Today’s calendar saying states the best way to feel better is to help others. Another quoted Robert Frost on difficult times: “The best way out is through.” Both are true. Tucket taught me.
I wanted to be a doctor and plowed toward it in a straight line from childhood onward. I volunteered as a teen and worked in a hospital lab during my first summer of medical school. Then I learned that marching in a straight line is useless when you walk into a wall. Or, in my case, get a serious brain injury in an accident that I didn’t cause and couldn’t prevent.
It took 5 years to learn that the new, weird headaches that remained when most symptoms had lessened were seizures. With medication, I was able to feel better, be stronger, and work again. Not surprisingly, I worked in areas close to what I had known: medical publishing and patient education.
When our son was born and it became clear at a year that he had developmental issues, I discovered how to blend education and urgency into advocacy. We pushed until we understood Joseph had autism and other neurological conditions, ending up with close to 2 handfuls of diagnoses before he was 10 years old.
When Joseph was 14, it was clear he was not going to learn how to handle clothes fastenings, eating utensils, and bathroom hygiene without more aggressive help. We were lucky to find a rehabilitation-oriented residential school program for him.
As I contemplated life without being awake many nights when Joseph was fretful or manic, I envisioned quiet writing at home. Then my husband made the suggestion that changed everything.
He said that our lovely, therapeutic dog should be shared with people struggling with physical, mental, or emotional distress. He said it was time for me to go back to a medical setting, but with Tucket, our 10-year-old gentleman.
Tucket and I joined the therapy dog program at a major academic hospital, the 1100-bed complex where all three humans had been hospitalized at least once. People flocked to him, and my loving, calming dog responded by calming and centering them.
He became so popular in the children’s intensive care unit that staff lined up to greet him before I could sign us in and confirm whom we were visiting. One day a fretful toddler hit him suddenly between the eyes. Tuck blinked, backed up a step, and sat again. When I realized he was all right, I calmed the boy’s mother, wished the wound-up little boy well before he could hit me, and we left.
Before we arrived at the elevator I had a senior physician running after me (trotting, not brisk walking. I was taught as a high-school volunteer and afterward, ‘Never run.’ People panic. If you hurry, walk briskly.) When she caught us, she begged me not to stop coming to the unit. He would be missed so much. I reassured her Tuck was fine, I was fine, and we did not intend to stop visiting people who might have behavioral problems. She hugged me. I was stunned.
One time we visited a child in a coma who was dying from a disease that had once been considered possible for Joseph. I sat and chatted with the mother while Tucket lay on the bed with his hair clenched in the child’s hands. We shared what it was to know you might survive your child, to be confronted with the truth that love can long survive death. It was only after we left that I realized she hugged Tucket when we left, but she thanked me for honesty.
An irony of our story is that we got Tucket because Teddy, the dog who was Joseph’s third parent, was dying. My son’s doctor had said we would need another service dog. Joseph was the only person who made Tucket anxious, in part because Joseph was growing taller and falling often. Once he fell on Tucket and Tuck’s bad hip partially dislocated. I had to put it in place and then cover it in frozen pea packages while Jeff’s mother fretted about Tucket. Not Joseph, who was oblivious to the damage, but the adored dog.
Another irony is that I had already grown because Tucket was lovely and I had moved from pet mom to show dog handler as a thank you to his breeder. That deeper level of partnership with Tucket, which ended when we realized his hips were bad, gave me the confidence we could do therapy work in a busy, stressful atmosphere.
And so in the oddest of ways I came back to an academic hospital, not a doctor but a volunteer with a dog. I explained to people on the trauma wards and to children that Tucket had been born with bad hips. Sometimes people are born with parts that need to be fixed or cannot be repaired. Sometimes we have to make the best of what we can have when life isn’t fair and we don’t get what we should.
Tucket was my heart at a time when mine was caught between what life had become with a disabled child and what it could become. Before he died, Tucket set me on a course to a still-unfolding world.
Life can be difficult. Much of it is at least challenging, some overwhelmingly terrible or sad. In the end, Tucket taught me that what matters is not what we do despite the sorrows that pulled us from the path we sought. It is what we do facing all of our life, including the tragedies and sorrows that moved us off the path. It is all of our dreams and experience that provide the perspective to see how many new ways we might walk, helping others as we go.
What we get out of life is what we give through the living of it.
Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman