How incredible: the riotous energies that whirl about a hospital’s universe. In the green space ringing the premises, through the misty dark, under the shivering, naked trees are smokers, also shivering, huddled, laughing, coughing, some in wheelchairs with IV tubing snaking above them, others sitting with legs dangling over concrete barriers. In the anonymity of the parking garage, impatient drivers zoom by, occasionally flipping the bird to fellow motorists who are unwilling or unable to dart into a parking space.
Those whirling energies converge as they flow down through one funnel: the entrance. It’s the point where people begin making eye contact, especially when you are walking a 60 pound dog in a splendid red, monogrammed vest. This is the place where you begin to pick up the subtler telegraphing of humans: weariness at the end of shift, distractedness while reading txt messages, bustle as they weave around others with an infant car seat not yet milk smeared. En route to the floor where patients and loved ones confront a Life Clock ticking down, is a stream of women with swollen, impatient bellies who clutch pillows and partners on their way to prenatal coaching classes.
At the hospital doors you find it all – all that binds us as humans: hope, urgency, love, resignation, loathing, searching, recoiling... and woven into this fabric, the thread of an ancient understanding with dogs. Misty and I enter. It’s time for us to join the constellations...
* * *
It was an unusual note. I was asked to be very quiet, move slowly and explain everything Misty and I would be doing in the private room with a new patient. Oh yes, and be prepared to leave quickly. I decided to leave that room until the last.
Misty was at the end of the outstretched leash in the nursing station, receiving lavish attention and a robust belly rub. I cleared my throat. “Time to go to work, Misty.” She was on her feet in a moment and the nurses insisted we return there before leaving the floor.
In the first room we visited, was a young man Misty had visited several times before. He’d always greeted us with clear, wide smiles and great stories of a Life Well Lived. Not on this day. Wife waved us over, the days, months and years of strain etching her face.
“He’s started losing it. Look at him.”
Wow. Due to the hammering of Hurricane Sandy, it had been two weeks since I’d seen Rob. Those two weeks had stolen his smile. Misty placed her front paws on the side of his bed, tail wagging.
"Get her down, please.” His voice was soft.
“Sure... Off, Girl.” I waved Misty down and she dropped softly to the floor. “Good Girl.” I patted her neck.
"I don’t like it in here...,” Rob said lifting his head off the pillow and looking around the room. “Everybody else is sicker than me. They’re dying.”
In our last visit two weeks before, Rob excitedly placed a newspaper clipping in my hand. The article, complete with splashy photo, gushed about a new car and they were buying one for Wife... showing once again the heartening side of life on a Palliative Care Unit – that there can be hope and happy planning for the future.
Misty was sitting quietly beside me waiting for me to tell her what to do next – but I wasn’t sure what either of us could offer to bring comfort. So we both listened.
As Wife described Rob’s sudden decline, he started journeying elsewhere, mumbling with eyes closed. Then his arms appeared strangely disconnected from him somehow, as they raised up in slow, undulating movements, touching the pull-up bar above him, lowering down, then starting their serpentine waving upward again.
Wife talked, we listened, Rob continued mumbling. I touched Wife’s hand, and she squeezed mine. I laid my hand on Rob’s arm. It was very warm. Very dry. Desert-like and dessicated. His verbalizing continued almost inaudibly now. I whispered to Wife, “See you next week.”
She looked down. “Bye, Misty.”
In the next bed was a man who always encouraged Misty up onto the bed and sure enough, she was responding to his invitation. I caught her mid-clamber to ensure her rear paws remained on the floor – but she was close enough to lick up his arms to his face. Son was there and laughed. “Dad has always had dogs. She’s beautiful.”
The man encircled Misty with bony arms, returning her kisses.
“What kind of dogs?”
Son answered. “Irish setters.”
“You got that right. Look at Dad. He’s loving this.”
When Misty thought the time was right, she backed off the bed. Before we left the room I turned to wave to Rob’s wife. She mouthed, “thank you” and we moved on.
“Well... hel-lo, Mis-ty.” The Empress of Cheerios was speaking more slowly but I had an inkling when I saw her fatigued, happy smile.
“Don’t tell me, let me guess... your granddaughters were here.”
The Empress pointed at me and with eyes twinkling but more from afar, and said, “Hey, you’re good.”
“Not really. It’s always on your face.” Misty pushed past me and crawled up to position her front half onto the bed so that she was lying lengthwise along the Empress’ side.
“Misty, I missed you.” She fondled Misty’s ears and Misty responded with gratifying little groans. Then the Empress looked up at me and said, “Did you have to walk all the way here?” Real concern lined her face.
Uh-oh. There had been notes to me over the past few weeks that the Empress was experiencing some confusion... still, I was so very touched with her compassion. “No, I didn’t walk.”
