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

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.