Worthless Woman, Worthless Dog
For $2.00 I got Maxine. The drug dealer didn’t want the scabby dog but snatched my lunch money instead. That was back in 1988 when I was a social worker in a decaying Bronx neighborhood overrun with crack cocaine, heavily armed thugs, and packs of hungry stray dogs.
By 1999, my beloved Maxine faded away from age and complications related to diabetes. I feared the end was near. Judy, my other adopted dog, was never alone. So I asked my friend Theresa to join me at the county shelter to adopt a new dog.
Hundreds of cast off dogs, mixed breeds and purebreds, yapped for my attention as we strolled down the aisles. Their eyes melted my heart, pleading for love. I could only take one. Who would it be?
Luke wasn’t on my list of potential candidates. Other dogs had more spunk. A plump black mutt with a cute wiggle caught my attention. But Theresa steered me to a big red terrier mix with sad eyes. Reluctantly, I caved in and took a look.
Originally brought in as a stray, Luke was adopted then returned a month later. The new owner said Luke would be an inconvenience during his impending move.
Once outside the noisy shelter, Luke brightened up. He smothered my face with slobber. His tail flapped from side to side. Tipping his head back he howled, as if belting out a top ten hit. My motorized scooter was no impediment for him although he tried lifting his leg on the rear wheel. Luke sat like a good boy, handed me his paw and rolled on his back, kicking his legs in the air. There was no way to resist his canine charm so I adopted him that sweltering July afternoon. I thanked Theresa for her persistence in nudging me towards Luke’s cage.
Maxine as it turned out hung on for almost another two years. Luke and Maxine connected even though my older dog wasn’t much of a play partner. Mostly, she slept. Judy and Luke however romped and frolicked in the backyard, playing with toys and chasing each other in and out of the doggie door. The two were inseparable.
I loved Judy but she was fickle due to previous maltreatment. I rescued her from a shelter in 1992. Luke, however, loved and adored everyone. He had personality plus. What about pet therapy, I wondered?
A car accident in 1994 left me critically injured. My two dogs, Maxine and Judy, played a crucial role in my recovery. During their bedside visits, I correctly identified each dog at a time when I didn’t know my own name or where I was. Medical records showed slow steady improvement after they spent time with me. Two months later, the rehab center discharged me to a vastly different world. At the age of 39, I lost my career and part of my mobility. If it wasn’t for two wet noses kissing me every morning, I would’ve lapsed into a deep depression. I felt worthless – disabled, unemployable and uninsurable. Maxine and Judy pushed me off the pity pot. Slowly, I re-invented myself as an animal shelter volunteer, freelance writer, and pet therapist. I shrugged off society’s view that I was a heap of nothing, even though I had plenty of contrary experiences related to using a wheelchair but that’s for another story.
Luke showed potential for pet therapy, such as ease around strangers and an overall good nature. I wanted to share his gifts with sick or injured patients, just as Maxine and Judy uplifted me when my life unexpectedly capsized.
Luke breezed through a behavior test and passed a medical examination, allowing us to join the Companion Animal Association of Arizona, a non-profit pet therapy group. As a team we would visit sick, elderly, or injured patients at a rehab center every Friday morning.
On our first week, Luke endeared himself to the recreation assistant, a gregarious 40 something woman named Kim with a Julia Roberts smile. Luke and Kim developed a comical routine that never wavered for the three years we visited the center. At 9:00 a.m. Luke and I waited in the lobby. As soon as Kim approached, Luke’s tail wiggled in circles. He yipped and yowled. I let go of his leash, cracking up as my dog dashed down hall throwing himself into Kim’s tender, loving arms. Smiling, Kim jostled good-naturedly with Luke and then we made our rounds through the center. My twice abandoned dog was on a roll. He did his job with gusto.
Patients welcomed me and Luke. Reactions to Luke were priceless, such as Maria, the older Latina woman with a brain hobbled by a stroke. Only two words remained in her vocabulary – Maria, Maria. When Luke and I rolled into her room, the tender expression on her face said she was pleased. Grinning, she stroked Luke with her good hand and said, “Maria, Maria.” I always said hello and asked how she was. Nodding, she replied, “Maria, Maria.” As Luke brushed against her wheelchair, the gleam in eyes showed appreciation.
An older, be-speckled patient named Will saved treats for Luke, such as bacon strips, hard-boiled eggs, and soggy wheat toast, which my dog gobbled up in seconds. Luke’s bad manners tickled Will. Two years later, Will suddenly died. As we bypassed his room, Luke yanked on his leash as if to say, “What about Will?” He missed the old man’s affection and the tasty treats he always saved for him.
