I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.” Job 29:13
I like to remind myself that I am different from the other people in this “independent” living community. It makes me feel better to think so, and while this conclusion may be emotionally motivated, I think I can support it with a number of rational facts. I am younger than the rest of the residents. I’m only fifty-three and most of the others are over the Biblical allocation of three score and ten. I am here because I have multiple sclerosis, and when this weakness was compounded by a car accident, some kind of compromise to my lifestyle became necessary. And while I am a woman – and almost all of the residents here are women – I am not a widow. I’ve never married. I have known I had MS since I was twenty-five; men have always been nice to me, but no one ever wanted to take responsibility. While the widows all came here still adjusting to being alone (some are adjusting so well that they have never been happier), no such adjustment was necessary in my case. In fact, I find I am less alone here than I have been for the last thirty years. Not only do I now live physically closer to people than ever before, but this entire place was built to accommodate the handicapped, so I can get around easily. I have an aide who comes in once a day to help me, but I can still get out of bed and even walk a little with the help of my sticks, although I spend most of the day in my wheelchair. I am the only one here in a chair, although there are a couple of women using canes or walkers. If the old people here can’t get around without wheels, they usually end up in the nursing home part of this place, which is across the street and might as well be across the River Styx. I’m also a different case because I am young and strong in other ways – meaning I can still get to the toilet on my own which is a determining factor in life. Can’t go to school until you are potty-trained, can’t stay on this side of the road once you lose that important skill.
Finally, I am different because I do not have a pet. This center was opened after a big splash was made by Dr. William Thomas and his “Eden Alternative.” Dr. Thomas made a convincing case that old folks needed their animals. He backed it up with medical evidence, and published his ideas in all the journals and papers. It made great television news – all those kittens and puppies and old folks. The organization which runs Bonnie Acres decided to try it here. They even designed the facility to make it easier to care for and clean up after animals. It was a big hit; the place filled up right away. All of the old ladies have pets. So, I watch the old ladies and their dogs.
The rule is the pet cannot weigh more than fifteen pounds – the size of a big cat or a very small dog. Most of the women choose a dog, but there are a few exceptions. I don’t know anything about the cats because they never come out of the apartments, although I do notice them sitting in the windows sometimes. The cats are a lot like me, sitting in the window, watching for things that move or soaking up the sun in the wintertime. The dogs are more interesting animals to observe, though. And, because the dogs cannot go in and out by themselves, I watch the women too. They dote on their dogs, and if the dogs need to go out ten times a day, so do the widows. So I get to know the women and their dogs very well.
I do not believe I could handle a dog very well. My hands could not hold a leash or manage to tie it to my wheelchair very easily. I certainly could not bend over or manipulate those little plastic bags to pick up the dog poop, nor could I stuff it into the ugly blue containers the management has distributed all over the grounds. If I had a dog it would be depositing its leavings for all to see, and there would be nothing anyone could do about it. Plus, I have barely been able to be responsible for myself for years, never mind responsible for anything else. If I could walk and bend and go where I please, I doubt whether I would let some little ten pound canine lead me around by a leash and force me to pick up its shit. But this is what these fortunate able-bodied women do all day. It is hard to comprehend why. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have a dog or cat, but I do enjoy watching the other women make fools of themselves.
Meg Verdon lives just below me and has a Miniature Dachshund she calls Pudge – for good reason. I know it is a Miniature Dachshund because I look all of these dogs up on the American Kennel Club web site on my computer and I can usually figure out what they are. When I get stymied, it is usually because they are some mixed breed (Susan Lowe who lives down the hall calls her mutt a “designer dog”) or because the owner has given her pooch some kind of ridiculous haircut making it unrecognizable. While most of these dogs are silly to look at, it is even more amusing to read about why they were bred to look the way they do. Dachshunds, for example, were bred to hunt badgers and other burrowing animals – they could go right down the holes after them and were known to be determined little buggers. Tell that to Pudge. The end result of all that cross-breeding was this fat little animal keeping Meg company in her old age. Sometimes early in the morning if the windows are open and the televisions are not on yet, I can hear Meg talking to Pudge – and I have to admit I feel sorry for poor Pudge, who would probably rather be facing down a rabid badger than sitting in that apartment listening to Meg. She tells the dog everything she is going to do. “I think I’ll have a cup of coffee now, Pudge” she says. She tells him every passing thought. “I’m thinking of that house we used to rent on Prudence Island, Pudge. Henry used to love that place.” She asks him stupid questions. “Do you love Mommy, Pudge? Does Pudge love Mommy?” Pudge loves food and the soft sofa and taking walks and smelling what the other dogs have left behind, that’s what Pudge loves. But, there is little doubt that Meg loves Pudge.
