Her wagging tail tells the tale, if I may be so bold.
We like going to see Johnny, and all his friends too, the ones he keeps forgetting and calling by different names. Johnny never remembers me, but he always smiles and chuckles when he sees Kadie.
She never seems to mind Johnny calling her boy names.
“Go see Johnny now?” I ask, and she whines.
Her soulful eyes tell me she thinks, “Duh, Daddy. Hurry!”
But then we can’t read our dogs’ minds, can we? We can only watch them play and interact, and marvel at how it sometimes seems they see so much more than we do. At least about what’s important.
I can’t think about the appointments I need to make, or the ones I canceled. If I want to see Kadie scamper across the ceiling and bounce off the walls, all I have to do is deny her this visit.
All I really have to do is hang the car keys back on their hook and sit down and take off my shoes, and she’ll go ballistic.
She’s ready to go, her furry tail thumping against the kitchen chair by the door to the garage as if it could pound the furniture into kindling. Pant teetering between a whine and a whimper. Eyes wide and ears perked up as if asking me what I’m waiting for, and demanding an immediate response.
Her special ruby red bandana with the white-lettered Prancing Paws Therapy Dogs logo looks like a cape about to grant her the power of flight. If her paws were wings, I’d have to rent a helicopter to catch her. Or maybe find a butterfly for her to chase until I can sling the leash around her neck and tether her to the Earth.
We go for a ride.
When we arrive at the Golden Days Retirement Home, there are plenty of parking spaces. Johnny doesn’t have or need a car anymore, and neither do his neighbors and friends. Most of them couldn’t renew their driver’s licenses if they tried. They don’t get a lot of visitors either, so there’s plenty of room for me, Kadie, and our other friends in pairs like us.
I pull into a parking spot, and Kadie’s dangling tongue dribbles drool on my shoulder.
“You goofy girl, we’re here,” I say, laughing, and push her cold wet snout away from me. Her panting would steam up the windows if they weren’t already down.
The crisp mid-March breeze heralds the promise of spring in its lively mélange of fragrances, adding a sweet taste of blooming life to the bitter reminder of that which must pass to make way for the new. At least that’s how I picture it. My nose is nowhere near Kadie’s equal. Her nostrils vibrate, and she adds a plaintive whine to her exuberance.
If a dog can spontaneously combust, Kadie is about to.
Must go see Johnny.
It just enters my head, as if she thought it at me with a power beyond human comprehension.
“Okay, okay!” I say. I laugh again, although I know I won’t be laughing soon. Kadie is always so happy before, during, and after one of these visits. I do okay with the before and during parts. Maybe later I can smuggle a chuckle out of the tears, when she snuggles up beside me on the couch and I tell her how she was such a good girl today.
I hop out and clip her leash on. She gives me an urgent whimper, and I call her out. As we head for the front entrance to join the others, I think of my mother and father. They died when I was a teenager, so I can’t know the anguish involved in consigning a parent to a retirement home. But I have friends who do.
Some of those friends display lips that still smile, but eyes that bleed.
Susan and Duke are waiting outside for the rest of the furry therapists and their human tagalongs. Susan’s short blond hair complements Duke’s bristly yellow Labrador fur.
“Hey, Kadie!” Susan says. Duke and Kadie prance and wag tails, but don’t approach each other or pull on their leashes. Though they want to play, they know Duke came to see Amelia, and Kadie came to see Johnny. They’ll end up sharing some of the love, but they’re here to see special friends.
Susan and I chat for a few minutes about important stuff that doesn’t matter while we wait for the others. They join us shortly, and the canines show their infinite tolerance for people pleasantries as we greet each other. Then we enter the building together, therapy dogs walking their humans.
We the two-legged are superfluous. Those of us who glean a snatch of the big picture know it. Those who don’t are proud of their pets as if they’re a personal accomplishment, or an accessory.
Some of us burn with an understanding of the difference.
The staff keeps the place toasty year-round. I can already feel sweat beading on my chest, and am glad I’m wearing a T-shirt and Bermuda shorts. After a few frolicking moments, old friends pair up. Susan smiles at me from across the room as Duke focuses on Amelia, and I do my best to return the smile as Kadie tugs me toward Johnny.
“Cooter!” Johnny says. His arthritic hand reaches down to stroke the fur behind Kadie’s ear as she pushes her neck against the armrest of his wheelchair. Johnny’s lips crinkle in a toothless smile, a glimmer of sunshine on a day full of black clouds, and he chuckles. He looks at me with cataract-riddled eyes glowing.
