Last night I got into bed with a stranger.
I was standing alone in a hotel lobby when a gentleman sporting a mischievous grin approached me. With equal parts excitement and hesitation, he asked me to please come to his room. He would be there waiting and wanted me to meet privately with him and his wife. He said “Room 100” as he turned around and walked away, not waiting for my response.
I waited a few minutes and then padded down the hallway in search of room 100. As the room numbers dwindled downward, closer and closer to 100, I became nervous. I had done this many times before, but it still felt new. One may never get used to the feelings that arise when you enter a stranger’s bedroom, leaving your world and quickly being thrusted into theirs. Would I fulfill their expectations? Would I be what they wanted and needed?
Two light knocks and the door quickly opened. It was clear the gentleman had been waiting for me on the other side of the door. This made me smile– they were anxious for my arrival. The gentleman’s wife was in bed, and he smiled like a young boy on Christmas morning as he told her, “I brought a special visitor for you.”
The woman looked at me the same way I would look at a complete stranger walking into my bedroom, she clearly had no idea who I was and her husband hadn’t told her I would be joining them.
The gentleman laughed, seeing his wife’s confused and alarmed expression. He pointed to me and said, “No, not HER!” Even more confused, the wife stared wide-eyed at her giggling husband.
Finally, I made it around to the woman’s side of the bed. The gentleman pointed down to my feet and softly said, “her.” Instant relief washed over the wife’s face– now she understood. There stood my dog Henri, perfectly obedient and awaiting direction.
The now delighted woman dropped her arm off the side of the bed, desperately trying to reach the curly brown pup who had come to visit her. Henri stood at the side of the woman’s bed and licked her fingers as she smiled at the ceiling. Recognizing the strain her arm was probably under, I lifted Henri up to her bedside and she squealed, “There you are! Your eyes! You are beautiful.”
For several minutes, I held Henri like a football at this woman’s bedside so she could pet her without having to move her body. It was clear that wasn’t an option for her, she was bedbound and unable to move anything other than her arms.
Seeing his wife’s excitement, the husband asked if I could let Henri lay next to his wife in bed. Little did he know that Henri is a professional cuddler, and laying in bed next to a warm-bodied human being is one of her top three interests.
So, we got into bed with a stranger’s wife. Henri laid down next to the woman, and when that didn’t seem to be close enough for either of them, I pulled Henri’s disproportionately long legs over the woman’s body. “There we go”, the woman said, satisfied with their new arrangement. She said she liked the weight of Henri on her stomach, it felt comforting.
There we sat for several minutes, sometimes making conversation and sometimes purposefully not filling the silence with meaningless small talk and chatter. We were two strangers in bed together. I didn’t know why she was sick and she didn’t know my name. We simply existed together in this shared space. This space free from doctors, diagnoses, and test results.
The woman pulled Henris’ curls through her fingertips and asked who we were and how we found her. I explained to her that Henri is a therapy dog and we often visit the Family House to visit with residents and staff members in need of some spirit lifting.
The Family House is an incredible organization in my town. It is essentially the Ronald McDonald House for adults, and is set up exactly like a hotel. A comfortable, welcoming hotel where the homemade meals are free and the love is abundant. Those who are receiving specialized care at the local hospital, one so well revered that people travel here from several surrounding states, can stay with their families for $35 per night. If a family cannot pay that, they stay for free. It is a crucial organization, helping families in the midst of devastating diagnoses and prognoses have one less financial burden.
“Watch this”, I told the woman and her husband. I pulled Henri’s floppy ears up over her head, held them together, and lightly rubbed them. “This is her favorite thing, watch her eyes.” Henri’s eyes grew heavy and she began slow blinking, the way a toddler does when sitting in a high chair at dinner and barely able to keep their eyes open. Eventually, Henri closed her eyes completely in pure ecstasy. The woman and her husband roared in laughter. They couldn’t believe how much Henri loved it, and kept asking me to stop and then start again. When I stopped, Henri would perk right up. As soon as I started again, her face drooped and she appeared to be hypnotized, under some sort of spell. While we all laughed at Henri’s expense, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it had been since they last laughed.
As Henri and I walked back through the lobby towards the exit doors, we ran into another woman who we had spent some time talking with earlier. She hugged Henri and told her she loved her, and then hugged me as though I were here long lost daughter. She had brain cancer and had shared with me stories and details of her journey that I will not soon forget. That’s how it is. Sometimes I sit in bed with a stranger for 30 minutes, never learning her name or the reason for her Family House visit. Sometimes within minutes of meeting someone, I am told about their diagnosis, prognosis, and entire family history.
In this place, there is no “socially appropriate.” We are there if a patient wants to cry and vent to a perfect stranger and non-family member– someone who can accept their pain and sadness in a way that loved ones who are also suffering and heartbroken cannot. We are there to make hurting patients and their weary family members laugh at a dog with an ear rubbing fetish so they can, for a few minutes, forget why they are in a strange town with a strange woman and her dog sitting in their bed.
We enter the Family House with open hearts and absolutely no expectations. Sometimes 15 people visit with me and Henri, sometimes one person does. I ask surface level questions like, “do you have any dogs?” and “how was dinner tonight?” Oftentimes answers begin with “yes” and “it was fine”, and end with tears, hugging Henri, and confessions of paralyzing fear about the upcoming months of treatments. At this point, I don’t ask questions anymore. I am there to listen and be the stranger they need. When they feel overwhelmed and want to stop talking about their illnesses, I ask Henri to show off her ballerina spin or to “smile” for them. In desperate times, when the sadness and pain in the room are palpable, Henri performs her meerkat impression– always a crowd pleaser that forces a smile out of the most serious bystander.
Sometimes it’s easier to unload on a stranger and her dog. Sometimes a curly dog with a silly tomboy name and a plethora of silly tricks makes people smile who haven’t smiled in weeks. Sometimes, as I’ve learned, that’s all humans need when their lives are turned upside down and they barely recognize their new landscape.