From The Mailbox

Last week a note from a Massachusetts reader appeared in my inbox regarding my book, Where The Trail Grows Faint.  The book, published in 2005 by the University of Nebraska Press, is creative non-fiction about working with my chocolate Labrador retriever, Hannah, in a nursing home.  It weaves three story strands into a braid:  Hannah and her antics with the residents of an often hopeless place, a means to examine the plight of America’s institutionalized elderly and what would improve their lives; my own long distance caregiving for my parents; and the natural life cycle of the forest in which Hannah and I hike. 

The note I received reads:

Good Morning Lynne…

I just finished reading through Where The Trail Grows Faint and found it to be such a wonderful story.  I selected this book from my library because my husband and I recently became owners of a young golden retriever with the goal of her becoming a therapy dog.  I also work in an Assisted Living facility, and your comments on the situations about the elderly in our country were ‘true to the bone.’  The loneliness which is evident in these residents’ lives is heart breaking.  Do you have any updates on her work, or do you have plans to write more on the subject?  Thanks for sharing your story!

Debbie Killeffer

I wrote back for permission to answer Debbie here in the blog, so here goes:

White-muzzled now, Hannah is alive and well.  She’ll be 12 on July 20, and isn’t working in the nursing home any more.  Her health is good except for arthritis in one foot.  The foot is enlarged, but amazingly, she’s not limping.  Her infamous unauthorized forays off trail in the forest have decreased from insane to merely annoying: her favorite thing is still to cross the river and roll in (or eat or both) something deliciously dead right in my view, studiously ignoring “Leave it, dammit!” which I yell in frustration from the other side.  (If she thinks I can get to her, she comes when she’s called.)  Some things never change.

Since the publication of Where The Trail Grows Faint in 2005, my Dad died at the age of 94, last August.  Thanks to my sister, who’d moved to North Carolina, Dad was able to live in his own home until the very end, although it was rough.  It was his fervent desire, and Jan made that possible.  I went as often as I could, especially though his last spring and summer, but as I discussed in the book, and as Debbie Killeffer mentions, the dread and fear the elderly feel regarding institutions is often not unrealistic, and thanks to Jan and the support of her physician husband, Dad remained home even while in hospice care, never losing daily sight of his beloved waterway and marsh grass, the snowy egrets, the rise and fall of the tide.   

Barb, my trail hiking companion, her husband Hardy, and my own husband and family are all well.  Hannah’s staunch black Lab companion, Betty, died about 18 months ago.  After a time to grieve, Barb and Hardy went to Lab Rescue and adopted an adult chocolate Lab that had been abandoned in a small outdoor pen.  She had no food or water–no telling for how long and what she’d survived on–and, when found by a meter man, was down to just over 40 pounds.   She’d given birth and managed to keep all ten puppies alive.  The puppies had to be taken from her right away, at 5 weeks (hand-nursed, saved, and adopted out), and Maggie struggled for her life in intensive care.  Barb and Hardy took her home well before she was healthy or fit, but oh, you should see her now!  Seventy pounds and gleaming.  And she and Hannah are best friends.  When Hannah, the more playful (but now slower) of the two, wants a game, she drops toys on Maggie’s head until Maggie gives up, gets up, and a rousing round of tug-of war starts.  They are two magnificent girls who spend time together pretty much every day. 

As to whether I’ll write on animal-assisted therapy again?  Debbie, I don’t see another non-fiction on the subject, at least for now.  I think I’ve said what I have to say.  Or what Hannah had to say!  I think it’s all true and hasn’t changed any more than what would improve the lives of the institutionalized elderly has changed.  I still believe in the Eden Alternative, as developed by William Thomas, M.D., as a model for nursing homes.  Places that leave television and bingo in the dust:  homes alive with vegetable and flower gardens, plants, fish, birds, dogs, cats.  Homes that encourage autonomy and involvement for residents to the greatest extent possible, where there’s engagement with children who need someone with whom to practice their reading, for example, and volunteers who come in to read poetry or play music.  Discussion groups.  All of it works, as Dr. William Thomas’s living models and writings have shown, to allow the elderly to find an ongoing role and to live, rather than merely wait to die.  (see www.edenalt.org)

What I can imagine is the possibility of setting a novel in a conventional nursing home, the protagonist being a resident reflecting on his/her in the past and present.  There could be a dog…Maybe s/he talks to the dog.  I am thinking about that.  You know what the potential problem with such a novel is?  Finding a way to make sure the novel isn’t “too dark.”  I have learned that no matter how dark reality actually is, and whether what you’ve written is honest and reflective of that reality, it’s very difficult to sell that kind of literary fiction.  It has to have hope.  I’ve learned that even when there isn’t much hope, you have to find it.  

Warm thanks to Debbie Killeffer for her note and permission to publish it!   Best of luck to you, Debbie, and your good, golden girl.  Hope is in you.

One Response to From The Mailbox

  1. This is beautiful, you two. This is why we writers write–for readers like Debbie, who enter the story with all their senses opened to a world they truly want to engage.

    As for the nursing home story, Lynne, I say, go wherever it takes you. That’s the only way to write a true story, even when it’s fiction. Death with a dog in the room cannot be as dark as death without one. Be sure to read Jennifer Arnold’s THROUGH A DOG’S EYES for deathbed stories with children, of all people, that are somehow uplifting, thanks to the dog, not the dastardly disease.

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