The Paws That Refreshes

I’ve referred many times to our younger dog as Big Blake, about 85 pounds of rambunctiousness who’s never met a substance that he didn’t try to eat. He’s lively. He’s fun. He’s carefully watched at meal times.

He also, unknown by me until now, has an alternate identity as Doctor Dog.

No joke.

Case in point: I’ve had four gran mal seizures in my life. Blake has witnessed exactly one. But the other night when I sighed loudly in my sleep, my wife Heather saw him get up and place his head over mine, ready in case I started shaking again.

Feeling sore? I’ve had more than one migraine graced by his sudden presence, where he’ll climb up and plant himself on my legs. He’s done the same for Heather during a bad MS attack. Canine acupressure, applied by an expert.

Bad mood? I defy it to survive when you’re suddenly staring at soulful brown eyes. Or, equally likely, being thumped by a vigorous tail.

Doctor Dog is on the scene. And if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that a loving touch refreshes.

It’s a lesson more of us could be reminded of, frankly.

The author Spider Robinson once wrote about the hugs given and received by another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon. Robinson noted that Sturgeon always graded the hugs he received as either “Letter A’s” or “Number One’s.” After a while, he and the other bystanders realized what Sturgeon was talking about – a Letter A hugger touched at the torso but separated at the waist, like a capital letter A, just leaning in. A Number One hugger gave a full-body hug, top to toe.

Given his own druthers, Sturgeon was a Number One hugger. For him, he told Robinson and the others, all of the senses were just extensions of the sense of touch.

“If you can’t touch with touch,” he said, “you can’t touch with much.”

These days, how much do we touch at all?

Oh, we like. We poke. We friend constantly across a spectrum of social media. But for all our fervent activity, the academics like to point out, most of us don’t generate a lot of cozy friendships.

The most recent study came out of Oxford. In it, Professor Robin Dunbar found that while the typical Facebook user has 150 friends, only 15 were “actual friends” and only five could count as “close friends.” It might just be, Dunbar concluded, that actual friendships needed at least a little face-to-face contact to cement them.

In other words, they need the common touch.

But let’s take a step back. What does face-to-face contact do?

It verifies who you’re talking to.

It grants instant accountability – if you act like a jerk (or like a saint), there can be an immediate reprisal.

And just like with Big Blake cuddling up, there’s a commonality born of proximity. You’re opening yourself up and receiving another who’s chosen to do the same. When all goes well, that can mean comfort and trust and welcome.

But here’s the funny thing. Contrary to the suggestions of Professor Dunbar, that sort of positive touch can happen without ever entering the same room.

In following up on the study, Newsweek talked to a photographer, Tanja Hollander. She visited 600 of her social media connections and found that 95 percent welcomed her in the door instantly. About 75 percent offered her a meal or a place to stay for the night.

That doesn’t really surprise me. I have at least three close friends I’ve never physically met. If I had the chance, mind you, I’d seize it like Von Miller going for a quarterback. But even without ever sharing an atom of space, we all qualify as Number One huggers with each other … we’ve let the other person into our space without holding back, sharing good and bad times alike, being there to comfort and celebrate.

That’s the real measure of a friendship. Whether physical, virtual, or both, the key is the same – be there. Whatever “there” may mean for the space you’re in.

Be the eyes that care. The pressure that comforts. The presence that heals.

Be Doctor Dog.

After all, there’s no better way to build a pack.

Waiting for the Dawn

Missy let out a whoop from the window seat. Another bad guy DOWN!

“Wow!” Heather called out from the laundry room, laughing as the echoing cheer reached her. It might have reached Berthoud, now that I think about it. Right along with the flash from Missy’s smile.

No surprise. She’d been waiting for this reading night.

For the past few months, Missy and I have been traveling the ways of Harry Potter. Together, we’ve followed the world’s favorite boy wizard as he learns, grows and readies himself to face a powerful destiny.

But as one character sardonically notes, it’s not exactly a nice, easy job. He’s mocked. Mistrusted. Even tortured. He watches friends and mentors be destroyed, one by one. By the time the seventh book comes around, Harry’s on the run with his best friends, with no idea how to achieve his world-saving quest and only the vaguest idea of what that quest really is.

He’s down. Flat. Doomed. As hopeless as the Rockies’ World Series chances.

And then … ah, but you know how this part works.

J.R.R. Tolkien knew what to call it: “Eucatastrophe.” It’s a big word with a big idea. With a catastrophe, things are going well when suddenly disaster strikes. A eucatastrophe is the opposite: evil is winning, darkness has fallen, things have gotten so bad they just couldn’t get worse … and suddenly, the first beam of light breaks the clouds.

It’s the Stone Table cracking.

It’s Washington crossing the Delaware.

It’s despair turned to hope, desperation turned to triumph, suffering turned to whoops of joy.

And it’s not limited to books and movies.

Curiously, we finished Harry Potter the day before my 14th wedding anniversary with Heather. And if you think Hogwarts is an adventure and an education, it’s got nothing on marriage.

For a long time, Heather and I used to joke “When does the ‘For Better’ part start?” Not that it’s been a bad marriage – on the contrary, it’s been amazing – but for the longest time, it felt like we were part of “Exodus: The Sequel,” receiving all the plagues left over from Pharaoh.

Her Crohn’s disease flared up.

Her medicine allergies mounted.

That wonderful autoimmune condition known as ankylosing spondylitis showed up.

My epilepsy returned, for the first time in six or seven years.

Add in all the other worries of a young American couple – money-related, work-related, family-related – and it began to feel like we had Mount Meeker on our back.

I think most couples reach that point. Maybe from different paths, but it’s a well-worn crossroads.

But it does lead somewhere.

For us, it led to Duchess the Wonder Dog. To a move back to Colorado. To a medicine that tamed the worst of Heather’s symptoms (most of the time) and finally to life with Missy, with all its joys, challenges and wonders.

We had held on through the dark, long enough to reach the day.

There may be other darknesses. This world seems to specialize in them at times. Bullets in a movie theater. Fire in a forest. Skies that stay stubbornly dry, or that bear planes bent on a mission of devastation.

In times like that – times like this – all we can do is hold to each other, look for the light to return, and do everything we can to make it happen.

We stand together as friends. As neighbors. As family. As spouses. Not always daring to hope, but not really ready to quit, either.

We stand. And in that stand can come an incredible story.

Just ask Missy.

And then hold on to your earmuffs.