The vet, who was—and I mean this in the nicest way—congenitally chipper, rushed into the sterile examining room where I sat, sans dog, and asked me how I was. I considered this question, then considered the young doctor who was asking it. She was about five months pregnant and all smiles, and maybe her good cheer was hormonal, but it seemed more likely to be the necessary corollary of her job. Dr. K. was a canine oncologist.
“I don’t know,” I said. “How am I?”
The vet looked confused, and then it seemed to dawn on her that whatever news she was bringing to this room from the room where my 12-year-old dog, Pransky, was under observation would answer the question. There had been surgery to remove a sizeable mass colonizing Pransky’s lung, and the hope was that once the tumor was gone she’d be cancer-free and ready to get back to work. That was the promise of the surgery. No guarantees, just hope.
Getting back to work didn’t mean returning home and taking our usual places on the couch in front of the woodstove, an occupation at which we are equally adept. And it didn’t have anything to do with Pransky’s tendency to jump off that same couch after a while and suggest a vigorous trip to the great outdoors, as if she were, in addition to being part Lab and part poodle, part personal trainer and part wood nymph.
Our work, Pransky’s and mine, was at the county nursing home, where we were a therapy-dog team. Every Tuesday for the past six years, I’d say, “Pransky, let’s go to work,” and she’d be at the door in a flash, ready for me to snap on her ID tags, eager to begin our rounds.
It’s an odd thing we do, my partner and I. Odd because, to a casual observer, it may look as if we are doing nothing as we greet visitors and chat with staff and residents about anything and everything. Someone will be stroking Pransky’s fur or scratching behind her soft ears, or slipping her a treat, or hugging her, face to face, telling her about the dogs of their youth, or the dog they had to leave behind, or the dog who visited last week, who was probably her.
Memory is in short supply at the nursing home, a fact that matters to my dog not at all. To her, the same story, many times over, is still an occasion for what we do, which is not doing so much as being. It took me a while to get this. People would say, “But what do you do there?” and I couldn’t come up with much of an answer until I realized, watching my dog, that the question itself was flawed—that it wasn’t about doing at all. So much of our lives is about agendas and crossing things off lists and moving on to the next thing when sometimes what is needed is stasis and continuity and just showing up. When I look at Pransky lying in the hospital bed next to her friend Joyce, her paw resting in Joyce’s gnarled hand, I glimpse what is really meant by the words “being present.” Attention is a gift.
Joyce talks. I talk. Pransky listens. She hears the cadences, understands the tones, pushes her warm flank against her friend’s diminished torso, doesn’t budge. Her response is in her patience, and the way she settles in and stretches out, making it clear that the here and now is all there is. She looks at me, then closes her eyes. I put down my clipboard and take a seat. If age is just a number, so is time.
This is how it works. We take our cues from each other. I hold the leash, but it is only there for show. What connects us is the trust, born of experience, that we have in each other. She can read my body language. I can read hers. And Pransky’s composes a handbook of graciousness, of enthusiasm, of bravery. I admit it: Mine is cribbed from hers.
On our very first day of work, one of us was more than a little frightened by what would we find at the county home, and of what we would say to these frail, elderly, infirm strangers—and that one was not the 45-pound, four-footed blond. True, the whole venture had been my idea, born of the quiet that had settled around the house like dust after my daughter left for school abroad, when our sweet, well-mannered dog made it clear she was bored and needed more human contact. Becoming a therapy-dog team seemed like just the ticket. And though Pransky and I endured months of training to earn our certification, when push came to shoving open the nursing-home door, I was suddenly at a loss to remember why I thought we—meaning I—could do this. I am by nature reticent about spending time with people I don’t know, and the fact that I would be spending time with these ailing strangers whose homes had been reduced to a small, single shared room was even more daunting. Walking into that place was walking into my discomfort zone.
But not, it turned out, into Pransky’s. As soon as we were on the other side of the door, she pointed her snout in the direction of a man across the corridor who was waving us over. He appeared to be in his early 70s and robust, though he was in a wheelchair. He called Pransky’s name, which I saw was on a whiteboard announcing the day’s activities, and she tugged a little, leading us toward him, excited to get started. She got to him first, and because I was looking at the delighted expression on his face, I failed to notice what my dog was doing. And what she was doing was examining the ACE bandages wrapped around the stumps of his legs. The man, Bob, was a double amputee.
What to do? If I told her to stop, I feared I would embarrass him. And if I didn’t, I worried it would get worse. But the thing was, the man in the wheelchair was laughing, and Pransky was waggling her entire hindquarter the way she does when she is seriously, unambiguously happy. As I watched them, it was clear that my concerns were not his concerns. He knew his legs were not there. He seemed to welcome Pransky’s interest. It dawned on me that my dog was going to be my guide here.
It wasn’t that she knew the etiquette and I didn’t, and it wasn’t that I didn’t know what was required and she did. It was that she was both fearless and unassuming, two qualities that, over the years, have gained us many friends. People talk about dogs being nonjudgmental and loving unconditionally, almost without discernment. What I saw that day at the nursing home, and have seen every day since, and what I have worked to emulate, is my dog’s capacity to see people for who they are, not for what they aren’t. To Pransky, Bob was not a double amputee, not a guy in a wheelchair, not an old man. The word not was not in play. To Pransky, Bob was simply, and tremendously, a potential—and then an actual—friend. Friendship does not require two functioning legs.
And, it turns out, it doesn’t require two functioning lungs, either. When part of Pransky’s was removed last summer, her friends at the nursing home wrote, sent cards, called. They cried with me when I relayed what the vet had told me that day in her office—that the cancer was advancing and my dog had months to live at best. But then we moved on, because Pransky had moved on. She knew she was sick. How could she not? But she was much more interested in the treats Loretta was feeding her and the conversation Maggie was having with her and the chance to snuggle with Joe. “Here we are,” she seemed to be saying to me, “and it is good right now, and I’m doing well and enjoying life, so get with the program and enjoy our time together, too.” Once more, and not for the last time, I find myself following her lead.
About the Author
Sue Halpern is the author, most recently, of A Dog Walks Into A Nursing Home: Lessons On The Good Life From an Unlikely Teacher ($12, amazon.com).