In Good Hands

Years ago, my wife Heather referred to an omni-competent physician as a “Swiss Army Doctor” – the sort who seemed to be good at everything, whether they were part of his specialty or not.

She ought to know. Because Heather is one heck of a Swiss Army Person.

She’s a fearless driver who’s undismayed by Denver traffic.

She’s an aunt who speaks fluent Child, winning the immediate trust and understanding of anyone under 10 years old. (Yeah, she was going to be a teacher at one time.)

She’s a patient who’s done everything from diagnosing her own conditions before her doctors did, to fixing her own IV when it threatened to come loose after a home infusion.

Lifehacks? Minor repairs? Odd bits of knowledge? Never bet against the mind of a woman who’s read War and Peace cover-to-cover and is ready to start again.

In short, she’s the kind of person that everyone knows they can rely on. And that’s the trouble.

Because Heather has also been chronically ill most of her life – Crohn’s disease, ankylosing spondylitis, and most recently, multiple sclerosis. And that means two things.

One, it means that life can get very frustrating for her, when something she should be able to do suddenly becomes difficult – say, because of the balance issues that MS can bring, or the “brain fog” that can even make reading a trial at times.

But the second is more subtle. Heather needs to sometimes not be needed. To just be sick, and have everyone else carry the weight for a while.

That’s all too easy to forget. Embarrassingly easy, in fact.

And the truth is, most of us have been in similar situations.

Sometimes it’s on the personal level – the parent, or neighbor, or colleague, who can seemingly do it all, and thus often gets asked to. Whose hands keep getting filled, even when there’s no room left to grip. If none of it gets passed on, something is going to slip. Probably several somethings.

Sometimes, it’s on the institutional level – services and agencies and organizations that you’ve come to rely on, whether local, federal, or in between. You assume things will go on as they always have, and so they do … until the day that there’s a new person in charge, a new policy in place, a new mandate from higher up. Suddenly the secure becomes scary. Suddenly things you never thought could happen are becoming the new normal, while things you could trust are no longer certain.

In both cases, the panic usually comes when a crisis hits – and at that point, a lot of damage has already been done. That’s when you’re scrambling, trying to patch the holes, grab the tasks, juggle the flaming chainsaws that are already in the air. And sometimes that’s unavoidable – but only sometimes.

Most times, the needs and the dangers can be seen far ahead. But seeing them requires attention. Understanding. A willingness to work before there’s a need.

It means anticipating when a loved one might be overwhelmed, and taking the initiative to relieve the pressure.

It means having a plan before the roof leaks or the furnace dies.

It means doing more than vote, but being engaged and involved in the political process before it comes down to casting ballots.

Sure, it’s not always possible. No one can do everything they need to do – and that’s the point. If we all look out for each other, if we all stay alert to jump in where we can, then we can make the ride easier for all of us. We’ve seen this in times as dramatic as the 2013 flood and as quiet as a family’s mourning – when we stand together, we’re stronger. We’re family, neighbors, community.

We all remember that less than we should. Myself included. So here’s the reminder.

Be there. Do what needs doing.

And let the hardest-working hands get some rest at last.

A Love Without Words

I wish Duchess could tell me what’s wrong.

It’s not the first time. Duchess the Wonder Dog is our 9-year-old rescue pup, after all. Many’s the time we’ve wanted to know who made her so cautious around strangers or so anxious when she’s alone – and then to have a nice conversation with that person, aided by a Louisville Slugger and a guy named Guido.

But lately, there’s been a new turn.

It’s just been in the last few months. Every so often, around 3 or 4 a.m., Duchess will get nervous, even by Wonder Dog standards. Like a child wracked by nightmares, she’ll become super-clingy, needing to be as close as possible. At first, my wife and I grabbed the towels, thinking she was about to throw up – nocturnal stomach upsets are not unknown to us – but this wasn’t nausea.

If anything, it seemed a bit like panic.

We’re still not sure what’s happening. A new phase of the anxiety attacks? A pre-seizure aura of some kind? (Heather and I have both had dogs with epilepsy.) It could be a nightmare, a flashback, a sound in the night of a still-unfamiliar house.

It could even be just that she’s getting older. Some nights, that worries me most of all.

If only we could be sure.

Some of you have been here, I know. Maybe it’s inevitable, whether you’re dealing with a small child who doesn’t have their words yet, or a dear animal who’ll never have them at all. You tune your heart like a radio receiver, sensitive to every vibration and clue, trying to understand, to know, to feel what’s happening.

Many times that creates something beautiful. A love comes that doesn’t need words. Every look of the eyes has a meaning, every moment has a bond so solid it could almost take physical form.

But there’s the other side, too. When you crank the channel open so far, you magnify the worry as well as the wonder. The same bond that ties you together tells you something’s wrong, but so often not what or why.

Exposed hearts can dance – but they can also break.

Maybe it’s a good thing. It keeps us vigilant even as it makes us vulnerable, alert to the needs of those who depend on us most. It keeps us thinking instead of assuming, aware instead of complacent.

I just wish it didn’t hurt so much sometimes.

And that, too, is love. To give your heart knowing that sometimes it will be wrenched. To believe that it’s worth it.

No. Not to believe. To know.

That much I have, anyway. I know that Heather and I have brought healing to Duchess even as she’s brought joy to us. The rest we’ll figure out. Patience and a good veterinarian can help unravel a lot, after all.

But for now, if she needs a good cuddle at 4 a.m., we’ll be there. We always will. It’s a small thing to ask.

No words necessary.

None at all.