During the ten minutes or so that it took my spouse and me to decide to move to Wake Robin, we asked the resident couple with whom we were having dinner if they could tell us one thing they did not like about the community. The woman shook her head--she couldn't think of anything--but her husband said "Yes, there is one thing: you make friends with people, and then they die."
Now, barely four months into her therapy dog practice in Linden, Wake Robin's nursing care facility, Bisou has lost some of her best friends.
On our weekly visits, not everyone reacts to Bisou with the same degree of enthusiasm. Some people are too ill to do much more than give her a silent smile and a tentative pat. Others are more interested in talking to Bisou's human retinue, especially to the young male staff member who accompanies us and on whom they dote with grandparently affection.
But you can always tell the dog people. Their faces light up as we come in the room and they pat their knees and invite Bisou up into their laps. She looks into their eyes and they go into rhapsodies, telling her what a good girl she is, how smart, and what beautiful long red ears she has. Then they tell her about the dogs they used to have. Long-dead German Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, Irish Setters, Labs, and Poodles big and small come back to life in these conversations, walking the kids home from school, retrieving pheasants, wolfing down a stolen box of cookies.... Bred to be a good sport, Bisou listens and lets herself be held. When it's time to go she hops down and walks out of the room, nose to the ground, hoping for an errant crumb. The dog lovers keep their eyes on her as she leaves. "Look at that tail," they exclaim. "It never stops!"
Over the last few weeks, three of Bisou's most affectionate admirers have died. One week they were there, frail but dressed and sitting up, asking her for kisses, telling stories, oblivious to the red and gold hairs that she shed on their clothes. And the next week they were gone, and the doors to their rooms, which used to be decorated with posters and photos and signs saying "Visitors Welcome!" were closed.
It isn't easy to walk with Bisou past those newly closed doors. But I'm grateful that I have her to keep me from taking comfort in the veil of secrecy with which our culture surrounds the end of life. I know that the pleasure that our visits bring to the residents of Linden is only a small and momentary thing. But while we're there, Bisou sitting on a narrow lap, me kneeling on the floor and trying to keep her from sliding off, we are fully invested in the moment which, in the end, is all that the resident in her wheelchair, Bisou with her wagging tail, and I really have.