Gray haired Joe asked Luke to join him in the activity room to watch game shows. Age rocked Joe’s memory. Every week he told me the same story about the dust mop of a dog that wandered onto their rural property not long after he married his high school sweetheart in the 1950s. Joe and his late wife had the dog for over 15 years.
Lots of residents owned dogs or cats when life was simpler. The absence of pets poked holes in many hearts. Luke and I became a regular presence at the center, bringing a shred of comfort to people who lost so much – their independence, their families, their health, and their pets.
Lucia with the winning smile loved dogs. We stayed at her bedside past our usual shift on the morning she slipped into another world. That was her last wish – to die with dignity next to a dog.
And then there was Frank. For reasons I never understood, Luke picked Frank as his special friend. A long-term patient, Luz, Frank’s mother, was stricken with terminal lung and heart disease. In his younger years, Frank drank to excess, was chronically unemployed and gambled away his mother’s meager earnings as a janitor. Later in life, Frank spruced up his act. Now his mother needed him and Frank visited her daily. Every time Luke saw Frank he bellowed as if he’d seen his best friend. Then Luke cuddled with Frank, soaking up the affection. Frank piled on generous hugs and kisses. Although Luz was on a ventilator, she was amused by their tender interaction. I asked Frank why he didn’t adopt a dog. “I’m here all day,” he said. “It’s not fair to leave the dog all alone.”
One scorching summer day, I ran into Frank a few years after I stopped volunteering at the center. He invited me in for iced-tea. And on the couch there rested a big mixed breed dog. Frank’s mother had passed away and I expressed my condolences. A stray dog had followed Frank in a parking lot. He remembered all the good times he shared with Luke. So he picked up the dog and gave him a fabulous home.
Younger than most patients a massive drug overdose demolished much of Mark’s brain leaving him unable to talk, write, or move his body. He communicated through blinking his eyes. Once meant yes, twice meant no. Mark owned a dog prior to that near fatal Saturday night bash. He also had a promising college career. I placed his stiff hand on Luke’s head and slowly moved it up and down my dog’s fluffy body. Mark couldn’t smile or grin but a knowing look in his eyes hinted he liked my dog. Several months later Mark’s mother moved him to another long-term care facility. I always wondered what happened to the handsome young man whose life was hammered by an almost lethal combination of drugs and alcohol.
Visiting some residents tugged at my heart. Not everyone had family members, friends, or neighbors to assume care for their beloved dogs or cats. One woman cried when she first met Luke.
“I had to surrender my cat Wheezy to a shelter when I came here. I felt awful,” she said with weepy eyes.
Nearly every week she asked me to find out what happened to Wheezy. I said the shelter did their best to find her a good home. As a shelter volunteer, I knew that old cats faced great odds. They were rarely adopted but I kept that harsh reality to myself. The old woman was overwhelmed enough. Luke’s presence swept a small smile across her face, even though she preferred cats.
Not everyone at the rehab center withered away. Some patients like Irma and Dottie recovered and moved into assisted living facilities where pet ownership was often permitted, sometimes even encouraged, so seniors stayed active. Irma, Dottie and other patients asked me for shelter or rescue contacts to adopt older cats or dogs for company. Research shows that elderly people with pets often live longer healthier lives. I was always glad to help.
Luke not only brightened up patients’ lives but he brought relief to over-worked staff too. Nurses, doctors, aides, and therapists benefitted from Luke’s weekly visits. Mary, the physical therapist, often asked if Luke could stop in for a few minutes when patient visits were done. Doctors and nurses welcomed Luke’s canine cure. Sometimes, Luke calmed agitated patients so medical staff could perform an examination or obtain a medical history. Everyone at the center loved Luke.
On a chance encounter at a local dog bakery, I met Pam Gaber in the summer of 2001. Founder and president, Gabriel’s Angels is a non-profit organization that tries to break the cycle of violence in bruised, battered, and at-risk children through healing pet therapy. As a former social worker, I was well acquainted with the familial patterns in domestic violence and child abuse. I liked Gabriel’s Angels philosophy and signed up as a volunteer. Luke’s membership in Companion Animal Association of Arizona made him eligible for Gabriel’s Angels.
Initially, I retained membership in both groups. As a disabled person, I no longer worked so I had enough free time for two pet therapy visits. Luke had plenty of love and compassion to share as well.
