Touching Comfort

Rusten's mother, troubled by advancing dementia, lived with us for four years until she died in late 2004. Below are two stories of companion species, the first addressed to Karen McNally, my UCSC colleague in earth sciences who gave us Roland as a two-year-old in 1997, the second addressed to agility friends.

March 26, 2002 Dear Karen,

You would have warmed to the sight of Roland this morning. I was watching out of the corner of my eye from the kitchen sink. Roland heard Rusten's mom stirring above and beginning to come down the stairs in her determined but shaky step. Roland quietly went to the bottom of the stairs and sat, with his ears held gently back in happy mode, his whole body collected and smooth, and his rounded puff tail swishing back and forth in eager but controlled anticipation. Katharine breached the door between the up-and downstairs, and the two friends made eye contact. She and Roland gazed softly at each other for several seconds. A long time. Then she came down the last couple of stairs, holding on to the banister for support. Roland waited calmly as she accomplished the last step over to him and put her soft hands around his receptive face. She massaged his face for several seconds; he just sat very still and smooth, with a face so soft it brought tears to my eyes. Then she walked by him and said good morning to me as I held out her pretty Italian ceramic cup full of oily, aromatic coffee. Companion species, indeed.

Donna

October 27, 2004 Dear agility friends,

Rusten's mother, Katharine, sometimes gets quite crazy and paranoid, usually about finances. Because her memory is so fragmentary, she produces continuity in other ways, often by narrating experiences that are totally real to her but that simply did not happen in the material world. Those experiences can be more real to her than even her cherished memories from her childhood. Sometimes these hyperreal experiences are very nice, like long trips to Alaska, full of details that never happened. Or her certainty that she has already seen a film we go to, and remembers the people she saw the film with, even though it was only released to theaters that day. Other times the crafted memories are fierce and hurtful, full of terror at her not being in control and feeling duped or injured by someone. She screamed at Rusten yesterday, saying he was calling her a liar. He went on to tennis anyway, not rising to the bait and knowing that getting caught in a loop of explanations of the "real" world (in this case a bill from the dentist that he had already gone over with her many times) would only make her more agitated. No matter what, R remains incredibly gentle. Not simple, these aged and needy parents!

After R left for tennis, K was quiet for a while, then came downstairs in tears, almost hysterical, thinking she had said something terrible to Rusten, but not knowing what it was. It took a long time to comfort her, holding her and rocking and telling her she did not say anything awful, and even if she had been mad at him, everyone has a right to lose it sometimes and freak with anger. I kept telling her about all the positive things she does all the time and how much R and I want her and feel blessed that she wants to live with us. That's true, if not the whole truth! But who needs the whole truth anyway. She calmed down, needed lots of hugs, and then went to do the dishes, which comforted her some more.

The most interesting thing, though, was not what she and I were doing, but what she and the dogs were doing the whole time she was crying and desperate for comfort and relief from feelings of guilt, shame, and bewilderment. She was on the couch, and I was kneeling below her, my hands on her knees and hugging her periodically. Cayenne slipped her body between us (she would not be denied) and snuggled onto K's lap, with her head pressed hard against K's breasts. C's face was tilted up to K's head. Every chance C got, she licked K's face, then pressed her head against K's breasts again. Her spot in K's lap was nonnegotiable. She would not budge until K was calm. Roland, meanwhile, had his head inserted between me and K's lap, putting his head on her knees along with my hands and pressing firmly against her body with all his weight. He also would not budge until K was calm. K's hands the whole time were kneading the dogs' bodies, first one, then the other. She did not know what she was doing consciously, but the touch comfort among K, R, and C was stunning. Toward the end, the dogs made K laugh at their need for comfort, as well as their ability to give comfort. That laughter was the last step in her letting go of her grief and loss that afternoon.

From dogland, Donna

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