by Diane Blackman
It seems like such a simple challenge, especially since there is nothing physically preventing Ms D from petting the dogs, nor is there anything obviously wrong with her mental competence. Ms D even likes dogs, but she would never pet one.
Each time we visited she would be waiting there with her friends. She never really smiled, but she always addressed us. Every visit we would hear the same thing. She would tell us about how she grew up on a farm and they had dogs but that her father never permitted her to touch them. She would say that she really liked the dogs but that she really couldn't touch them because "my hands are dirty". Reassurances were ignored and she would soon turn her attention away.
We visited regularly for just a bit more than a year. I had noticed that some of the other volunteers skipped Ms D because, as one explained to me "She doesn't really like the dogs." Oso and I never skipped Ms D. While I knew she didn't want to pet him I also knew that she was waiting there knowing that the dogs were coming, and always ready to talk. She always wanted to know his name and she always wanted to repeat the story of her childhood experience with dogs.
One day Oso was standing quietly next to her while I greeted her. She looked at him and said "Oh one pet won't hurt" and she reached over and stroked him a couple of times on the head. I was astounded. The remaining details of the visit are a bit cloudy, driven out by the extraordinary events of the next visits.
The next visit she was sitting in her regular spot waiting. Full of anticipation that she would now not only want to talk, but to pet Oso we approached. Oso too expected to be greeted by a friend. Instead of waiting he walked right up to her. To my surprise she started yelling at us and walked off in a huff. The volunteer next to me looked at me with reproof and said "She doesn't like dogs, she never pets them" One of Ms D's friends explained that her brother had recently died and that she was quite distraught. I assured them that I understood, and I was not offended. I felt badly about approaching without checking her feelings first.
The next visit Ms. D was absent.
The next visit Ms. D had returned to her usual spot. I noticed something about her I had never seen before. She was smiling. She called Oso over and stroked his head. She talked to him and kept on petting. She modified her story. She told me that when she was a child she was never permitted to touch the dogs, then she looked at me and said "But its OK my hands are clean" I stayed with Ms D for several minutes more while she stroked Oso the whole time. We talked. I was almost afraid to leave. She seemed more relaxed and more content than I had ever seen her before. After I moved on I noticed that she petted Nick and Penny also.
It seems like such a simple thing, but the change in Ms D is an important one. I'm looking forward to our next visit, for now Ms D seems to be truly enjoying life.
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Copyright © 1996-2003, Diane Blackman Created: August 5,1996 Updated: April 10, 2006