Gabriel’s Angels assigned us to an after-school program at a homeless shelter. Homeless children had their lives torn apart by poverty, parental unemployment, domestic violence, or divorce. Left behind were their friends, community connections, classmates, extended family, neighbors, and pets. Luke and I would follow Gabriel’s Angels’ philosophy and spread kindness, respect, dignity, and compassion to all living beings. Children who absorb humane messages are more likely to be free from the shackles of violence. That was our goal at the homeless shelter.
Luke bonded with seven-year-old Kevin. Sandy-haired, blue-eyed and wheel-chair bound, Kevin’s bodily movements were spastic and his speech profoundly slurred. I presumed cerebral palsy. Luke sidled next to Kevin, making the little boy giggle. Despite staff worker’s assurances that Kevin couldn’t speak, I heard him say, “The dog” several times. One week, Kevin wasn’t around so I asked about the boy with CP.
“CP?” The staff worker shrugged. “His mother’s boyfriend beat the crap out of him.” As a toddler, Kevin fussed a lot. One day, Joe flew into a rage and pummeled Kevin with his fists. Joe went to prison but Kevin’s sentence was a lifetime of profound disability. Luke brought him brief moments of solace.
When I met ten-year-old Linda her mother served time for abusing her. Although Linda escaped severe physical damage like Kevin, she was emotionally shredded. Her mother also killed her dog. Her father, who assumed her care, recently lost his job then became homeless. Linda adored animals and talked to Luke as if he was her personal confidant. From her vacant stare, I often wondered how much we reached her. She was deeply troubled.
Teaching compassion extended beyond animals. One week a petty spat between two adorable pig-tailed girls erupted into a brawl while the other children assembled an animal-related jigsaw puzzle. I separated them and said, “Ladies, please stop fighting. Tell me what this is about.”
“She called my mother a name,” Veronica said jabbing her finger at Tracy.
“No I didn’t,” Tracy said, as she lunged at Veronica.
I pressed myself in between the feuding girls.
“This has to stop,” I said. “No screaming, yelling, or hitting. You two make up. Who says sorry first?”
Faces gnarled, the two girls wrapped their arms around their bony chests and snapped their heads in opposite directions.
“Veronica? Tracy? I don’t have all day,” I said, glancing at the rest of the kids eager to resume the puzzle. “One of you has to give in.”
When neither girl spoke, I grabbed Luke’s leash and headed towards the door.
“Wait, where’re you going?” wide-eyed Veronica asked. “What about Luke? Why is he leaving?”
“As long as you two act up, there’s no point in me staying. The other children don’t like it when you fuss and argue either. Luke doesn’t either. We’ll come back next week.”
Veronica and Tracy quickly made up. Although I earned a master’s in social work, I lacked training in early childhood development. I wasn’t sure what to do but my idea seemed to work, at least for the moment. We finished the puzzle without incident.
Three years as a multi-pet therapist posed no scheduling problems for me. Luke handled both tasks just fine. However, the rehab center, whose stock traded on Wall Street, changed hands. A new corporation took over. I disagreed with their philosophy about patient recreation and pet therapy. By mutual agreement, we parted ways. Luke and I now strictly worked with Gabriel’s Angels.
A brother and sister from the Midwest fell in love with Luke. They missed the dog left behind when their lives crumbled. Dad failed to keep up child support payments after a bitter divorce. Mom lost her factory job and foreclosure plunged them into homelessness. The dog went to a neighbor and the family hoped for a new life in Phoenix. Mom however couldn’t land a job and without Dad’s financial help, they ended up in the shelter.
One afternoon as we discussed the importance of grooming household pets, the kids told me about their dog Brownie.
“Mommy was driving us home from Auntie’s house,” Shawn said. “We stopped when we saw a man hitting on his dog.”
Taking a chance, Mom pulled over and got out. She asked the man to stop the brutality. He did.
“Mommy told him she would take the dog until he could treat him better,” Shawn said. “That’s how we ended up with Brownie.”
Not only did this brave woman save a dog from a savage lashing but she taught her children an important value about decency and kindness. These middle school kids learned that it was OK for an adult to intervene when a helpless animal was in danger. They were too young to stop animal abuse alone, I said, but an adult or law enforcement was there to help. Empowering children was always important.
I brought Beanie Baby dolls one week to play a pretend game of compassion to animals. Instead, a group of children (boys and girls) played violent games with the stuffed animals.
“Stop that, please,” I said. “I brought these dolls so you kids could have something fuzzy to cuddle, not act like you’re trying to kill them.”