Her smile returned and she and Misty continued their conversation.
Back out in the hall, a beautiful girl, perhaps 12 years old, greeted us. “You ... you can bring a dog into the hospital?
“I can bring this dog into the hospital. She’s a certified Therapy Dog.”
The girl was more curious than shy. She reached out, then withdrew her hand, her glorious long, dark hair swishing behind her with each movement.
“What does she do?”
“She visits with patients and helps them to feel better.”
“Someday I want to have a dog.” Her reaching out and withdrawing continued.
“Would you like to pat Misty? Her fur is very soft.”
“We’re not supposed to have a dog.”
I was expecting an explanation of the usual sort: allergies or a restrictive lease. Nope.
“We’re Muslims... from Afghanistan. So we can’t have a dog.” At this point, an elderly man hunched over in a wheelchair summoned the girl and she twirled, bird-like, in his direction. “Bye!” She waved and was gone.
Note to self: research the relationship of the Muslim faith and dogs... what do I need to know as part of a Dog Therapy Duo? How could I get to this stage of life’s learning and not know about this?
Our last visit for the evening. Misty and I stood outside a closed door. The woman who was the subject of the mysterious note was in this room. I used the pads of my fingers on the door to signal our arrival, more tapping the door than knocking... I was minded of Dylan Thomas’ line in Under Milk Wood, a “mouse with gloves”. Everso slowly, I began to push the door open and was surprised with the brightness of the room. I didn’t want to move my eyes to look for the sources of light... I kept my focus on the beautiful young woman in the bed then whispered to her husband as he walked around the bed to greet us, “You wanted a visit with Misty?”
He was beaming as he waved us in. Misty walked carefully beside me, clearly taking cues from Husband and me that “Hushed” was the operative word. The woman’s eyes were opened wider than wide with unmistakably large pupils swallowing up her irises. She was laying on her side facing us, making small jerky movements. I moved tortoise-like and bending down whispered slowly, “I’ve brought my dog to see you.”
Her mouth started to open. She was swallowing, lips moving over perfect teeth. I looked to Husband.
“She’s trying to talk.” He stroked his wife’s hair as he spoke.
Quietly, I asked him, “Do you think it would it be okay to uncover her arm so she can touch Misty’s fur?”
“Yeah, let’s try it.”
Whispering, I said to the woman, “I’m going to uncover your arm so you can feel my dog.”
Lip smacking and swallowing continued, then her whole body jerked for an instant. I looked up to Husband.
“It’s okay, she does that occasionally.” He nodded for me to continue.
Very slowly, I uncovered the woman’s arm. Misty put her nose to the woman’s arm and, I guess I should’ve expected it: Misty gave the woman’s arm one lick.
I sucked in my breath, concerned there would be more jerkiness from the woman. The only reaction: “Ahhhh. That was so sweet.” Husband approved. His wife continued swallowing and lip smacking. I slowly covered her arm and whispered, “See you later.”
* * *
After reading a number of articles on the Islamic position about dogs, I found a column by Muslim scholar, Ingrid Mattson in the Huff Post very helpful in pulling together many concepts. She began by summarizing the opinions of different legal schools as follows:
The majority consider the saliva of dogs to be impure while the Maliki school makes a distinction between domestic and wild dogs, only considering the saliva of the latter to be impure. The question for Muslims observant of other schools of law is, what are the implications of such an impurity?
Next, Mattson stripped down and examined the concerns. For instance, she reasoned that homes have many impurities in them (human waste, blood and other bodily fluids). Nonetheless, the author indicated such impurities are manageable by designating a special space for prayers and keeping clothing clean for prayer.
A further concern is a prophetic report that angels do not enter a home having dogs. Mattson comments that this rule may apply to the Prophet’s home (not all homes), buttressing this argument with a statement from the Qur’an which says that angels are always with us to protect us and record our good and bad activities.
In addition, Mattson supplies a tender quote from the Qur’an concerning a cave where people slept being guarded by a dog, which she argues clarifies that “the animal is good company for believers.” As to differentiating between domestic and wild dogs, the author states the Qur’an permits the use of hunting dogs since Muslims can eat game that has been in the mouth of a retriever.
Mattson’s article has a lovely conclusion where she discloses that she has a large, sweet Rescue dog who, like the dog in the cave, guards their home and keeps her debilitated child company.
So what are the implications for me, as one half of a Therapy Dog Duo? No different than any other situation Misty and I encounter, namely: to seek permissions and honour responses, whether those responses are based in reasons of health, fear, simple dislike or religion. It’s always about respect and compassion... but I sense Misty already knew all these things.
 Mattson, Ingrid. “What’s Up With Muslims and Dogs?” Huff Post: Canada (December 12, 2011).