Saturday, December 13, 2014

Four-Legged Therapists

I never considered myself a dog person - at least not in the typical sense of the word.  Though there were certainly plenty of dogs who have played a role in my life.

Heather Caro, Age 8
Growing up, my rural childhood home was a veritable revolving door of farm animals in the process of being "saved" by my brother and I.  Much to my father's dismay - and despite countless lectures - I liberated the Magpies from the carefully placed bird traps which speckled our cherry orchards and named each stray dog dropped off within a five mile radius. Abandoned barn kittens, a horse, turtles, an ill-fated muskrat and several rescued bunnies were literally my "pet projects".  In fact, I spent much of my time nursing tiny creatures in the hopes of accomplishing my ultimate goal:  dressing them in doll clothes.

And, because "aggressive nurturing" is sort of my thing, these antics have continued into my adult life as well.

Over the course of our marriage my husband has put up with countless additions to our family
including pregnant cats, stray dogs, doves, love birds, chickens and two children.   The next time you see him, ask hunky hubby about the time I brought home "Meatball" - the tiny yowling kitten with an intestinal disease who followed us around the house leaving a brown liquid trail.  (He loves telling that story).

But, although I have loved animals dearly, there's always been a distinct separation between "us" and "them".  And I can't say I ever had that intense Marley-and-Me, call-your-pets-kids bonding experience that dog people all seem to share.

That is, until I met Barley.

Barley was a sweet, fat, milk-chocolate lab who we found roaming through the orchard near my parent's home.  He was overweight, had hot spots and a nasty ear infection so par-for-the-course we took him in.  Later we would learn that Barley had a congenital disorder which would cause him to lose his sight. But none of that mattered to either Bar or us and he quickly settled in as part of the family.
Barley and his seeing eye kid.

Barley was the best of what his breed is known for.  He loved "food that fell on the floor", camping trips, swimming at the lake and just being close to the family.  He put up with the children when they used him as a pillow and - because they are my kids - dressed him in doll clothes.  But despite the best care we could give, Barley's vision declined rapidly.  By the time we moved to Coeur d' Alene, Barley's eyes were nearly opaque and we could no longer take him to the lake or outside without a leash, for fear he would wander or become lost in our yard.

However, instead of becoming irritable as many creatures do as they lose autonomy, Barley seemed to appreciate his human guides all the more.  He would follow our voices and eventually memorized the floor plan of our new home, though something as simple as a laundry basket could send him into a tailspin.  Guests watched in amused horror as Barley made his way around the house with all the grace of a pinball - stumbling down stairs, running into walls and upsetting his water dish before finally settling into his "spot" on the couch, regardless of who happened to be occupying it at the time.

But as fond of this goofy dog as we were, it was my own illness - and Barley's role in my recovery - which finally clenched my personal membership into the "dog person" club.
Note:  My primary coping mechanism is sarcasm.

Barley had always been a fantastic napper, but as my days ground to a forcible halt and the weeks stretched into months throughout my recovery period, he seemed to sense how much I needed him and never left my side.  Often, before I opened my eyes from a nap I would allow my hand to drop to the side of the couch to find his soft fur to help ground me as I came back to reality.  Barley's "spot" transitioned to wherever I happened to be resting and there he stood guard throughout my illness - his milky eyes fixed on the wall in front of him and his head in his paws.

Barley taught me more about patience and acceptance than any formal doctrine ever could.  Sometimes when I gazed into his patient, milky eyes I felt certain that he must be the Buddah incarnate.

But then he would poop on the couch again and I felt fairly sure the Buddah would never do that.

Ever so slowly - one nap at a time - I began to gain strength again after being ill for so long.
But just as surely as I began to find my footing in the world, my sweet chemo nap companion began to lose his.  By the end of the year, Barley had lost his sight, hearing and often his continence - and yet I could not concede that perhaps the kindest thing I could do for my friend was to let him go.
After all, there were probably days when Barley looked at me and thought to himself - "Why don't they put that poor, suffering girl out of her misery?"  But eventually there came a day when even I could no longer deny it was time.  Saying goodbye to my "fur-baby" was one of the most difficult things I've ever done and something that I don't like to think about even today.
I think I posted more photos of Finn than my own children
during his puppyhood.
For too long, death played a leading role in our day-to-day existence.  We danced with death through my treatments, prepared for it, fought against it, cursed it and grieved it.  And when we finally began to rise up against death's oppressive rule over our lives - it took our  dog.  And frankly it was almost too much to bear.   

So, following in the footsteps of so many widows and widowers who remarry soon after the loss of their beloved - we decided to get a puppy.

Looking back, this was a ballsy move and it certainly could have backfired. But thankfully, we lucked out with Finnigan - the Boston Terrier mix who breathed life into our grieving family.  Since his entrance into our lives, Finn has brought light, love and only one shoe chewed beyond recognition (which is pretty good all things considered).
Puppy dog eyes.

Finn was the first friendship I made "AC" (after cancer) and it was through his big, brown puppy eyes that I finally began to make the transition from cancer patient back to caregiver and beyond that - just me.

The months after I completed treatment were a dark time.  Awash in a sea of grief, I struggled to find my bearings or even put words to the questions that lurked in the shadows.  Life felt unexpectedly heavy and uncertain in a way that I had no experience with.  And because I left no breadcrumbs to mark my way, even my most devoted support team could not lead me from the woods.

But here was this little creature who did not care that my body lay broken and scarred.  He did not know, nor need to know, the girl who was lost along the way.  Finn loved us unconditionally - because we were his.  

And eventually that's all that really mattered.                                                                                                                                                      
Is there anything better than puppy snuggles?  I think not.
Four-legged therapy sessions.
Puppy Love.
Rebel without a cause.
There are not enough doggie treats in Petco to repay my fuzzy little fur-babies for all they have given to our family.

Sweet Bar stayed beside me while the proverbial rug was ripped from beneath our feet.  And little Finn taught our whole family how to pick up the pieces and move on.  In their own way, they each helped us to heal.  And through their friendship I finally achieved official "dog person" status.

So, to all the people out there who take their dogs to visit Santa, allow them to take up 2/3 of the bed, purchase ridiculously expensive food for them and put up with chewed footware - I get it now.  I really do.

Four-legged therapists are worth every penny and sacrificed hours of sleep we could possibly give.  And I wouldn't have it any other way (even if it means opening the sliding glass door for the umpteenth time this morning).