My border collie Izzy comforts the dying.
Carol introduced us loudly and slowly. "This is Izzy," she said. "And Jon. They've come to see you. Izzy is just like Flash. You remember Flash, Mama, don't you?"
Jamie stared at the ceiling and began mumbling. I came to the foot of the bed, looked at Izzy, and gestured to the foot of the bed; he hopped up. "Stay," I whispered, and he sat stock-still.
Jamie seemed unaware of his presence. I waited. Carol was quiet, too. Keith, watching from the doorway, might have been nervous about what would happen with Washington County Hospice's first canine volunteer.
Izzy seemed a bit uncertain, not sure what was happening, looking first at me, then at Jamie. He'd never been in the company before of someone so debilitated, so close to the end; clearly, it was strange to him. Was it smart, I found myself wondering, to bring along this dog, who'd spent most of the first four years of his life alone outdoors? But he looked all right, his ears and tail up, no signs of stress or anxiety. In fact, he seemed to be studying the room, looking carefully at me, at Jamie and Carol, seeking cues.
He cocked his head at me. "It's OK, Iz," I said. "Say hello."
He seemed to get it then, some invisible trigger or instinct kicking in. I hovered nearby, ready to move in quickly if there was trouble. This was a dying woman who didn't want to be touched. Would she be frightened or perhaps frighten Izzy? How would he respond to a situation he'd never been in, couldn't really be trained in advance to handle?
He lay down and very slowly began inching up the side of the bed. He didn't step on Jamie, or even graze her frail body, just crept slowly alongside her. When he got close to her hand, he burrowed his head beneath it and lay still.
Jamie stopped muttering. Her face looked alarmed at first; then she broke into a slight smile. She didn't look at Izzy, but moved her hand slightly, feeling his forehead and his ears.
"Oh," she said. "Oh." And then, smiling, "Oh, how pretty ... pretty."
"This is the first time she's said real words in weeks," Carol whispered, astonished.
Izzy kept quite still as Jamie stroked him and talked in disjointed sentences, still smiling. After a while, she drifted off. A few minutes later, her hand still resting on Izzy's head, she awakened and stared at the ceiling, and smiled again. She seemed calmer than when we'd come in.
After 15 minutes, without instruction, Izzy extricated himself and skipped down from the bed, circling around to Carol, offering her a friendly paw. She kneeled on the floor, weeping, and held Izzy for a long moment. Then our visit was over, the hospice canine volunteer program launched.
"I can't explain how much this means," Carol told me as we left. "For a minute I had my mother back."
We agreed to return the following week. Later, we learned that Jamie allowed Carol to bathe and change her without fear or resistance. Why this would be true was nothing any of us could explain, but something was different.
Outside, Keith shook my hand and leaned over to praise Izzy. "This works," he said. "This is awesome. Izzy is a natural. You aren't so bad yourself."