From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

A Friend for All Seasons

Friendship with oneself is all-important because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt

“David, are you frightened of big dogs?” asked Sue, a volunteer coordinator for elderly services in my hometown.

“No, Sue, I love dogs. How about you?” I asked.

“Well, actually they frighten me to death,” she replied.

“But one of my clients needs someone to walk her dog. She’d probably enjoy a short visit with you, too. Her name is Alice,” she hesitated and then added, “. . . and her dog’s name is Thor. Could you help us out?”

“Sure. When do you need me?”

“How’s tomorrow morning at 8:30?”

“See you then,” I replied enthusiastically.

As we knocked on Alice’s door, a ferocious roar greeted us followed by a frightening crash against the door panel.

“That’s Thor,” Sue exclaimed as she nervously retrieved a dog biscuit from her coat.

A small, frail woman slowly opened the door and stared at us with an unfocused gaze. A huge German shepherd had wedged himself between the woman and us.

“Sit, Thor, sit!” Alice commanded in a quiet but stern voice.

Sue was ready to retreat, but I decided to bite the bullet. “Nice boy . . . nice Thor,” I said, reaching out to pet his long, majestic head—he was beautiful.

Thor sniffed me a bit and, as I had hoped, backed off. We followed Alice into the apartment, Sue still gripping the biscuit as if to ward off evil dog spirits. Alice explained, “I’m not seeing too well today.” Later I came to realize this was her way of acknowledging her deteriorating vision.

Sue and I had previously agreed that if things went well, she would leave and I would stay on for a bit, perhaps taking Thor for a short walk.

After a relieved Sue made her exit, Alice said, “The trouble with that young woman is that she doesn’t understand dogs!” I guess she thought I did.

From that moment, the three of us—Alice, Thor and I— became friends. I walked Thor that day and many mornings thereafter. I generally visited with Alice twice a week, and she always served tea. She reminded me of my grandmother— frail but full of life. I was always nervous when Alice insisted on getting up in the middle of a story to totter off and retrieve an interesting memento. Thor would follow closely at her heels.

At twelve, Thor was also showing his age, most noticeably in his hip joints. Medicine wasn’t helping, but once launched on his morning walk, he became young again.

I loved it when Thor rolled around like a puppy. One November morning after the first snowfall of the season, I watched him frolic and snort. I was reminded of Gertrude Stein’s sage observation: “Inside we are always the same age.” No one had told Thor he was an old fellow.

Alice and Thor were a close pair. Once I heard Alice talking to Thor in words I didn’t understand. She stopped as soon as she realized I was close by. I guess she had a secret language she used with him. I respected their bond and never asked about it.

I walked Thor in all seasons—on rainy summer days, on brisk leaf-crackling autumn mornings and on frigid winter afternoons—even when his ever-worsening hip dysplasia made climbing up and down the porch steps a painful ordeal.

One day in February, Thor suddenly whimpered and stumbled as I was walking him. He slowly slumped over on the snow-covered path, moaning in pain. I managed to carry him home with the assistance of a neighbor. We carefully settled him on a rug at Alice’s feet. I called the vet who promised to make a special trip over later in the day.

“David, you can leave now, I’m fine,” a concerned Alice assured me as she leaned over her beloved Thor.

“I can stay with you until the doctor comes, Alice. “ “I’m sure you have other things to do, dear. Besides, I’d rather be alone with Thor. Please . . . do go.”

Reluctantly, I put on my coat and leaned down to say good-bye to Thor. He usually walked me to the door, but that morning he only raised his head and slowly licked my hand. I reached over, patted Alice’s arm and left.

When I made the dreaded telephone call to Alice later that day, she told me that Thor was gone. “They took him away on a stretcher,” she said sadly, her voice quivering. Then she added, “He never made a sound. He was in such pain, and I wouldn’t want him to suffer. He knew it, too.”

I told Alice I would be over the next day. “Only if it fits your schedule, dear. There’s no Thor to walk anymore,” she replied.

As I entered the big hallway outside Alice’s apartment the following morning, I was acutely aware of the silence—the absence of the familiar barking and frantic banging against the door.

“I didn’t expect you today, David,” Alice said. “I don’t imagine you’ll be coming around anymore. Sue already called me.” I had telephoned the agency that morning to tell Sue about Thor’s death. Alice must have thought I was giving my notice as a volunteer.

“Of course I’ll be coming . . . if you’ll let me. You’re important to me, too.”

Suddenly, Alice turned her face from me and began to weep. I let her have what my grandmother used to call “a good cry,” and then I went over and knelt beside her. Alice dried her eyes, managed a smile, and said, “Well, I guess Thor made sure I’d be well taken care of.”

“Yes, Thor knew how important we all are to one other,” I replied.

Alice reached out her right hand, placing it squarely on my left shoulder. “Let’s have a nice cup of tea,” she said.

David Garnes

“That’s my beeper. I volunteer down at the fire department.”

Reprinted by permission from Jonny Hawkins.© 2001 Jonny Hawkins.

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