One of the aides came in on her rounds and looked shocked. "My God," she said, "that's the first time I've ever seen her smile." She called for help from another aide. While Izzy and I stepped out into the hall, they got Etta up, changed and bathed her, got her into bed. By the time we came back in, she had fallen asleep.
So, we went back down that long hallway.
"What a beautiful dog. I wish he could be here, but he's better off where he is," one of the women told me. "Don't let him stay here."
Izzy and I have visited a number of patients by now, and the hospice people are right: It's sad to see somebody die. But it doesn't have to be depressing. Sometimes it can be beautiful, quite powerful, especially when the people are comfortable and cared for, and have a sense of control.
Izzy has his rounds, patients who wait for his visits. There's a 6-year-old boy with a brain tumor; Izzy puts his head on the boy's chest, and the two lie together for long moments while the boy strokes Izzy's coat. A man with bone cancer asked to see Izzy just before he died. When Maria, an 80-year-old Alzheimer's patient who was one of Izzy's favorites, died, Maria's daughter asked if Izzy could come pay a final visit to the home. He hopped into Maria's bed and lay still on her pillow. Maria's daughter burst into tears.
I don't really know why Izzy brings peace and pleasure to people in their final days and hours. There is little research about this kind of interaction, and I prefer to keep it a mystery. Maybe the people are remembering the dogs they loved as children. Perhaps the gentle touch is what matters, what gets through.
Whatever the reason, I see the same thing over and over. People startle, then smile, and the tension drains. They grow more peaceful, feel safer. There are some things experts and studies can't explain, even in our sound-bite-obsessed culture.
When I think of my work with Izzy, I often think of Sam, a middle-aged man dying of cancer who was pale and weak but alert, even cheerful. When we entered his house, Izzy would trot toward Sam, purposefully, making strong eye contact, tail swishing.
The last time we saw him, Sam laughed softly as he saw Izzy coming, and he put his hand over Izzy's head, scratching it softly. As Izzy sat by him, he closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair. Everyone in the room was mesmerized by the palpable connection between these two.
After a few minutes, we said our goodbyes. When Izzy paused, turning as if he forgot something, he returned to Sam for a final pat. "Izzy, thanks," he said. "See you on the other side." We didn't see him again.