I have two stories for you this week, about massage and dying and dogs.
Here is what I knew: the patient was young*, surrounded by family, and declining. I knew the diagnosis. And I knew there was a dog in the house.
The dog greeted me at the door a few seconds after the patient’s family member. She was big. Her head came almost to my chest. She had deep, soulful eyes. She gently walked up to me and nudged her nose into my hands. I stood still, held my hands out for her and let her run her nose along my fingers. After about a half a minute, she turned and walked towards the patient’s room.
The patient mostly communicated by gesture and facial expression. Family members told me the patient was in and out of “being here.” I stood by the patient’s side and introduced myself, and I said, “Your dog is amazing!” The patient turned to face me, eyes sparkling and alert.
As I worked with the patient, the dog would come in the room at regular intervals. Sometimes she stood right next to me, watching what my hands were doing. Sometimes she laid her head on the bed and gazed up at the patient. Sometimes she simply stood in the door of the room, looking. She moved slowly, deliberately and with infinite grace. She never made a sound, except for the soft padding of her feet on the floor and her even breathing.
After the massage was done, I held the patient’s hand and said thank you. I found my own way to the door, leaving the patient relaxed and quiet with his family in the room. Before I left, I looked off to my left, and I saw the dog standing at the end of the hall. Calm, still, and waiting.
I walked through the gathered grief of her husband and her daughter to get to the patient’s bedroom. The patient laid in the center of a king-sized bed, nothing moving but her eyes, which were sharp and clear. At her hip sat a small white dog, head resting on its paws looking like it was asleep.
As soon as I started the massage, the dog opened its eyes and watched me, head still resting on its paws. I stepped up toward the head of the bed and cradled the patient’s head in my hands. The dog stood up and turned to face me directly. It nodded once, as if to say, “Yes. That’s it.” Then it turned, curled up and went to sleep, nestled against the patient’s hip.
Animals know. When we are deep in extremis, our pets somehow know and they show us how to simply be, and be present. Some of the deepest and most meaningful interactions I have had with humans have come mediated by their pets. From them, I am learning how to pay attention, be still, and just breathe and move with infinite grace.
*–identifying details about patients (and their pets) have been changed