My border collie Izzy comforts the dying.
Excerpted from Izzy & Lenore: Two Dogs, An Unexpected Journey, and Me, by Jon Katz, which comes out today from Villard.
The county health department was housed in a small wooden annex in run-down Fort Edward, N.Y., near the county jail. I parked the Blazer and opened the rear door for Izzy, who disembarked, sniffed around, then paused to look at me, awaiting instructions.
"This way, boy," I said, and he trotted along next to me toward the annex, ignoring a dog being walked nearby, a number of trucks and cars in motion, other people walking through the parking lot.
At the door, he walked inside, scanned the half-dozen people in the meeting room, and headed straight for Keith Mann, a muscular, bald man in a polo shirt emblazoned with the Washington County logo. Keith was running the series of hospice volunteer training sessions, held in the annex over several weeks.
Izzy sat down in front of Keith and put his nose in his hand. Keith handed us our name tags, as if it were perfectly ordinary to have trainees with either two legs or four. One said: "Izzy Katz, Volunteer."
This training would test both of us. I had a book coming out, so I was about to start an extended tour. Insanely busy running the farm, I was already harried and drained, struggling to find time to write.
Besides, hospice work was no simple undertaking. The training alone was thorough and demanding, involving considerable role-playing, reading, and memorizing. The volunteer's handbook weighed a good three pounds.
As a former police reporter, I'd seen plenty of bodies, but I'd rarely known anything about the people who died. Here, I would be going into homes and nursing facilities, getting to know people who were failing, getting to know their families, too—and ultimately seeing them die. How would I handle that? Could I do a good job, or would it be one of those projects I sometimes took on obsessively and then, exhausted, had to drop?
I'd gone back and forth about making this commitment. I didn't want to start something I couldn't finish, yet I was learning the hard way how unpredictable and cluttered my life had become.
At first, I'd thought that my busy schedule, complete with book tour, might cause the program to cut me some slack. Could I really drive three nights a week, for several weeks, to Fort Edward?
But it was clear, as Keith explained the volunteer training to me, that there would be no slack, no shortcuts—and that there shouldn't be. The hospice program needed to make quite sure that the people who entered patients' homes, where the psychological and physical issues were often intense, knew what they were doing and could handle what they encountered.
Accordingly, our training involved talks with social workers, doctors, and other volunteers; field trips to the homes of patients; quizzes—and constant monitoring by hospice staff, alert for weaknesses or problems that might arise. I found my motives questioned again and again. I actually had to defend my desire to enlist.
Keith was a skilled instructor, adhering strictly to his orientation and lesson plans—but he also kept a sharp eye on the volunteers to see how we reacted.
From the outset, at least one volunteer paid rapt attention. Izzy sat staring at Keith throughout nearly the entire session. Sometimes, I did look down to see Izzy dozing. But usually he was locked onto Keith, as if listening intently to every word. I half expected him to take notes.
When we took a break, Izzy followed me outside, where he found a bush to mark, then came back in and approached each of the other volunteers, putting his nose in their laps or on their knees. If they responded, he stayed a while. If they didn't, he moved on. Keith always brought a biscuit or two, so Izzy made sure to visit him during the break.
Several things struck me during our early training. Izzy seemed to have an innate sense of appropriateness. He never disrupted the talks or meetings by barking, whining, or even moving much. He understood that the breaks were a time for socializing but the rest of the session was work.
Six other volunteers were going through the training with us, all arrayed around a conference table, listening to lectures, watching slides, talking about our own lives and our abilities to enter other people's. Through it all, Izzy sat by my side or, often, at Keith's feet, taking it all in.
In a sense, hospice training challenges volunteers to go against the grain of what we ordinarily think of as support, concern, and affection. Normally, if I see people in distress, I try to reassure them, to tell them things will get better, that they're doing fine.
Hospice training teaches you to do the very opposite. In hospice, the ending will always be the same: The patient will not recover; there will be no eleventh-hour happy ending.
Reassurances and conventional wisdoms can't really help the dying or those who love them. Each person, family or friend, will experience death in their own intensely personal way, and I have no tonics for them, no words of cheer. I must leave my own experiences, perceptions, and responses at the door and permit them to face and experience death in whatever way they choose. My role is to listen and help only in the ways that I'm asked to. It's an extraordinarily sensitive situation.