Worthless Woman, Worthless Dog
For $2.00 I got Maxine, a scrubby stray dog, from a drug dealer. That was 1988 when I was a social worker in a decaying Bronx neighborhood overrun with crack cocaine, gangs, and more shattered lives than my new social work degree could handle.
Maxine and I shared a special bond. On January 6, 1994 we took our usual stroll after work when a car struck me and threw me into a ditch. Rendered unconscious, I lay bleeding and battered. Maxine was unharmed but shaken up. Neighbors said she refused to leave my side, licking blood oozing from a gash on my face. She whimpered and whined as the ambulance sped off. Fortunately, friends cared for her in my two-month absence.
After I left the ICU a week later, the hospital allowed friends to bring Maxine for a visit. Although I have no memory of her bedside calls, friends said I knew her name. At the time, I didn’t know my own.
Two months later I came home on the verge of slipping into a deep depression. How could I, an active, vibrant 39-year-old woman, live as a disabled person? I had always earned my own keep. Exercise was routine, jogging nearly every day. I ran in the New York City marathon three times and bicycled in the Rocky Mountains. I hiked in state parks. Maxine’s warm nose nudging me out of bed after the accident made the difference. Slowly, I shifted my angry attitude and realized life had a purpose.
In the years that followed, Maxine took my disability in stride. She rode on my motorized scooter like the happiest dog in the world. As she aged, my scooter became as vital for her outdoor activity as it was for mine. We went everywhere together.
By 1999 my beloved Maxine faded from old age and diabetes. I feared the end was near. Judy, my other rescued dog, was never alone. I asked my friend to visit an animal shelter to adopt a new companion.
Hundreds of cast-off mixes and purebreds yapped for attention. Their eyes melted my heart, pleading for love. I could only take one. Who would it be?
Luke wasn’t on my list. Other dogs had more spunk. A fat black mix with a cute wiggle grabbed my attention but my friend steered me towards Luke, a large curly-haired terrier mix with sad eyes.
Originally brought in as a stray, Luke was adopted then returned a month later. The new owner said Luke was inconvenient because he was moving.
Once outside, Luke brightened up and smothered me with doggie kisses. Tail flapping, 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 handed me his paw, rolled on his back and kicked his legs in the air. There was no way to resist his canine charm so I adopted him that sweltering July afternoon.
Surprisingly Maxine hung on for another two years, sleeping nearly all day. Luke, however, loved and adored everyone. He had personality plus. What about pet therapy?
Luke showed potential and I wanted to share his gifts with sick or injured patients, just as Maxine 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 requirement for therapy work. We were assigned to visit sick, elderly, or injured patients at a rehab center.
On the first week, Luke endeared himself to the recreation assistant, a gregarious young woman with a Julia Roberts smile. Luke and Kim developed a comical routine that never wavered. At 9:00 a.m. Luke and I waited in the lobby. 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 open arms. My twice abandoned dog was on a roll.
Patients welcomed us. Reactions 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. 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. "Maria Maria," she said as I rolled out of her room, always smiling at Luke.
Bald and be-speckled, 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 saved for him.
And there was Frank. For reasons I never understood, Luke picked Frank as his special friend. Luz, Frank’s mother, was stricken with lung and heart disease. In his younger years, Frank drank to excess, was chronically unemployed and often gambled away his mother’s meager earnings as a janitor. Frank finally spruced up his act and visited Luz daily. Every time Luke saw Frank he bellowed as if he’d seen his best friend. Although Luz was on a ventilator, she smiled at their tender interaction.
Not everyone at the rehab center withered away. Some patients recovered and moved into assisted living facilities where pet ownership was permitted, sometimes even encouraged, so seniors stayed active and vibrant. Patients asked me for shelter contacts to adopt older cats or dogs for company. 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. Everyone loved Luke.
On a chance encounter at a now closed dog bakery, I met Pam Gaber in July 2001. She is founder and president of Gabriel’s Angels, a non-profit organization that tries to break the cycle of violence in bruised, battered, and at-risk children through healing pet therapy. I liked Gabriel’s Angels philosophy and signed on as a volunteer.
Initially, I retained dual memberships. Disabled, I no longer worked so I had enough time for two pet therapy visits. Luke had plenty of love and compassion to share as well.
