Over the last few weeks Gopher and I have said goodbye to a number of wonderful families who have come into our lives during visits with Gopher. It made me think about the goodbyes we have had our first year. Some were with us, only a short time and others nearly the entire year of our first visits we saw them. I cannot get over how much these families have meant to me. We always thank them for visiting with Gopher and wish them well, and their departures are bittersweet.
I cannot be happier for the families who are getting to go home, for a reprieve from the illnesses that have engulfed their lives for far too long and get an opportunity to return to normalcy. I have witnessed so much; from pain, to relief and joy. I have had been gifted with the opportunity to be in the presence of these families, met parents, grandparents, siblings, Aunts and friends.
I have taken joy in getting to see their ill or healthy child laugh for a few minutes while they petted Gopher, watched him do tricks, or helped me have him do tricks. I have seen the family and friends of an ill child sit down for a few minutes with Gopher and pet him, begin to smile and see the stress, fear and exhaustion in their faces fade for a few minutes. Sometimes we spoke and other times we let these moments pass in silence. I have seen Gopher comfort and ill child who was not having a good day, and even though the next day would be better, did not have the energy to laugh, but would sit and relax a few minutes petting Gopher. Other times it was more difficult while maintaining a caring but professional distance as they used Gophers fur to wipe away tears while hugging him. Exclamations of Gopher’s here from across a room followed by a child wearing a mask running over to him. Other times, a parent, or aunt, would just look at me and say, “I am so happy you are here today, I needed to see him.” They would sit with Gopher and just pet him, no other words being exchanged.
Other times there were bustling conversations, Gopher and I heard about their dogs, cats, birds and iguanas. Their hopes and dreams, always miraculously looking toward the future, and the possibilities, letting me see real strength, something I don’t think I would possess if the situation was reversed. I have also got to watch the wonderful staff and other volunteers who dedicate their lives or spend much more time than I do trying to make the best of bad circumstances, and am awestruck by their compassion and love and caring I have seen. I can only imagine the gratitude of the families who have gotten the opportunity to go home feel towards this wonderful staff.
The transition I have seen in the families has also been amazing and I am so happy that Gopher and I have been able to take part. Many times when I first meet a family they are somewhat apprehensive and unsure, which is to be expected, given that many of them were just living life a few short weeks, months, or days ago and were blindsided on a random day with a potentially devastating, illness, accident, or condition. Now they have to make the best of it, before they have a moment to deal with the blow. After a few weeks, they begin to relax and you can see that although they are not home, they are beginning to feel at home. Families watching others children while they run an errand or go to a treatment, or just need a nap, the community grow, and they all play their roles. Strangers not too long ago, but now friends with an irrevocable bond, it is human nature at its finest and a blessing to get to witness. Then the goodbyes, relief and joy combined with tears and sadness of leaving their new community.
I have seen many of these goodbyes, especially in the last few weeks when 6 families were finally able to take their children home again. They will never know the gifts they have given Gopher and I, nor the tears shed at their departure, the bittersweet mixture of joy and sadness. Most of them will never remember my name even and that is fine, as I am just the other end of the leash and I know they will never forget Gopher and their time with him. Few of them will never know, since they did not have the opportunity to observe him like I do the almost mystifying skills that seem innate in Gopher. Without provocation he seems to know when it is the time do tricks, play, or gently place his head in the lap of someone to let them know that he is there, that he cares. They also never see his excitement he has in going to work, sometimes crying and pacing the seat several blocks away as soon as he knows where he is going. They also will never see how he sometimes looks around the corner for them, maybe an old scent of a family who has left, or a noise hoping to get to see them again, but never upset when he doesn’t as he knows he seems to know there is more work to be done and more people to see.
The last few weeks we have watched the departure of many families, but always the continual introduction of new families, Gopher and I know that there is much more to do, and much more we will learn. I wish the departing families the best, and hope that if our paths are to ever cross again it will be under different circumstances. I also wish, despite the difficult situations that brought them into our lives, they know how much I appreciate having the opportunity to spend an hour or two a week with them, and I only hope Gopher and I were able to comfort them for even a few minutes.
Goodbye and Good Luck.