This whole dog thing started because of a story Verna used to tell over and over again. It was a very sad story and I can’t bear to repeat it, but it had to do with leaving behind her much-loved dog when she moved to Cleveland from Pennsylvania decades earlier.
I used to drive Verna to church, and whenever she saw someone walking a dog, she would repeat that story, much to my dismay, and end by saying she loved dogs and wished she could have a dog in her Shaker Heights apartment. Even when she became unsteady on her feet, Verna would insist she’d like to have a black Lab, her favorite breed. A Lab could have knocked Verna over just by breathing on her, but that was the kind of dog she hankered for.
We had several connections. We knew and loved many of the same people at our church. We both liked to read. We both loved dogs. So because Verna couldn’t have a dog, and I was between dogs, a few years ago I asked my friend Joanne to bring Portia, her lovely Golden Retriever with an actual therapy dog certificate, to visit Verna with me. Portia was calm and sweet, and Verna really enjoyed meeting her and petting her.
Then, when we acquired our little dog Roxie, I tried her out with Verna. At first, Roxie was antsy, sniffing around Verna’s rooms, and Verna would insist that Roxie must have to pee. But she didn’t. She just had to get acclimated. After a while, Roxie would calm down and sit on Verna’s lap, and Verna would pet her. Even though Roxie is about one-tenth the size of Verna’s preferred dog variety, they got along. Verna called Roxie cute and enjoyed having her face licked. Roxie accommodated herself to Verna’s skinny lap and sat with her for as long as we wanted her to.
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Last year, Verna’s health problems worsened. She ended up in a nursing facility about five minutes from my house. When I found out that the nice attendants welcomed visits from dogs, I began bringing Roxie along with me. Some of the residents clearly didn’t like dogs or were afraid even of a seven-pound Maltese, but others were excited to see Roxie come in. She greeted them all joyfully, no matter how loud and awkward they were.
Roxie made Verna smile and also made things easier for me, frankly, because as Verna’s memory gradually failed, Roxie gave us both something to talk about. Verna could no longer tell stories—about her muchloved dog or anything else—and she didn’t recall who had visited her recently. Because Verna’s mind was entirely in the present, Roxie was the perfect visitor, because Roxie lives solely in the present, too.
It moved me not only to see how much Verna enjoyed Roxie, but how earnestly Roxie attempted to do the right thing for all of us. It was hard for her to balance on wheelchair-bound Verna’s sloping legs, especially on Verna’s signature polyester black pants. Roxie would keep her eyes on my face, checking to make sure she was supposed to stay on Verna’s lap. Eventually, she’d settle in, lie down and accept Verna’s affectionate petting.
Since Verna’s recent death, these memories, like pretty much everything in life, are now a mixed blessing. I’m glad she and Roxie got to know each other, and I’m grateful the nursing home was welcoming, and I’m happy I visited as much as I did, though I could have done more.
When I look at Roxie now, though, I don’t just see my own funny, much-loved dog. I see her perched on Verna’s lap, and she reminds me of my loss.