“I used to have dogs,” Mary tells me slowly, “before I got sick.” She is propped in bed on a pile of pillows, staring intently at my therapy dog, Wendel. Bob, her son, had called the agency where Wendel and I do hospice volunteering, “My mom’s health has gone downhill, is there someone with a pet who could visit her?” According to Bob, Mary had been diagnosed with terminal cancer several months ago. Although Mary had full-time caretakers, her two dogs had been given away as she was no longer able to care for them, and Bob’s busy job as an advertising executive prevented him from looking after them. As a nurse for the last twenty-five years, I recognized the ashen color and gaunt features of a patient who was coming to the end of her life. Hospice work entails a deep respect for the dying person’s wishes and honors their experiences and life. As I stood at Mary’s bedside waiting for her next move, it occurred to me that to be without animals after a lifetime of their love had to be the one of the most painful part of letting go of our lives.
For this visit, as with all of our encounters, Wendel is dressed in a costume and armed with a full repertoire of tricks. Part of our purpose is bringing smiles to those who welcome a respite from their pain and sorrow, and Wendel is trick-trained in addition to his pet therapy certification. Mary is quiet, as if carefully considering this new turn of events, perhaps weighing the costs – one more painful good-bye? Wendel waits too, after five-hundred hours of volunteer service he’s practiced at reading his patients and waiting for my signals. I watch as Mary’s face softens and a smile spreads across her face, the moment has come. I nod to Wendel and he greets Mary with his signature wave. She pats the bed and I lift Wendel to her side.
During the next two months, I find out that Mary eloped, had two sons, one of whom had died in a car accident, wished that she had gone to college, and loved Elvis with all her heart.
Our twenty minute visits stretched to leisurely afternoons including board games, helping her with correspondence, and listening to her tales of corn fields, the Great Depression and her first television set. Wendel was always close and entertained Mary with his antics until a rest for her was indicated. Her condition stabilized for a time, but the signs returned. Mary’s breathing was becoming labored, her appetite had all but disappeared, and our visits had become quieter, more of a peaceful acknowledgement of each other’s presence. As I gathered my things one day to go, Mary whispered “Do you have to leave so soon?” She began gulping air and her body shook with a spasm.
I paged Bob and the Hospice Chaplain, and as we waited for her last breath, Mary’s hand rested on Wendel’s head. Bob called weeks later to thank us and share a note he’d found in his mother’s belongings, “I love you always Wendel, thank you for being my friend. Bless you, Karen, for bringing him to me and for your caring.”
Written by Karen Murdock, January 2011