Hearing the Pain

Missy took a spill the other day.

Not a serious one. Just a hard landing on bathroom tile, the kind that leaves your arm sore for a while afterward. No breaks. No bruises.

It still makes you wince, though. Or should. It’s part of being a guardian, a parent, an adult. When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

I only wish every adult felt the same way.

My mind’s been on the topic lately thanks to Stuart Chaifetz. You’ve probably heard the story. Like me and my wife, Chaifetz has someone who needs special care – for us, a developmentally disabled adult, for him, his autistic 10-year-old son, Akian.

Chaifetz got worried when Akian started lashing out in school, even hitting a teacher and his aide. Six months of meetings failed to uncover why. Chaifetz knew he needed to know what was happening at school, but Akian lacked the ability to tell him.

So he put a wire on his son. Secretly tape-recorded his school day.

The result horrified him. Adults yelling at the students, mocking the students, humiliating and threatening the students. One told Akian “you are a bastard” and warned him “Go ahead and scream, because guess what? You’re going to get nothing …until your mouth is shut.”

“What I heard on that audio was so disgusting, vile, and just an absolute disrespect and bullying of my son, that happened not by other children, but by his teacher, and the aides — the people who were supposed to protect him,” Chaifetz said in a video that has shot across the Internet.”They were literally making my son’s life a living hell.”

It’s an anger I can feel echo inside my own soul.

I hate bullies. Old, young, in between. I endured too much of it myself as a kid to ever want to see it in another. It’s a pain that makes days something to be feared instead of anticipated, a trial you don’t dare talk about until you have to.

And when the victim literally can’t talk about it, that is the lowest of the low.

Heather and I have cared for Missy the Wonderful for about a year now. I know that if we ever sniffed the slightest hint of mistreatment by someone else, we’d be on it like a shot, doing what we had to to pin it down and turn it off.

When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

But how do you know?

How do you ever know?

It’s a simple answer and a hard one at the same time. To quote a character from Missy’s Harry Potter books, it takes “Constant vigilance!” Granted, you don’t need the paranoia of Mad-Eye Moody … but it all starts with watchfulness.

Whoever you care for, be it a child or a charge, nobody knows them like you. How can they? You’ve lived with them. You love them. You’ve seen them at their best and their worst.

And you know – or can know – when something seems wrong. Even without words. It can be a change in mood or behavior like Akian’s. Or maybe a wariness around a particular person. Or anything that silently screams to you “This is not normal behavior. Something is going on.”

Maybe you’ll be wrong sometimes. But better to be careful without need, than to need care and not show it. A sad truth, perhaps, but real.

If you heard a crash and an “Ouch!” in the bathroom, you’d check it out. This isn’t any different.

When you care for someone, you don’t want to see them hurt.

And let’s face it. There’s going to be enough painful falls in life as it is.

Nobody needs to be pushed.

Come Out and Play

We call her Duchess the Wonder Dog. Usually as in “I wonder what that dog is thinking.”

Take the old game of fetch.

When an object is thrown past Duchess with the words “Go get it!”, one of three results is guaranteed to occur:

  1. Duchess watches the object like Troy Tulowitzki watching an outside pitch. “Huh? Was I supposed to be interested in that?”
  2. Duchess goes calmly over to it and takes possession … and that’s it. “What? You want it back? Why’d you get rid of it, then?”
  3. Duchess takes off after it like the house was on fire, running back forth for about two or three minutes with high acceleration and hard braking. “Vroomvroomvroomvroomscreech ….!”

What she doesn’t do, most times, is keep up the game. Not even after six years with us.


I’m not really complaining. She’s a lovely and loving dog who’s come a long way. At some point in the three years before we got her, she was neglected at the least, abused at the worst. People (except for kids) were something scary for a long time; strangers still make her a little nervous until she knows them better.

A lot of old wounds have mended. But abuse doesn’t just injure. It steals.

And I think it stole some of Duchess’s ability to have fun without reservation.