On the left of me live Louise and her Yorkshire terrier (she calls him a Yorkie). Her Yorkie is called Tiger, which is funny enough, but she makes it worse by occasionally keeping the hair out of his eyes with little barrettes in a variety of styles to match the seasons and holidays. Thus, we will be expected to ooh and ahh when Tiger shows up with his hair clipped back by an Easter bunny in a few weeks. Jesus died for this? While Meg must worry about keeping Pudge under the weight limit, there is no such problem with Tiger – he looks like he could get sucked up by one of those machines they use to clean the carpets around here on the first Monday of every month. Nevertheless, Louise parades him up and down the sidewalks on the leash, as if he could ever really try to get away, and picks up his droppings (which are so small I can’t even see them from my window) with the little plastic bags and dumps them in the blue metal containers. It is a ritual.
Meg and Louise, of course, are widows, like most of the women in the complex. If Meg has any children, I’ve never seen them. Louise has a married daughter who visits regularly, but the daughter and son-in-law spend more time talking to Tiger than to Louise. It’s probably easier on everyone that way. I see all three of them taking Tiger for a walk and telling Tiger what a good boy he is. Sometimes the son-in-law takes Tiger down the sidewalk and out of the complex and leaves the two women alone. They look bereft and usually sit on a bench and don’t say much. They keep looking up to see when Tiger will be back.
Sally is one of the few, like me, who has never been married. She keeps a cat and keeps to herself. When I think of it, most of the women here who keep a cat have always been single. I don’t know them as well, because they do not come and go as much. I don’t think they talk to their cats as much as the widows talk to their dogs, either. Sally lives on the other side of me, and I rarely hear anything from her. I suppose the women with husbands and families were used to talking to someone, and they just can’t stop. In any case, I have rarely heard Sally talk to her cat. Of course, when I see her outside, the cat is not with her – and that is almost never true of the widows, who hardly ever go anywhere without their dogs.
The complex limits all residents to one pet, which is a good thing for the grounds and the noise level – small dogs have high-pitched yaps and I have more than once been jarred out of a sound sleep by Tiger – but it’s probably not healthy for the dogs or the widows. These women have enough energy and attention to bestow on a barnyard of animals. Some smart cookie opened a pet emporium in the strip mall at the end of the access road and they are doing a good business in collars and winter coats for the under fifteen pound set. The local public library sends the bookmobile here every other week, and I notice they have also learned to load up on books on dogs, dog-training, and even those awful memoirs about the author and his dog.
I do admit I would fit in better and have more friends here if I had a dog. Pets are not only the subject of most conversations, they also seem to be the medium of communication – when two or more of the widows get together they are either talking to each other about the dogs or talking to each other’s dogs. It prevents them from having to talk directly to each other, I suppose – something they all want to avoid and probably the reason they hardly ever talk to me. The dogs work like a filter – everything comes through the non-judgmental gaze of a little animal, otherwise it is all too frightening. Gives a new meaning to the term “guard dog.” I suppose what works, works – and the widows are certainly too old to change. It makes me wonder what happens across the street at the nursing home where they take the dogs away, and also makes me glad I am only dependent on this wheelchair.
