(This is an Imtay, so please put aside your expectations of the typical, wicked cool Amuirin post)
It was my job to walk the dog.
This wasn’t an ordinary responsibility, either. I had special instructions that Emily—the puppy’s name, although it sometimes changed to “Emma” or even “Penny”—liked to go in the nice, clean grass. Not the patchy grass or the too tall grass, but the clean, rich green grass. This was important.
So, every evening, before Joan was to go to bed, I went to pick up the puppy, its soft, furry, body—which was sometimes a little overdue for a wash—flopping into my hand: a small, tagged, black and white ball.
“She’s always happy to see you,” Joan would often say. And I’d look at the puppy’s face, which always had the same, open-mouth, small felt tongue panting, vaguely happy expression befitting an under-stuffed dog, and it would blankly stare back at me through tiny, black-button eyes.
I would take it away for a few minutes, letting the nurse on duty know in case Joan happened to forget. I never really took her outside, though, and I guess I should feel guilty about not being entirely honest with Joan on that point, but I think Joan knew that the puppy only lived in her imagination.
After all, it had a tag that said “Ty” protruding from its body.
She asked me once about that, when she was on her way back from wherever her mind had gone to for a while. Some of the other elderly residents—who would develop a kind of odd resentment when someone got joy out of something, particularly something that was far less real to them—had gotten angry and kept telling her that the thing was just a “play toy.”
So, she asked me. I wasn’t sure what to tell her.
Joan and I were both residents in a nursing home. She was the traditional kind, an elderly woman who had succumbed to age and horrifying trauma; her brain had nearly shut down, or gone away, or had to rewire itself, and had become mangled for a while. I was there because I needed to have the tubing attached to my arm plugged into a machine a few times a day, so that chemicals could help stop a bunch of microscopic bastards—which wound up in my leg along with metal plates and screws in a botched surgery—from kicking my ass.
Between the times I was attached to the machine, I had to redevelop the ability to walk, so I kept trying with less and less aid, and Joan would often stop me as I hobbled or limped by; that is, once her speech had come back from monosyllabic, simple, pained noises. For some time, her conversations were convoluted, out there, but she needed someone to listen.
At first her sentences were somewhat nonsensical attempts, I think, at getting words to string together again into expression. But later, they started to form, take flight, in a kind of slightly wounded, flapping monologue.
“Well, you know,” she’d say, “I love Harold to death but he drinks like a fish. Do you know where he’s at? … He’s just down there. Passed out. Again. Yes. You know Maude? She’s my friend at home … I made a pinwhe…” And, in a desperate whisper, “Do you trust them at night? They once bent my finger back. It broke. Yes. It did. Broke. Can you look over there? He’s hiding. I know A murderer! He was in the other bed last night. But, the poor dear. Drinks so much. … You don’t, do you? I love my puppy. She’s good. Never barks or nothing. But I forget her name. What is it? Emily. Really? Why did I name her Emily? I might like Penny better. She likes the nice, green grass…”
I would later learn that the first name she remembered, really remembered, without anyone needed to tell her, was mine.
“Tim! Tim, come here. I need our help,” she once said, in desperation, as I leaned over, glancing over at the nurse, Valerie, as her face lit up, shocked that Joan remembered my name. Then Joan whispered, “What’s my puppy’s name? I can’t remember her name!”
“Emily,” I said.
“Oh, Emily… and what’s my name?”
“Oh, thank you. And you’re Tim. I knew that.”
Over the next couple of months, I kept noticing that our conversations would become more coherent and be about things that were actually happening, although, on occasion, Harold, his vice and the unseen murderer would show up. But mostly things became more real as her mind began its return. Except in the case with the puppy; she was always very real. On occasion, she would ask me or a nurse to give her food or water. I once took a Tic Tac, told her it was a special puppy nutrition pill, and made it look like the puppy ate it, as I slid the mint back into my palm. Afterwards, a nurse (and friend by that time) followed me back and, seeming to be near tears, said, “You… are awesome,” and quickly retreated down the hall.
And one time, Joan stopped me, as another elderly resident stared and played with a small Teddy Bear.
“Tim,” Joan said, lowering her voice to a whisper,” I’m not sure her puppy likes her. Is it ok with her, you think?”
“Oh, that’s not a puppy,” I said, “that’s a bear.”
She looked over, and back at me, then at her puppy and said, “Yes it is. Oh, and she makes it look so real, the way she moves it around and …”
She stopped, then looked at me a moment, hand on her chin, then said, quite matter-of-factly, “Well, thank God I’m not the only one who’s crazy.” I had to laugh. So did she.
So, on that one day, Joan asked if her puppy was real or not. I didn’t know what to say, but it seemed critical, as she had come so far. So, after a moment, I said, “It doesn’t really matter if she’s real to them or not, Joan. It only matters how real she is to you.” I kind of internally winced at my triteness, but Joan said, smiling, “Really! You’re right. I feel so much better. Thank you.”
I still don’t know if that was the right thing to say. But I saw Joan when I went back out there around Christmas for a visit. It’s been a year and a half since I left.
Joan remembers me; much of her mind is back and is sticking around this time, and she still has the puppy. One of the nurses bought the it a new collar, complete with a bell so it doesn’t get away. It’s still bounding through Joan’s imagination, and it still likes the nice, clean grass.