Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Today I want to tell you about Mr. Chips, the Potato Chip Man.
But first, I have to tell you about Guinness.
Not the beer.
Guinness is my dog.
He's awesome. At eight weeks old, he picked me as his human. It was shortly after a hugely formative and awful event in my life that made me wander around in a fog for a while. I'm not ready to talk about that yet here. But that's okay, because this is Guinness’ story today.
I realized even when he was a tiny puppy that Guinness was way too smart to just be a "standard issue housepet". This realization coincided with one of those small conversations that makes a big change in your life.
My then-in-laws, who were both chaplains, had just done some refugee resettlement work for FEMA or the Red Cross in the aftermath of I-don't-remember-which-hurricane. One of the things they talked about most was a therapy dog that had come around to visit, and how much that dog’s visit had helped them continue to do a hard job in rough circumstances.
Since life in a glass studio was clearly too tame for his skills, Guinness and I decided he should try to become a therapy dog.
I say Guinness and I on purpose. Becoming a therapy dog is actually a class for both humans and dogs, and has several steps on it beyond the AKC's “Canine Good Citizen” Test. We took all the classes together, and he passed his test on the first try.
We worked at one eldercare facility for a while, but after moving to Dayton, we had to find another facility that wanted or needed a therapy dog. We pretty quickly found one, and had been visiting it for about three years by the time of this story.
It’s a facility that houses about 100 beds, and we visited roughly once a month, although I tended to miss my visit in August and September because of my crazypants work schedule). We spent about an hour and a half to two hours per visit. Even then we rarely made it through half of the facility before Guinness was weary and my arms were ready to fall off.
But every month, nearly half an hour of each visit was spent with Guinness' favorite patient, whom he thinks of as "the Potato Chip Man".
The Potato Chip Man's room always smelled slightly like potato chips, and, as Guinness is a fan of salty snacks, he loved cuddling with this man and giving him kisses behind the ears. Or on his hands. Which is not really what a therapy dog is supposed to do, but both the dog and patient seemed quite amenable.
Besides, I've had to tell an old lady - and eventually formally request through my supervisor - to stop french kissing my dog? (I promise, I will tell you that story another day...) So consensual kisses on publicly acceptable places seemed like a battle I didn't need to take on...
We've spent hours with this man, and I got to know him pretty well. It was apparent how much he loved dogs – not just from how much he appreciated seeing us every month, but also from the cyclical and oft-told stories about his crazy Yorkie and his bellicose beagle. It got to the point where, if we had to miss a visit or reschedule, I would either send a postcard of Guinness, or call and request one of the nurses let our Potato Chip Man know that we were coming a week late, because he would worry. I've never run into another visitor for this man, and according to the nurses, we were all he talked about.
So I am telling you this man's story, on behalf of my dog, because that is how you remember people. That is how you grieve.
I asked to take this photo of him and Guinness last year, when some sort of thing I can't talk about because it falls under HIPAA meant Mr. Chips had a new medical thing that plugged into his nose. The next year saw various pieces of medical equipment added to his bedside collection... and death is an unavoidable fact when working with elderly patients.
For three years when we would leave his room, I would say, "All right, Mr. Chips. We promise to be back. It will be about a month from now." And he would answer with, "All right honey. I promise to be here."
I don't know if the last conversation we had had anything to do with it or not, but my dad says sometimes people need permission to die.
I told him that we promised to be back, and he hesitated.
I looked at him, kissed his cheek, and I told him to not make promises this time, and that if he had better places to be, well, he'd best go onto some new adventures. I just asked him to send me postcards in return from wherever his new life took him.
When the lady who supervises my visits called last week, I knew. I didn't want to pick up the phone.
But I did, because I needed to know for sure what to tell my dog.
I don't think Guinness has figured it out yet, but he will when I work up the courage to walk back in that room and introduce my dog to the stranger in the third room on the left. I hope the stranger is so busy greeting my dog that he doesn't see me weep.
So I hope, that wherever Mr. Chips ended up that he is greeted by a crazy Yorkie and a bellicose beagle.
And I sincerely hope that on the day that I lose my furry buddy and boon companion, that there is an elderly white-haired man who will send me a postcard, and let me know that he and my buddy promise to be there waiting.
Even if I run late.
As an update, Guinness is quite a bit older now, and retired from being a therapy dog late in 2021, after a two year hiatus during the pandemic got him out of his well trained habits as a therapy dog. I still think about Mr. Chips when if feels like my art is not a big enough or clever enough epitaph for myself. Cause I truly believe in trying to be the changes I wish to see in the world.
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