A subset of kids continued to act out mean spirited games with the dolls despite my pleas to behave gentler. Finally, I said, “That’s it. I want them back. All of them. I didn’t bring you dolls to act ugly. I come here to spread kindness and compassion with my dog.”
Shocked, no one said a word as I collected each and every doll. We shifted to the word games I brought. On my way out, a few of the children not involved in the violent games asked me if they could have the dolls back. I said yes but only if they played with them nicely.
Children often viewed Luke as a close companion. Over the years they groomed him, read stories with his paw on their laps, and talked to him as if he was a playmate. They always remembered Luke’s name but usually called me the dog lady. It made me laugh. Although some children were abused, they always thought of clever ways to help maltreated animals when asked.
Take the helpless kitten found trying to claw her way out of an overgrown bush behind the shelter. Jessie, a fifth grader, greeted me at the door with big news. Cool sunny weather permitted the children to play outside, supervised of course. Jessie heard the kitten’s piercing meows. She followed the squeaky trail until she found the kitten struggling to free itself from a thicket of leaves. Remembering what I said about animals in need, Jessie ran to the front office for help.
“You said to get an adult if there was an animal in need,” Jessie said.
“I’m glad you remembered,” I said.
“Margie, the supervisor, plucked the kitten out of the bushes and brought her inside. We all helped clean her up,” Jessie said.
Animal lover Margie had room for one more animal in her multi-pet household and brought the kitten home. The next day, the children named the kitten.
Due to the vagaries of shelter life, homeless children often do poorly in school. Large families may be cramped into one or two small rooms, depriving children of quiet time for studies. With Luke as the focus, I sometimes brought math or vocabulary flash cards to bolster the children’s learning. No sooner had I whipped out the math cards when Stevie, a twelve-year old boy, started to sob. Surely, it couldn’t be the math so I asked, “What’s the matter?”
In between sniffles, Stevie said, “My brother and I got beat up on the school bus coming home today.”
Down went the flash cards. Math would wait. “Tell me what happened.”
A group of girls egged the brothers on because they lived at a homeless shelter. Stevie and his freckle-faced brother John were shy, reticent boys. They were both slightly built as well. So when the female warriors pounced on them with blows to the face and neck, the boys didn’t fight back. None of the other students, male or female, stopped the fight either. The bus driver, according to the boys, said nothing.
The staff worker called the school principal to report the serious matter. Bullying should be addressed so it doesn’t lead to further violence. I led a discussion that day among the six or seven children present about bullying. Why it happened? How it can be prevented? What to do if you are a victim?
On my way out, Luke cuddled up next to Stevie. He rested his paw in the boy’s lap. Stevie’s eyes were still red and puffy. I hugged him and said I was sorry. I felt so inadequate that I couldn’t offer more. Violence shatters children in so many ways.
Every Christmas, a friend volunteered for an organization that collected toys for needy children. I always got to pick out toys, books and games for the kids at the shelter. I wrapped each child’s gifts separately and brought them in the week before Christmas. Seeing their excitement was precious. They ripped open the presents and treated them as if they were gold. As an added treat, I rented Christmas music CD’s from the library. We sang along to tunes such as Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Luke sang along too in his own special way. He howled at various parts of the songs and that made the children crack up. Christmas at a homeless shelter instead of your own home was undoubtedly a crushing experience. Shelter staff and volunteers pitched in to make their holiday as warm and comforting as possible.
A single mother named Linda and her eight children arrived at the shelter. Anger and rage swirled around Linda nearly every time she opened her mouth. She didn’t speak; she hollered. Angela, the oldest, was about 12 and served as a surrogate parent to her mother’s large brood. Some of Linda’s kids were in the after school program. Nearly all acted out by picking fights, refusing to obey rules, and throwing books or toys across the room. One boy related to Luke but whenever I was around, I spent most of my time breaking up spats. Talks about non-violence and harmony sailed over their heads. The staff worker shared a few tidbits about Linda. At 12, she gave birth to Angela. And since then she’s been pregnant nearly every other year. None of the children’s multiple fathers were in their lives. Linda had trouble holding a job. And in fact, the day we spoke, the worker said the shelter delivered another blow to Linda. They asked her to leave for non-compliance with rules and regulations. In 10 days she had to be out. I returned a week later. Despite the odds against finding a place to take her and eight children, Linda pulled off a miracle. I never saw the family again.
On December 26, 2004 tragedy struck half way around the world. A giant tsunami nearly swallowed up Asian countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Thousands died while the savage storm left millions without homes. Businesses were destroyed so people in fragile nations were jobless.
