In the three months since we started doing hospice work, Izzy has learned to spot and to head for wheelchairs and hospital beds. His gifts as a volunteer are multiple: gentleness, appropriateness, patience. He never pesters anybody or goes where he's not wanted. He can remain still for many minutes. When he's not wanted, he finds a corner to curl up and vanishes.
He approaches people in pain, people in comas, with dementia and paralysis, disfigured and frightened, always softly, carefully, and lovingly. He threads his way around IVs and oxygen tanks. I've never had a dog that could do this kind of work, nor could I begin to imagine how to train a dog to do it.
This time, though, as Izzy came to Etta's right knee, she cried out in alarm. Her hand jerked forward and she swatted him sharply across the nose.
Izzy was surprised. He backed up quietly, looked at me, and sat down. I rushed over, concerned about how he might react, but he seemed composed, calm. I talked to Etta, trying to reassure her, though she probably didn't understand. I remembered my training. Speak to people as if they do understand, even if you don't think they can. Because they might.
"Sit down, sit down," Etta kept pleading, as if she were, on some level, trying to be hospitable.
Izzy inched forward again, and again her hand lashed out—but this time, he was ready, and he was quick and backed away.
I kept talking to Etta, as I'd been trained, asking her how she was, as she clutched her stomach.
Izzy was watching carefully. When she put her right hand on her knee, he made his move, slithering toward her and placing his nose beneath her hand.
She froze, as if shocked, and her eyes widened. Her mouth opened, but no words came out. I saw her hand close over Izzy's slender nose as he sat stock-still. A slight smile came over her worried face, and she calmed, visibly. "Oh," she said, softly, with pleasure. "Oh. It's a dog."
Izzy didn't move for at least 10 minutes. Neither did Etta. She moaned still, but more softly.