An Extra Ten Minutes
On Monday afternoons at two o'clock, Beau and I would arrive at the Silver Spring Home on Milwaukee’s Northeast side of town for an hour of "pet therapy" with the seniors who lived there. We’d walk the hallways greeting everyone on our way to the hospitality room where residents would come to pet Beau and bask in the adoration from this beautiful, happy, ten year old, ninety-nine pound Doberman Pincher. You’d never know this was the same dog who arrived at my doorstep eight years earlier so beaten, scarred, and scared that as soon as he made eye-contact with you he’d lay down on his back with his feet up in the air and pee until you petted and soothed him into safety.
On our first visit, as we walked through the canary yellow "Hallway One," I heard an elderly man’s excited voice, thick with a German accent, streaming out of Room 112, "Ma, Ma, the German dog is here! The German dog is here!" No sooner did I hear the voice and a wrinkle-faced, six foot tall, white haired pogo-stick-of-a-man was greeting us at the door, swooping his big open hand and strong arm across the doorway, inviting us in. "I’m Charlie. This is my wife, Emma. Come in, come in."
When Beau heard Charlie’s friendly, enthusiastic voice, his entire body went into his customary wagging frenzy and lean-against-your-thigh position, waiting for a petting, which was immediately forthcoming from Charlie. As we walked into the room, a frail but lively 80ish, violet-haired Emma sat in bed, smiling, patting her hand on the bed. No sooner did she pat once, than Beau, leashed and always obedient, was up on the bed laying down beside her, licking her face. Her eyes teared up as Charlie told us that he and Emma were Holocaust survivors who had immigrated to the United States from Germany during World War II and had to leave their beloved Doberman, Max, behind, who, according to Charlie, was the spitting image of Beau.
Beau made many friends that day and during subsequent visits over the next six months, but the most memorable were with Charlie and Emma, and their next-door neighbor Katherine.
Room 114 was home to Katherine, a woman in her 70’s who had stopped talking a few months earlier and had been living in a catatonic state in her wheelchair for the past month. No amount of love, hugs, talking, or sitting had been able to stir her. I was told her family had stopped calling or visiting and she had no friends. When Beau and I walked into her room, a small light was on next to her bed and the shades were pulled. She was sitting in her wheelchair, her back toward us, slouched over, facing the viewless window.
Beau was pulling ahead of me with his leash. Before I could get around to kneel down in front of her, he was at her left side, with his head in her lap. I pulled a chair up in front of her and sat down, saying hello. No response. In the fifteen minutes that Beau and I sat with Katherine, she never said a word and never moved. Surprising as that may be, what was more surprising was that Beau never moved either. He stood the entire fifteen minutes, his long chin resting on her lap.
If you knew Beau, you’d know that even ten seconds was an eternity to wait for a petting. As long as I’d known him, he would nuzzle whatever person was closest to his nose, whine, soft-growl and wiggle his body against them until they were forced to pet him, or he’d lose interest and find someone else. Not here. He was as frozen as Katherine, head glued to her lap. I became so uncomfortable with the lack of life in this woman that, much as I wished I felt differently, when the clock chimed 2:30 PM, I rushed to say good bye, stood up, and pulled the reluctant Beau out.
I asked one of the nurses why Katherine was catatonic. "We don’t know why. Sometimes it just happens when elderly people have family who show no interest in them. We just try to make her as comfortable as possible."
How would you feel hearing that? Would you do anything different in your life as a result of those words? All the wonderful people and animals who blessed my life flashed in front of my eyes and then they were gone. I felt what I imagined Katherine must be feeling. Lonely, lost, and forgotten. I was determined to find a way through to her.
Every following Monday, Beau and I made our rounds to the Hospitality Room, stopping to make special visits in Room 112 to visit Charlie and Emma and Room 114 to sit with Katherine. Always the same response…Charlie waving us in and Emma patting the bed, waiting for Beau’s licks, both so alive…and then Katherine, sitting desolately, no sign of life except for her shallow breathing.
Each visit I would attempt to engage Katherine in conversation, asking her questions about her life, and telling her about mine and Beau’s. No response. I grew more and more frustrated with Katherine, not content with just "being" with her. And here was Beau, meditative dog-monk, teaching me how to "be" and love quietly, assuming "the position" for the fifteen minutes we sat at each visit.
On our fourth visit, I was ready to by-pass Katherine's room, figuring we didn't really make a difference, so why bother, but Beau had other plans. He pulled me into Katherine’s room and took his familiar pose on her left side, head on lap. I acquiesced, but since I had a business meeting later in the afternoon with which I was preoccupied, I decided to cut short our usual 15 minutes with Katherine down to five. Instead of talking I remained quiet, focusing inwardly on my upcoming meeting. Surely she’d never notice or care. As I stood up to walk out and began to pull Beau away, he wouldn't budge.
And then the most miraculous thing happened. Katherine’s hand went up to the top of Beau’s head and rested there. No other movement, just her hand. Instead of Beau’s customary response of nose nuzzling and increased body wagging, he continued to stand like a statue, never moving from his spot.
I sat back down in silent shock, and for the next ten precious minutes, reveled in the stream of life flowing between Katherine’s hand and Beau’s head. As the clock chimed half past two, marking the end of our fifteen minutes, Katherine’s hand gently slid back into her lap and Beau turned to walk out the door.
It’s been ten years since that visit and eight years since Beau died in my arms from a stroke. Love has many ways of showing its face. Each time I am ready to walk away from a person on whom I've given up, I am reminded of the power of Beau’s loving persistence with Katherine…and me. If Beau can give an extra ten minutes, surely I can too. How about you?
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