My mother, Alice, and her sister sublimated their sibling rivalry through their respective preferences for cats and dogs. I grew up in the cat family, but when I moved my own family to Vermont, I replaced the aloof, feral beauty of cats for the loyalty and unconditional love of dogs. When Alzheimer’s led Alice to live with a large yellow dog (we are a package deal), she was, in a sense, living with the enemy. Herbie courted and eventually charmed Alice. Soon she was saying, “He’s nothing like my sister’s dogs.”
It began as symbiosis. When Alice preferred ice cream to lunch, Herbie obliged and took care of the first course. He helped with the ghosts or robbers she imagined lurking behind the sofa or the trees. “I feel safe when I’m with him. He’ll protect me.” But most of all he gave her dignity. Instead of curbing or preventing the “wandering” of Alzheimer’s, as the Mayo Clinic advises, we could let her wander with Herbie by her side. The two of them could go out for short walks down our long driveway and then up the dirt road. Alice craved this independence. Herbie was the visual cue that kept her grounded. He always knew the way home. In the summer, Alice always returned with a small bouquet of wild flowers. Of course this kind of freedom is one of the luxuries afforded by life in the country.
Once, Alice wandered all the way down to the paved road; Herbie, the MedicAlert bracelet, and good neighbors saved the day. A Good Samaritan driving past saw she was a bit disoriented and stopped. When Alice got in the car, Herbie tore back home barking in alarm. Next door, Dan and Betty, saw them go down the hill and heard Herbie come back alone. A call to the police quickly revealed that the driver had taken her a couple of miles down the road to the Jolley’s gas station and store where Alice sat happily eating a sandwich the kind-hearted manager had given her. Even with this near miss in the fall of 2008, we still let her walk with Herbie. Taking on this bit of anxiety let Alice keep her dignity. Herbie made it safe.
As Alzheimer’s progressed, it became harder for Alice to take long walks, but she still shared certain foods with Herbie. He joined her on short walks down the driveway, coming to retrieve me if she took the wrong path from the driveway to the front door. In return, Alice would tell us, “He’s almost enough to make a dog lover out of me.” For Herbie, that’s more than enough.