My grandmother, Theresa, is 87 years old. A little over a year ago, my family made the decision to move her out of her home and into an assisted living facility. It wasn’t an easy decision; after all, her home was a place of comfort and familiarity for her. Her home was also where her beloved dog, Roxy, was. Unfortunately, Grandma’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to a point where it was arguably dangerous for her to live by herself. My late uncle was visiting her daily to take care of her, but she got to the point where she needed ’round-the-clock care. My grandma doesn’t seem to remember us, her family members, all that well. However, there is one family member she hasn’t forgotten, and the staff who take care of her often say she won’t stop talking about this particular child: it’s her dog, Roxy!
If you’ve ever had a family member who has suffered from Alzheimer’s, then you know very well what it’s like. For those of you who haven’t, let me describe how this disease has affected my own grandmother. Of course, Alzheimer’s has varying degrees of severity, but my grandma is at the point where she doesn’t quite seem to know who I am. I think there is something inside her, perhaps some sense of familiarity, because she is always very happy when I visit her. She never calls me by my name, but I think she might know that I am her family member, even if she doesn’t know exactly who I am.
Grandma never remembers that we visit her. When she was still in her home, I visited for a good couple hours. I left to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy down the road and was gone all of 20 minutes. I was ready to head home, so I simply dropped the prescriptions off at her house, and she asked why I was leaving so soon and not staying to visit. Her short-term memory is completely gone. I would argue that for the most part, the last 10 to 20 years of her life are foggy. She may know certain things, like that she owns a car, but she doesn’t remember what it looks like. My conversations with her usually include her recounting the same memories, often from her childhood, a few times before I’m able to ask a question that gets her repeating a different set of sentences.
Grandma’s dog, Roxy, is 11 years old, so she should fit into the “last 10 to 20 years of her life are foggy” statement. But that isn’t the case. Even over the phone, Grandma will tell me about how Roxy was the “neighborhood dog” who would go for a stroll around the block, find some sort of ball in someone’s backyard, and bring it home. This resulted in many a neighborhood child knocking on Grandma’s door and asking, “Have you got my ball?”
Back before our world was turned upside-down by coronavirus, I went to visit Grandma at the assisted living facility with Roxy. Before I entered the building, I had to throw Roxy’s droppings away in the dumpster. Grandma saw Roxy through a window and recognized her; she pointed this out to one of the caretakers and was apparently pretty excited that her dog was coming to visit her. As you can tell, my grandma has definitely not forgotten about Roxy. I wonder if her Alzheimer’s will ever have the power to erase those memories. I truly hope not.
I’ve always believed the bond between a human and a dog is something special. It’s certainly not something we seem to feel for other humans. I remember reading one of Patricia McConnell’s books, and in it she recounted how her mother cried more over the loss of a dog than the loss of a husband. I think what dogs give us is unconditional love that is devoid of conflict. What conflicts do we have with our dogs? That they peed on the floor? Chewed up our favorite pair of shoes? All of them tend to be rather petty and are met with rapid forgiveness. How long have you been able to stay mad at your dog(s) for? I don’t think I’ve made it longer than an hour, if that.
Furthermore, a smart owner understands that they are to blame for their dog’s behavior. Though dogs are incredible animals capable of many things we are not, there is one thing they cannot do that we can: reason. And thus we know that the dog cannot comprehend why she shouldn’t chew on your shoes. You can teach her not to do so, but she will never understand why you don’t want her to. My point here is that we don’t tend to blame dogs for their misbehavior like we do with other humans, and so we forgive them for naughty moments easily. Perhaps this is why our bond with dogs is so unique.
Whatever the reason, this bond is strong enough that even though my grandma has forgotten my name, she hasn’t forgotten Roxy’s.
Rest in peace to my grandma, Theresa. She did not forget Roxy even to the day she died. (May 4, 1933 – June 15, 2020)