Even as old as most of the widows are, every so often one of their dogs bites the dust before their keepers do. Rarely do these pooches just roll over and die. Usually the dog gets sick and the vet recommends euthanasia, so there is a decision to be made – which necessitates great wailing and gnashing of teeth. It is the one ethical dilemma in which the whole community here gets involved. Forget the Iraq war or poverty or the oil robber barons – I have yet to overhear any conversation on these subjects. But if one of the residents has to make a decision as to whether to put the pooch to sleep, everyone’s input is solicited and all weigh in. Everyone whose dog it is not thinks it is the humane thing to do. Until it is their dog’s turn. Of course, in the end – and the action is delayed by various amounts of time depending on the characteristics of the owner – the termination is carried out and there is general grieving and the eventual spreading of the ashes in the meadow just beyond where the poop is ritually deposited. The community lamentation is replaced in almost exactly three weeks by fascination with the new (replacement) puppy. Such is life. At least, such is life at Bonnie Acres Whole Living Center.
I sometimes wonder if, when they are making the decision about knocking off the old dog, it occurs to the widows that their children (or someone) will soon be making the same decision about them. I have a living will, and I hope someone will pull the plug without a huge amount of discussion. Since my brother George is my agent for this and I haven’t seen him in over a year, I somehow think he won’t have any trouble carrying out my wishes, assuming they can track him down. Considering he was the one driving when the accident happened which landed me here (of course the results were only as bad as they were because I had MS to start with), some people find it surprising he doesn’t show up more often, at least out of guilt. I think he stays away out of guilt; he can’t stand to see me here. I understand. I am not sure I would be any different if it he had the problems. Our family was not big on facing up to things, on coming close to people. We incline more naturally to watching out of windows. Anyway, I think George could pull the plug on me with a lot less fuss than these widows make for their pooches.
Usually, however, it is the dogs which outlive the old ladies. And that is where things get really strange, because I have never been able to figure out what happens to those dogs. Sometimes the old women just die in their sleep. That’s what happened to old Lucille, down at the end of the hall. She must have died in her recliner watching the news or something, because by the time they figured it out the next day she was sitting in front of Oprah and was completely stiff – she had been dead for one long time. All those commercials were wasted on that old woman. I never found out what happened to the ugly little Boston terrier she carried around. It wasn’t just me wondering either – several of the women asked me what I knew about it and someone even asked Carol, the woman who manages the site. Carol doesn’t live here, but she came when Betsy found Lucille and called the ambulance. Carol didn’t know either. Of course, no one really wanted to find the dog because then we would have to figure out what to do with it, and while all these ladies love their own dogs, they all probably thought Lucille’s precious Lance was as ugly and obnoxious as I thought he was. Love is definitely in the eye of the owner.
Even when the old folks don’t actually check out, it is hard to figure out what happens to the dogs. Not long after Lucille was turned to ashes and mailed to her nearest relations in Oregon, Betsy herself had a stroke at the hairdresser and went straight to the hospital and from there across the highway to the nursing home. I haven’t seen her – I don’t do hospitals or high maintenance facilities unless it’s me that’s sick and then it has to be critical – but they tell me she can’t talk or walk – nothing. They don’t even have her rigged up with one of those computer things so she can spell out messages – she’s just out of it. She left a long-haired Chihuahua somewhere – but nobody could find it in the apartment. Some of the other ladies use the same hairdresser where Betsy took her fit, and there was no news of it there either. There was a rumor it went to the hospital in the ambulance with her, but that seems unlikely. Her daughter came looking for it a couple of days after Betsy went into the hospital, but if you ask me, she didn’t seem too upset it wasn’t around. In dog years, it was probably even older than Betsy and looked it. Well, it didn’t look worse than Betsy, I guess, but dogs have the advantage of not having a hairdresser to make it worse.
