My dog Jessie is a therapy dog — meaning she is trained to bring comfort and companionship to those who need it. We visit a lot of nursing homes and hospitals in our mountainous part of western North Carolina, and also, sometimes, homebound individuals. At one point I was bringing Jessie once a week to the home of a woman known as Granny.
Granny was 103 years old when we met her. Despite that, she got around well with a walker. She was always groomed, dressed, and seated at the table eating something — often ice cream — or sitting in front of the TV watching cooking shows. She was pretty bright. She seemed to digest both food and information well.
I’ve learned a lot about life and living from all the “old timers” my dogs have visited. But from Granny’s family, I learned the meaning of the commonly used phrases, “respect for life” and “living and dying with dignity.” Granny’s home was clean, her bed was changed, her clothes were fresh every day, and she was surrounded by people who cared. They kept a visitors’ registry on the table, and it looked to me like not a day went by but someone came for a visit.
The kitchen table was decorated with seasonal plastic tablecloths, like the one with big Easter eggs, and they kept Granny current. Her family talked to her about the greeting cards and photos that surrounded her. Her phone sat next to her on the table. When I called to ask if this was a good time to visit, it would often be Granny who answered, “Hello, who is this?” several times. Then when Betty got on the phone I would hear her say, “Granny, it’s your friend Jessie, the therapy dog. Would you like to have her come over now?” “Oh, yes!” Granny would answer. “Okay then, here’s the phone. You tell her you want her to come.”
I could see how much easier it would have been for Betty to answer the phone, tell me to come, and then tell Granny I was on the way. I was touched by the thoughtful way they allowed her to continue to live each day her way, instead of doing the living for her. Granny made her own choices. Granny was included in conversations and her opinion was asked. They let her decide where she would sit, what she would do, when she wanted to eat and if she wanted company. She repeated herself and needed a lot of assistance, but no one complained, and no one rushed her or saw her as an inconvenience. She was made to feel important and loved.
“I’d like to have a dog like this one,” she’d say when Jessie nuzzled her hand. “I think she likes lots of loving. I like that.” I learned from watching the family care for her that respect and dignity are synonymous with love.
We’d been visiting weekly at Granny’s for four months when I had a message on my voice mail. The caller left her name and said she was kin of Granny and had a message for Jessie: “Jessie, Granny said to tell you that she was feeling a little rundown and she’s gone to the hospital. She asked me to call you and tell you that she’d like you to drop by and see her.”
Jessie visited at Granny’s hospital bedside every day for the next week. The first several days, Granny rested her hand on Jessie’s head and caressed her ears, relaxed, talked slowly to Jessie, and dozed.
The first day she said to me, “Now, have you done anything about fixing her hearing?” She remembered that Jessie was deaf; everyone was surprised and rejoiced over that small victory over memory loss. After that, Jessie’s visits were more for the hospital staff, and visiting family members. On the last of our visits, Granny didn’t wake up. We told her Jessie was there, and Jessie sat silently at the bedside.
“You knew, didn’t you?”
Jessie doesn’t usually sit when she goes for a visit; she stands throughout, smiling and wagging her tail. But on that day Jessie went to the head of Granny’s bed and sat down, mouth closed, staring at a blank space on the wall above Granny’s head. When it was time to leave, though she’s usually in a hurry to get into the car, she didn’t want to go.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, Jessie was at my bedside, paws on my pillow, nose in my face, whining. I gave her my most annoyed sigh and got up to let her out, but she wouldn’t go. She paced, cried, and whined. She wouldn’t settle down, even though it was too early to be up. Later, after breakfast, she hung by the garage door, whining.
I’d been thinking about Granny since I got up and decided to make an early visit at the hospital. Jessie watched my every move and when I picked up my ID she bolted for the garage, and then threw herself into the car without assistance. Her aged arthritic legs normally need a boost.
It was eerie driving through town and up the mountain so early. No one was out yet on a Saturday morning and the shroud of fog was just lifting in the valley. The hospital parking lot was nearly empty and the reception area was still dark. Jessie jumped out of the car and led me down the hall to Granny’s room. She knew exactly where she was going and she was in a hurry to get there. Outside Granny’s room, several people were gathered, a few I’d met before, but when I saw the gentleman with the suit and tie, Bible in hand, I knew. Granny had died at 6:15 that morning, Betty told me. I looked at Jessie. “You knew, didn’t you?”
Jessie greeted everyone in the hall and then dragged her free leash into the empty room. Granny was sitting in her bed looking just as she had the day before. Jessie sat down at the head of the bed, just as she had yesterday, silent and still, staring at the wall above Granny. In about a minute she jumped up and began vigorously sniffing the side of the mattress. At the foot of the bed she sat and looked up at me with her head cocked quizzically, ears perked. I knew she couldn’t hear me, but I said, “Granny’s gone, Jessie.” At that she turned and ran out of the room, leash dragging behind her. She passed everyone in the hall without a greeting and went straight out the automatic door. I hustled to catch up to her. She crossed the parking lot, and I hit the car door remote in my pocket and it opened for her. When we got home, she went straight to her bed and curled up, chin on her paws. She stayed there all day.
I don’t know what any of this means, exactly, but there was a mysterious and beautiful connection between those two old souls, and I will remember their friendship forever. What I do know is that Jessie brought a bit of fun and some smiles to Granny in the final weeks of her very long life. That’s what therapy dogs do.