When Red and I met Christy a month or so ago, she was getting sick, bronchitis, she thought, or a bad cold. It persisted, we saw her in her room a few times, and a week or so ago, she wasn't there, everyone said she had gone to the hospital. She and Red had made a connection as Red often does with people.
Nobody knew when she might come back, or if she would come back.
At the Mansion, the staff and residents live in a different reality People come and go. (Herman is in the hospital now, he is expected back at the Mansion in a few days). The residents understand this is their reality, they tell me all of the time that they might not see me again when I visit, some of them say farewell to Red each time.
I learned in hospice work to not be surprised or discouraged if people were not there when I visited. I learned that this was not drama, or even tragedy. It was life. The staff at the Mansion knows this. In public, they are always up, always hopeful, always optimistic. In private, they feel everything.
The staff, devoted to the residents, accepts this curious reality, so different from the lives of most people. They have no choice, really. And if I want to do therapy work with Red, neither do I.
People are there, talking and walking sitting in the Activity Room one day, sitting and chatting, laughing and kidding, then gone the next. Just vanished. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they go to nursing homes, sometimes they are transferred out for more care.
Sometimes they die. The residents note these changes, but they have also learned not to show much emotion about this coming and going, it is their life.
The staff is always up, always optimistic. They always have a smile for everybody, sometimes I need one, sometimes they need one. I make sure Red spends some time with them also.
They say they expect everyone who leaves to return and are excited if and when they do, and largely silent if they don't.
Connie is friendly with Christie, they often ate together in the dining room. I asked Connie how Christie was doing and she said she didn't know, she seemed worried about her. I asked a staff member how she was doing, and she said she was having a hard time.
I don't ask many questions because they can't give me any answers, asking a lot puts them in a bad spot.
The other morning, I was surprised to get a Facebook message from Christie, I didn't recognize her full name at first until I read the message: "I am going home from the hospital tomorrow. I look forward to seeing Red and you. You all bring such a wave of joy and warmth. So, see you soon!"
I was happy to see this message, technology permits me to continue this work, even if we are not present.
"We will come and see you at the Mansion, Christie," I replied, and the next day we did.
But she wasn't there. She had been rushed back to the hospital. I got a message from Christie the next morning: "Well, I am still at the hospital. Maybe tomorrow." I hope so, I answered. I asked her to let me know.
The next day, it was my turn to message first, Christie seemed to be up early, like me.
"How are you, Christie?"
She answered right away: "Hello, I am not doing so well. I don't know when I will be home. How is Red?"
I told Maria I needed to go see her in the hospital, I just had a sense about it. This morning, Red and I drove to the hospital, it was not too long a ride, I had his rabies certificate and therapy badge. At hospitals someone always stops me and says dogs are not allowed, but I always call first to make sure they are.
Many of the volunteers don't know about therapy dogs. In some wards, Red and I have to wear paper booties, I carry them in the car.
The nurses love to see the dogs, they always come over to say hi and pet or hug Red. They always tell me about their dogs and say they will be jealous of Red if they get his smell. I never tell them that dogs don't get jealous, that is a human trait.
A doctor walking by smiled at Red and said that dogs were allowed, he said I had the right papers and Red had the right tag.
We went up the elevator, Red was terrified of the shiny floor, we had to walk slowly. We got up the right floor and found Christie's room, she was sitting up next to her bed, breathing out of an oxygen mask, half asleep. She had wires and tubes coming in and out of her from all directions.
When she saw me and Red, she lit up, pulled the mask off.
She said she was having some tremors, and couldn't remember things and she told me the long list of things that were bothering her. I listened. She said she wasn't doing so well. She never stopped smiling.
She had a table in front of her, all kinds of wires running between her and the table, it couldn't be moved, her lunch was on it. Red navigated the space beautifully, he weaved between the wires, crawled under the table, and popped his head out in Christie's lap. Red is a pro, he never even looked at the food sitting on the tray right above his head.
The smile on Christie's face when she saw Red was well worth the trip and time. We were there for a half hour and Christie began to get tired, and I knew she had to eat. We said we needed to leave her with her lunch.
Connie had told me to make sure and scold her if she wasn't eating right. But I didn't know what she was supposed to eat and if she was eating it. I don't ever scold the people I visit about their health or habits, not my job. I just bring the dog and listen. Christie and I had a good and open talk. She said she didn't know if she was returning to the Mansion, it wasn't decided, she said. She kept smiling at Red and bragging to the nurses about him.
I said I would try and come back after the big storm that is supposed to hit tomorrow and Wednesday. We talked about the weather. She said somewhat ruefully that weather didn't matter to her any longer, one way or the other. She thanked me several times for coming, she said it was a wonderful surprise to see me and Red.
I squeezed her hand and the took Red's head in her hands and held them there. "Thanks for coming, Red," she said. "Be good."