“I knew my good boy would come back. I just knew it.”
“Yes, sir,” I say. I don’t have a clue what to say. I never do. “Cooter loves his buddy.”
Johnny cackles, his claw-shaped hand spreading out and his fingers regaining an agility they must have known in bygone days as he ruffles Kadie’s golden fur. She whines and licks his fingers, her tail thumping the floor.
The restraint she shows by not jumping into his lap is impressive, at least to me.
“You know, son,” Johnny says as he looks off at the fluorescent lights spanning the big room. He doesn’t recognize me, and introducing myself again is pointless.
“Yes, sir?” I ask, a deliberate prompt.
He laughs, and Kadie pushes her nose into his curled fingers.
“Oh, yeah. Me and my Cooter go huntin’ all the time,” Johnny says for the fifth or fifteenth time. “He never misses a duck or quail, never mangles ’em. Brings ’em up to me just like a snooty-falooty waiter servin’ a fine dinner in a fancy restaurant, he does.”
Johnny cackles and starts gasping for breath, and his nurse applies the oxygen mask as I hold a flat waving palm out at Kadie. She whines but relaxes, her trembling haunches obediently plopping against the floor.
After a minute or so, Johnny laughs again and pets her. “Yeah, Cooter’s a good boy, ain’t he?”
“Yes, sir, he sure is,” I say, and nod slowly at Kadie. Her rolling eyes tell me she doesn’t need the prod, and she rests her snout against Johnny’s withered leg.
“Yeah, me and my buddy, we go huntin’ every season.” Johnny leans his head back as he strokes Kadie’s fur. He smiles and looks down at Kadie, who looks up at Johnny as if he is the beginning and end of her universe.
How do we earn that trusting love?
Kadie licks his fingers again, but Johnny’s eyes close, and plastered on his wrinkled lips is a grin I’d like to find and display for all my fellow humans to see.
The nurse smiles and says, “Thank you,” and I nod at her. If I could speak, I’d say all the things I don’t have the words for. She rolls Johnny’s wheelchair back down the long hallway. I hear him chuckle again as Kadie strains at her leash, trying to follow.
The session is over. I call Kadie to heel, but she resists, which is unusual for such a normally well-behaved girl. She gives me eyes that beg for things I can’t describe and pulls the leash taut, aiming her snout at Johnny and his nurse.
When she whines again and tugs me down the hall, I follow, unnecessary human that I am. I’m only interfering with Kadie’s purpose today, the reason she wears a cape that can make her fly.
With his eyes closed, Johnny sighs and reaches a hand down between the rails lining his bed, and I let Kadie push up against them. She rolls her head into his fingers, understanding something we should all know.
Johnny chuckles again. Kadie looks back at me and whines. I wave my “wait” hand at her as she lifts her forelegs onto the supporting rails beside the bed.
I approach her and lift her up, much to the consternation of the wide-eyed nurses.
“Just like when she was a little bitty puppy, holding her in my hands,” I say softly. Her answering whimper tells me all I need to know without benefit of words.
A machine bleeps quietly beside me and Kadie as I lay her on the bed. She snuggles up beside Johnny and pushes her snout against his wrinkled chin. She doesn’t need me to waggle the “gentle, easy” hand. She knows what she’s doing. I have no idea, of course, being human.
Johnny cackles in his sleep, in a field deep in the woods somewhere, and he rubs Kadie’s ears as his dream-voice murmurs.
“Yeah, old Coot’s a good boy.”
Kadie only gives me eyes every thirty seconds or so to confirm something I’ll never understand. While the nurses watch and my heart becomes a lump in my throat I can never swallow, the bleeping sound diminishes, then becomes a constant whine, signaling an end of worldly things for a weary old hunter.
Maybe I just got something stuck in my eyes.
Back home, after we have dinner and I try to evade the story screaming to be told in my mind, we settle on the couch together. I envision all the dreams that may have floated around in Johnny’s head before he embarked on the next great adventure in the world beyond ours. With an indecipherable snuffle, Kadie pushes her snout against my thigh, begging again for something I don’t have. I ruffle her fur, and place my lips on her head behind her quivering ears.
The words I say are meaningless, but she snuggles closer when I utter them.
“Old Coot’s a good boy.”
As Holly Jolly, my veteran professional Therapy Dog who inspired this story wishes for us all in her
motto and creed:
"Live your lives with wind-in-fur."