So which to tackle first? Dogs. Or rather dog as conduit to a light at the end of the tunnel, by which I mean a shift in perspective, which really, when it comes right down to it, is often all I am looking for, all anybody ever needs. Today was Sadie's second dog job in two days--they don't call collies working dogs for nothing. (Although don't tell Scout--he thinks his job is licking the garbage can and occasionally moving from the couch to the bed.) This visit, for several key reasons, is mine and mine alone. For one, it takes place when Lily is in school and Annika, theoretically, is napping. For another, it is to the YAI NAtional Institute for People with Disabilities, and when they say disabilities, they're not kidding. I thought I had prepared myself, done my homework, before my first visit, but I was truly taken back by the severity of some of the disabilities: people who could not see, hear, speak, walk or move their limbs of their own accord, people missing eyes, hands, arms, legs, parts of faces, people who, on first sighting, barely resembled what we think of as people at all.
So what is a person, anyway? An assemblage of limbs and organs and brain and skin and blood? What if all that isn't there?
As it turns out, Sadie knows, knows what a person is and how to pad right up to one and lick that person's hand and then her face, turning slightly and leaning into a wheelchair so that person can rest her hand, a loose and angled contraption with three fingers and heavy bulging veins, on her back ever so lightly, burrowing those fingers into her fur, throwing back her head, sightless eyes toward the ceiling, her smile so wide you can't bear to look at it for long because you feel yourself on the verge of bursting into tears, which would be a human thing to do, would make one certainly a person, too, but wouldn't be quite right under the circumstances.
Wouldn't be quite right because this room, the lunchroom of this huge facility, with a sort of funny not-quite-hospital smell and plastic chairs around the edges and social workers and therapists who have that earnest liberal arts vibe and groovy faded t-shirts from expensive islands and a leader of the program who has a digital camera to photograph the people with the dogs and a shiny bald head and the confidence that must come with knowing you are going to heaven if there is one and six dogs, from the polar bear sized Homer down to a teeny curly ball of fluff named Mica, and about thirty people who didn't come with the dogs, people in wheelchairs and careening around unsteadily and lying on the floor and leaning into the walls and clutching at my arm and reaching into my back pocket where I keep the pictures of Sadie--this room is full of joy.
It is the most joyful place, in fact, I have been in years, maybe ever, because the people--and feeling joy, that makes a person--are so joyful that they are shrieking with it, some of them, mouths open so wide I can see their tonsils, or so overcome by it that they are trembling with it, rippling all over from head to toe with it, throwing out their arms and throwing them around the dogs, the whole dog in the cases of the smaller ones, the neck or midsection or tail end of the larger ones, like Sadie, who licks and leans and makes a sort of vibrating whistling happy sound she doesn't make anywhere else, overcome herself, perhaps, with so much showing of joy, so much directed at her.
What makes a person? Joy, and sorrow, too--the man who whispered, "Noreen died," in my ear each time I drew near until one of the earnest social workers explained, "He loved her. It was a very long time ago," and I looked closely at this man's face, his leathery black skin, his red stained sweatshirt, the mournful piece of spaghetti stuck to the top of his shoe and put my arm on his shoulder. He jerked; I realized he hadn't seen or sensed me. "Noreen," he said, shaking his head, and I could see his eyes were cloudy white all over. "I know," I said. "I'm sorry."
But most of all, I think, more than the joy or the sorrow (one thin line, remember?) is connection--that moment when a person becomes linked to you and you to them in that moment more meaningfully than anything else in the world because for the two of you, it is that moment--that is the moment of your life right then. Sadie knows this, always has, knows how easy and life-affirming it can be to simply connect. She brings me to it, takes me home remembering, valuing, wondering--wondering how many people like this there are in the world, people we just don't see.
Oh, Sadie. You are such a very good dog.
And finally, one last late note: the director always tells the people who come to visit with us in the lunchroom not to touch us, to touch the dogs but not the people. They never listen--they prefer the dogs, for the most part, but when one isn't right at hand, they reach out to me instead. And I close my hand around the hand on my arm, it is always my arm, and whisper, "Thank you."