In any case, there remains the problem of what happens to these dogs. No one goes on a crusade about it for fear they will end up responsible for the little mutts if they turn up, but it is a mystery. I am thinking about all of this right now because I am up in the middle of the night. About a half hour ago an ambulance arrived and the EMT’s came up to Anita Sargent’s place across the hall – Louise let them in. No sirens, but that might just have been because it was three in the morning. They’ve been over there all this time and I have heard Joo-Joo barking on and off – just those little sissy barks a five pound tea cup poodle makes at the same time the effort sends it into auto reverse. Joo-Joo is a very young tea-cup poodle; Anita’s only had him for about a year. She lost a slightly larger dog a while before that, and she got a tiny one because it had gotten hard for her to walk, and I guess she could use some kind of absorbent pads on the floor with one this small, so it didn’t need to go out so often. Anyway, there’s trouble over there. I cracked my door to keep track of what’s going on, but no one else around here seems to have woken up. Just now they seem to be taking her out and it doesn’t look good – her face isn’t covered up or anything and they’ve got tubes coming out of her, but it sure as hell looks like she’s not coming back to change Joo-Joo’s absorbent pads. Louise brings up the rear, they close the apartment door, and I hear them load the ambulance and drive away. Louise must have gone with them, because I don’t hear her coming back, but I sit in my wheelchair in the dark where I can see through the cracked door, just in case.
Just as I had about given up, the door across the hall cracked open again. There was no light in Anita’s apartment, but a very young man with thick ginger hair, very fair and freckled, and about seventeen years old, steps out and quietly shuts the door. He starts cautiously down the hall, but I can not resist. I roll out into the hallway and called out for him to wait. He jumps and turns at the sound of my voice.
“Wait, wait! Are you a relative of Anita’s? What happened? How is she?”
He stands with his wide eyes looking to the left and right of me, but never resting directly on my face. Something is not right. He waits too long to respond. I decide to be proactive.
“Are you supposed to be here? Did you lock up Anita’s apartment? Where is the dog? Why didn’t you go with the ambulance? I think I better call someone.” I start to get between him and the hall exit. While he looks suspicious, he does not look at all dangerous. He finally looks right at me.
“No, please. I am a friend. It is all right. I am leaving. I’ll lock the door. Joo-Joo will be fine.”
“We’d better check. She loves that dog.”
“Yes. No. But we don’t need to check.” He stopped, tilted his head to the right, and looked resigned to an unfortunate situation. “I’m Joo-Joo. I’m the dog. I’m leaving. I know you don’t understand and no one will believe you, but young novices like me get assigned to help old ladies like Anita. Until they are done here. Anita is done and so am I. And so is Joo-Joo.”
I wonder if the ambulance needs to come back for one more passenger – for the psych ward. But the more I look at this young man, the more he looks like Joo-Joo. In any case, his voice is soft and seductive, and he seems to believe what he is saying.
“So you were a lapdog? Are you nuts? Some wizard made you a lapdog for an old lady? It sounds awful. I can’t imagine anything worse. Why did you do it?” I am torn between asking him if he is crazy and questioning him as if he were really the dog.
“Not a wizard. Not a wizard at all. And it wasn’t awful. Anita loved me and talked to me and I gave her a way to be in the world. I have never felt so important. And it was the job I was assigned to do. It must have been important or I wouldn’t have been asked. I was glad to do it and it was interesting being a dog, although it was hard not being able to explore on my own very much. But there were lessons to learn for me too. There are still lessons to learn. But not with Anita. Please don’t try to tell anyone – they won’t believe you anyway, and they already think you are a little strange. Maybe someone will be here to help you soon.”
“You mean I will have to get a pet?”
“Not necessarily. That is only one way. And not all pets are creatures like me. But many are and it works quite well. But other things work too. Watch carefully. We know life is not easy, but it is not meant to be unbearable, so watch carefully. There is help when it is needed.” He starts around me toward the lighted exit sign. I am too stunned to speak.
At the last minute he turns. “And have patience with those who need more help than you,” he adds. “Or need a different kind of assistance. Or for whom life is hard in a different way. Take care. Take care.” He shuts the door to the stairwell behind him.
I wheel into my apartment and shut the door tightly and begin waiting for my help. I think a cat might be easier to handle than a dog, but a dog would get me outdoors more.