriousness, politely dismissing the fact that I had become deranged.

I explained to Krish, that I needed to find out what Delilah was good at, and encourage her in that direction, lest she develop poor self- esteem. She already wore too much eyeliner, clearly an attempt to disguise her true self from the world. What would D be good at? How could we make up for this gaping hole on her resume?

We arrived home. I pulled my misshapen Jeep into the driveway and lumbered toward the door. Hopefully Lilly wouldn’t gloat.

We walked in, Lillian delivering her typical paw pounce to her sister. Delilah bounced back. I began to also.

The girls are training me. They’ve been trying to tell me not to pull so hard on my leash, or I’ll choke. I need to let more things roll in over the back fence. Good things will come. Bad things will pass.

Still. I think I’m going to take Delilah lure coursing in the spring. She runs like a joyous jack rabbit. And I am excited to get Lilly started with the therapy program.

But meantime I will sit. And stay.