Moved by the frightful situation in Southeast Asia I shared my thoughts with the children. Despite being homeless, their hearts were full of empathy for the people whose lives were shattered by the tsunami. With a just a little help from me, they wrote letters to the ambassadors of the most severely impacted countries. I added cover letters explaining who we were and mailed them to the United Nations. A few weeks later, a nagging migraine headache sidelined me. As I rested in bed with crushing pain, the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it. A woman with a foreign accent asked for me. The ambassador’s office from Sri Lanka called to say thank you for the kind and thoughtful note that the children sent. The woman’s name escapes me now but she promised that as soon as the country recovered from the frightening devastation she’d read our letters to schools across the country. I felt so proud. I returned the next week with the good news. A few children who signed the letters had moved. Too bad they weren’t around to hear the touching message from Sri Lanka.
Every summer the shelter asked me to extend my weekly visits to one hour. I always said yes. To avoid boredom, I looked for interesting, humane, and educational opportunities for the kids. I prodded the owner of a local yoga parlor to offer free yoga lessons to the kids. I arranged a visit to Whole Foods, a natural grocery store. A worker guided us through the huge facility, explaining tidbits about natural foods. At the end of our visit each child received a gift bag filled with wholesome snacks. We visited a ranch for abused and unwanted horses. The kids related to horses kicked out of their homes for eating too much. I invited speakers from the Sierra Club to talk about our natural environment and how they could be kinder to Mother Nature. A woman who raised guide dogs for the blind showed us how the dogs were trained. A Sheriff’s deputy from Maricopa County talked about investigating animal abuse. And the Arizona Puppet Theatre put on a fabulous, entertaining performance every year that made the kids laugh, smile and giggle. On a visit to a local fire department, kids fought over who would ride on my motorized chair. The kids never rejected me because of my disability as adults sometimes did.
I strayed a few times from the Gabriel’s Angels lesson plans about kindness and compassion and came up with my own. I didn’t think Pam, the president, would mind. My friend Rosemary, a former grade school teacher, had end stage breast cancer. She missed being around children. I told the kids about Rosemary and asked if they’d make her get well cards, even though they’d never met her. Homeless children may lack proper clothing, a permanent home, and a regular routine, but most of them are full of spirit and dignity. I handed out colorful paper and Crayons for each child to make a special get well card. Rosemary wept when she read their heartfelt wishes. Two weeks later, she joined me for a pet therapy session. She brought her guitar and we sat around her singing songs. Every now and then Luke howled, making the children laugh. On our way out, all the children hugged Rosemary and wished her well. She died two months later surrounded by family and friends.
At the end of 2008, Luke and I retired as a therapy team. During sessions kids would ask me, “Why does Luke sleep so much?” One boy laughed at Luke’s snoring.
Age slowly crept up on Luke. My dog had to be at least twelve years old although I was never sure. His spirits were as sunny as ever but he had slowed down. He showed more interest in curling up for a good snooze than interacting with the kids. I called Pam Gaber and said we’re retiring. Luke’s not into it anymore. She said she understood. I hated saying good-bye but it was the right decision.
Over the seven years I visited the homeless shelter I met hundreds of children. Each one touched me in a different way. Some came from families who fell on hard times. Working class people often scrape by on the edge. Loss of a job, lack reliable transportation or a serious illness can throw many to homelessness. Other children had mothers who escaped from domestic violence with nothing more than the clothes they wore. A handful of children were raised by single fathers or extended family members. Lots of children lived with both parents. Most children had at least one parent who worked. Lack of affordable housing was their enemy. Demand outstripped supply. I saw some children for a few weeks. Others remained for the four month limit the shelter imposed on family stays. A few children were allergic to dogs and sat in the computer room during our visit. One girl was bit as a child and had a lifelong fear of dogs so she too skipped our sessions. Almost all the children loved Luke. They hugged him, kissed him, put a radio headphone around his ears, danced with him, and begged him to stay. Wherever the children ended up, I hope they remember our messages about kindness, compassion and love. For a dog considered worthless and unwanted, Luke developed into a champion. He never strutted around the show ring but he was always my best boy. And the children at homeless shelter would say he was top dog too. All those homeless kids molded me into a better person. For that I will always be grateful.
Sidebar: Luke died on January 23, 2010. I miss him terribly. During his short time on this planet, a shelter dog considered worthless brought hope, kindness and compassion to hundreds of lives.