This whole dog thing started because of a story Verna used to tell over and over again. It was a very sad story I can’t bear to repeat, but it had to do with leaving behind her much-loved dog when she moved to Cleveland from Pennsylvania decades ago. 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 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.
If you don’t much care for dogs, you should probably stop reading now. Sometimes when I start on this track, even talking to people who loved Verna, their eyes glaze over, and I realize they’re feeling the disengagement of non-dog-lovers when people like me start going on about dogs. Not everyone loves dogs, so feel free to just move along and read something else now. No hard feelings.
Verna died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 95, and her funeral was today. I’ve been thinking about what to say about her, if anything, and finally felt inspired by our dog connection. Because Verna loved dogs and couldn’t have one, a few years ago I asked my friend Joanne to bring Portia, her lovely golden retriever in possession of an actual therapy dog certificate, to visit Verna with me. Portia is calm and sweet, and Verna really enjoyed meeting her and petting her. Then, by a convoluted set of circumstances, I acquired our little dog Roxie and tried her out with Verna. At first, Roxie was antsy, exploring Verna’s rooms, and Verna would insist that Roxie must have to pee. But she didn’t. She just had to get acclimated. After awhile 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 getting her face licked. Roxie accommodated herself to Verna’s skinny lap and sat with her for as long as we wanted her to.
About ten months ago, Verna’s health problems worsened. She ended up in a nursing home about five minutes from my house. I soon ascertained that the nice attendants welcomed visits from dogs, and I began taking Roxie along with me. Some of the other residents clearly didn’t like dogs or were afraid even of a seven-pound Maltese, but others were excited to see Roxie come in. Verna always enjoyed it, and Roxie made things easier for me, frankly, because as Verna’s memory gradually failed, Roxie gave us something to talk about. Verna couldn’t tell stories anymore or recall her recent visitors. Because Verna’s mind was entirely in the present, Roxie was the perfect visitor, because Roxie the dog lives 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 to balance on Verna’s sloping legs in a wheelchair, and Roxie would keep her eyes on my face, checking to make sure she was supposed to stay there. Eventually, she’d settle in, lie down, and accept Verna’s affectionate petting. She’d greet the other residents joyfully, even when they were loud and clumsy.
Like pretty much everything in life, these memories are a mixed blessing now that Verna’s gone. I’m glad she and Roxie got to know each other, I’m grateful the nursing home was welcoming, and I’m happy I visited as much as I did, although I could have done more. Now, though, when I look at Roxie’s entreating face, I don’t just see my funny, much-loved dog. I see her perched on Verna’s lap, and she reminds me of my loss.