In fact, until this trip home for the holidays, I had sometimes wondered if I should have inherited Tag. Tag’s adjustment would have been less jarring if he had stayed with me in Colorado and had an owner who was closer to John’s age and lifestyle.Yet, I knew my motivations were primarily selfish, and now I was witnessing how beautifully Mom and Tag were piecing their lives together. Mom had resumed her work as a photographer, and Tag now chased waterbirds along the shores of Lake Michigan rather than the chickens John kept on his property near the Rocky Mountains. Tag now heeled alongside Mom, though to her right side, the way my left-handed brother had purposely trained him so that he’d be away from the rifle on their occasional hunting trips. Tag’s stellar behavior evoked a pride in Mom, not only in Tag but also in her son’s fine ability with animals. Mom glimpsed John through Tag the way one sees a deceased loved one in a child who bears her likeness. As Mom and I sipped coffee in front of the Christmas tree on my first morning home, she invited me to witness a petassisted therapy program that she and Tag had become involved with over the last year. She was introduced to the program by a stranger who had remarked how well-trained Tag was.
“Yes, he is wonderful, but that credit really goes to my son,” Mom had explained. During the brief conversation that followed, the man said he volunteered with a group that helped others through the use of dogs. Then and there, Mom had resolved to sign up.
The next day, however, she’d questioned whether she had the emotional strength to work with people who had disabilities.We were grateful John’s departure from this world had been quick and peaceful. His girlfriend had smiled between sobs as she recounted that she and my brother had been goofing off on the mountain just moments before John, an expert skier, inexplicably collided with a tree, rupturing his aorta. John had, at least, not suffered—unlike those whom my mother would train Tag to assist. Despite her hesitations, Mom summoned the courage to contact the organization. “Chenny Troupe,” a cheerful woman answered. Chenny, Mom later learned, was the name of the pioneer dog of the program.
“My name is Mary Ann Alexander, and I have my son’s dog. Well, he’s my dog now,” she began.
The compassionate voice interrupted. “I know about your son,Mary Ann.My husband works with John’s father. I was at the funeral.My name is Carole Hunt.” This was an almost eerie coincidence in a city the size of Chicago. My mother’s resolve to train Tag in pet-assisted therapy was restored. Tag was hers for a reason. Maybe this was it.
When Mom received the Chenny Troupe brochure in the mail a few days later, she settled on the rug beside Tag to read it. The literature emphasized that, more than providing companionship, these therapy dogs helped with the rehabilitation of patients. The dogs needed to be not only well-trained but also gentle enough to work with children and energetic enough to engage a person with a disability. They must be patient and unbothered by wheelchairs, walkers, back braces or helmets as well as the awkward movements and vocalizations of some of the patients. Few dogs pass the rigorous obedience screening on the first try. The test date was only two weeks away. “You’ll do it, Tag,”Mom said, as she slid onto her side to lock eyes with her best friend. In a rare but increasingly frequent show of affection, Tag covered her face with kisses.
When the time came,Tag obeyed every instruction with an attentiveness that would have made John proud. Tag and my mother were invited into the program. Now, sitting in Mom’s kitchen a year later, I saw no trace of the initial butterflies she’d had, as she saddled Tag with his official work vest in preparation for tonight’s session. I, however, was nervous, even in my limited role as an observer. Then I remembered Mom commenting that Tag’s omniscient look had allayed her fears.When I saw the pure intention in his eyes, I felt my internal compass needle, haywire for over a year, regain its bearings.