Sunday, December 31, 2017

Unconditional love

I didn’t record the date or time, but in late 2015, at some point along the final segment of Jeanne’s trajectory, I met JJ, Hospice Therapy Dog.

We didn’t meet in the traditional sense. JJ lived on the other side of the country with her human assistant, Tracy. I had turned to Facebook as a diversion and source of support the previous summer and, one day, she simply appeared in my news feed - I’m not sure why or how, but in any event, JJ changed my life.

I had started posting a daily picture to Facebook while Jeanne and I were on vacation in 2014. Close friends and family knew about Jeanne’s illness, but several years earlier we had agreed to keep things private, and the photos were about the beauty of Buzzards Bay, and our food adventures.

I soon joined a group, ‘Clouds that don’t look like anything else.’ Members of the group post pictures of clouds (duh), and anyone who tries to interpret their appearance (“That looks like a duck!”) is met with, “No, it’s a cloud.”

I began scanning the sky for interesting clouds to share. Posting a photo, and looking at the clouds others posted, became something Jeanne and I could enjoy together, a simple way to travel the world and follow others from the familiar comfort of home.

I also started reading posts about serious illness and care at end of life, which is likely how I came to meet JJ. Tracy is a certified pet therapist and hospice nurse, and had been posting in JJ’s voice about their work for some time when a short video of theirs went viral.

The first moment I saw that video, I knew things would never be the same - for me, or for anyone else who needs to learn more about care at end of life, or who might be fearful of what death can look like.

In less than 2 minutes, JJ shows caring and presence in a way that’s as helpful and profound as any of the many fine books that have been written about death in recent years. Maybe more so.

Tracy and I corresponded through Facebook comments and Messenger, and she and JJ quickly became essential members of Jeanne’s and my care team right through to the end. She laughed when I said JJ would be bigger than Atul Gawande, but when she was approached to write a book, I patted myself on the back for being so prescient.

Several years ago, I harbored the fantasy that working in this field would somehow immunize me from having to confront serious illness in my own circle, or from experiencing the pain of losing someone close to me. How foolish.

The simple fact is, we all die.

In December, 2016, JJ was diagnosed with lymphoma, and Tracy shared updates on her treatment and condition through the year. JJ retired from hospice work earlier this month, and on Friday the 29th she died peacefully, in the company of Tracy and several others closest to her.

Tracy has graciously allowed me to include a portion of their viral video in one I developed on caring for patients and families at end of life, in the section about communicating with someone whose cognition is declined or absent.

Here’s JJ. Good work, dog <3

Sunday, December 24, 2017