We were assigned to 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 less likely to be shackled by violence.
Luke bonded with seven-year-old Kevin. Wheel-chair bound, Kevin’s bodily movements were awkward and spastic. He was speech impaired. I presumed cerebral palsy. Luke sidled next to Kevin, making him giggle. Despite staff assurances that Kevin couldn’t speak, I heard him say, “The dog” several times. One week, Kevin wasn’t around. I asked about the boy with CP.
“CP?” The staff worker shrugged no. “His mother’s boyfriend beat the crap out of him.” As a toddler, Kevin fussed a lot. One day, Joe flew into a rage, pummeling Kevin with his fists. Joe went to prison but Kevin’s sentence is a lifetime of profound disability. Luke brought him brief moments of solace.
When I met ten-year-old Linda her mother served time for child abuse. Although Linda escaped physical damage, she was emotionally shredded. Her mother also killed her dog. Her father assumed care but recently lost his job. Homelessness followed. Linda adored animals and talked to Luke as if he was her personal confidant. From her vacant stare, I wondered how much we reached her.
Teaching compassion extended beyond animals. A petty spat between two pig-tailed girls erupted into a brawl while other children assembled a 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.
“Did not,” Tracy said, lunging 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 chests and snapped their heads in opposite directions.
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 us staying. The other children don’t like it when you fuss and argue. 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. We finished the puzzle without incident.
Three years as a multi-pet therapist posed no scheduling problems for me. However, the rehab center, changed corporate ownership. I disagreed with management philosophy about patient recreation and pet therapy. By mutual agreement, we parted ways.
I brought Beanie Baby dolls to play a pretend game of compassion to animals. Instead, a group of children 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 and learn about compassion. Please don't act out games that hurt.”
A few children continued to act mean spirited despite my pleas to behave gently. Finally, I said, “That’s it. I want them back. All of them. I come here to spread kindness and compassion.”
No one said a word as I collected the dolls. On my way out, children not involved in violent games asked me if they could have the dolls back. I said yes but only if they played with them nicely.
Due to the vagaries of shelter life, homeless children may do poorly in school. Large families cramped into one or two small rooms deprive children of quiet time for studies. With Luke as the focus, I sometimes brought math or vocabulary cards to bolster learning. No sooner had I whipped out the math cards when Stevie, a twelve-year old boy, started sobbing. Surely, it couldn’t be the math so I asked, “What’s wrong?”
Sniffling, Stevie said, “My brother and I got beat up on the school bus.”
Down went the flash cards. Math would wait. “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. Both were slightly built. When the girls pounced on them with blows to the face and neck, the boys didn’t fight back. No other students stopped the fight either. The bus driver said nothing.
Our staff worker called the principal. I led a discussion that day 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 hurts 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 shelter. I wrapped each child’s gifts and brought them before Christmas. Seeing their excitement was precious. They ripped open the presents as if they were gold. For a treat, I rented Christmas music CD’s from the library. We sang to tunes like 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 the children cracked up.
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 or jobs.
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 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. Several weeks later, the phone rang. The ambassador’s office from Sri Lanka called to thank me for the kind and thoughtful note sent by the children. The woman’s name escapes me 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 had already moved. Too bad they weren’t around to hear the touching message.
Every summer the shelter asked me to extend my visits to one hour. I looked for interesting, humane, and educational opportunities. I prodded the owner of a yoga parlor to offer free yoga lessons to the kids. I arranged a visit to Whole Foods, a natural grocery store. 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. 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. The Great Arizona Puppet Theatre put on a fabulous, entertaining performance every year that made the kids laugh, smile and giggle.
At the end of 2008, Luke and I retired as a therapy team. During sessions kids asked 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. He showed more interest in curling up for a good snooze than interacting with the kids.
Over the seven years I visited the homeless shelter I met hundreds of children. Each one touched me in a special 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 were raised by single fathers or extended family members. Lots of children lived with both parents. Most 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 maximum stay. 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. He was top dog. All those homeless kids molded me into a better person. For that I will always be grateful.
Luke died on January 23, 2010. I still miss him. During his short time on this planet, a shelter dog considered worthless brought hope, kindness and compassion to hundreds of lives.