Not all of it. There’s still a freedom that peeks out when she runs, a joy that escapes when she’s in the mountains. (Duchess grew up a Kansas dog, so the high country remains something of a wonder to her.) But so often it needs the right moment or a bit of coaxing.

Or a rabbit.

Duchess discovered rabbits while we were still in Kansas, where a small family lived beneath a backyard bush. Despite her being half-retriever, she didn’t really know what to do at first. Dog and prey backed up to each other like figures in a Warner Brothers cartoon, noticed each other and then dashed away, startled.

She soon got the idea.

Trips to the backyard tripled in length as she had to sniff every corner, explore every crop of greenery, dash after each long-eared shadow. Squirrels didn’t really interest her (much to the regret of our bird feeder), she wanted a real chase.

There haven’t been any rabbits since moving back here.

I think we’ve all felt the lack.

That, too, was part of her healing.

Duchess loves. And Duchess knows she’s loved. That’s big. She’s become fiercely devoted to us and to Heather especially.

But she still carries her marks. She still has that slight flinch before a pat. That occasional uncertainty before a game.

Just five minutes with the people who did this. That’s all I want.

Well, not all. I want them to understand how long cruelty can scar, how deeply thoughtlessness can rend. I want them to see just how many consequences there are to a callous act, many of them unexpected.

I want them to see how much love can mend. And how much time it takes. Burning down has always been easier than building up; I want them to know the labor they’ve made necessary.

Most of all, I want them to realize. To learn that lesson Kurt Vonnegut considered most vital: how to be kind. To animals. To people. To anyone and anything that crosses your path.

It’s that kindness that will someday make this world a wonder.

And maybe then, all the Duchesses of the world will be ready to go play.

Here, girl.

Breaking Through

Some of you may remember that Robert Heinlein once wrote about a cat who could walk through walls. I figure, this once, that I can match him.

After all, I have the dog who walked through doors. The hard way.

She usually appears here as Duchess the Wonder Dog, as in “It’s a wonder this dog hasn’t given herself a heart attack.” Half border collie, half black Lab and all love, she is easily one of the most lovable animals ever issued four legs.

And just a wee bit timid. Which is like saying that Batman is a little bit driven.

It’s not without reason. Dutch, you see, is a rescue dog, one that was never properly socialized as a puppy. We adopted her nearly six years ago, and through love, affection and the careful application of pizza, she had come a long way.

Until our move last April, anyway.

Suddenly Duchess’s world was turned upside down. There was a new house, rich (to her) with the scents of the four dogs who had lived here before. Room layouts were changing by the day, people were coming and going, we even had an infant niece being brought over once a week to be babysat.

And so, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when we came back from a trip one afternoon to find Duchess waiting for us just inside the front door.

“Did you shut her up in the bedroom?” Heather asked.

“I thought you did.”

I went upstairs. And found we had.

I also found a pile of wood shavings. And a Duchess-sized hole in the door.

Duchess had gotten so anxious that she had clawed her way through.

“Oh, Dutch …”

She’s OK now. More love, more affection, just a little bit of medicine. But you can’t experience the Arc du Duchess without it clawing at your soul a bit too.

And perhaps finding a bit of kinship.

We’re a strange species. We change our world more than any other … and often fear change more than anything else could. Something as simple as a new Facebook design can inspire outrage for days; more fundamental shocks can fill letters pages, or council chambers, or the streets themselves.

When I was very young, my Grandma lived with us for a while. On some nights, when she had rinsed out my hair to finish a bath, I would look in the mirror at this face with its drippy, sodden locks hanging down and declare “That’s not me!”

How much of that survives when we get older?

And how much of it must live in the heart of the abused – animal or human – who has been hurt without understanding why?

Perhaps in realizing it, we can fight it a little. Perhaps we can help bring a little peace to ourselves, a little kindness to others. Perhaps at some point, we can actually remember that all of us need all of us, and that love, whether to a fearful dog or a fearful world, is never out of place.

I hope so. I really do.

A hole in the door is easily fixed.

It’s the hole in the heart that needs all the love we can give it.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to go hug my dog.