By Trish Frazer, Companion
2020. Some would probably say this is like those four-letter words we should avoid. The year certainly didn’t begin that way. For John, Sylvie and me, the year began just like the year before. We delighted in seeing friends, spending time with family and enjoying the beautiful Florida winter months.
Our weekdays were busy with work and of course, Sylvie’s outings as a certified therapy dog. Sylvie and John would sit with underprivileged children and while the children read stories to Sylvie, John would help the children if they stumbled over words. Then there were the visits to two nursing homes and hospital visits. On Saturday, Sylvie had agility classes and then a visit to the children’s home. We also had last-minute requests to support events, which gave Sylvie the opportunity to share her love with animal lovers as well as with children who had never petted a dog.
That all changed March 1, when our state’s governor announced that two Floridians had tested positive for the coronavirus. By March 9, Florida declared a state of emergency. Churches, schools, theme parks, gyms and restaurants closed their doors and nursing homes went into lockdown. By the end of March, Florida counties issued their first stay-at-home orders, beaches were closed and COVID-19 numbers skyrocketed. My job as a senior credit manager was deemed essential back in 2005 when five hurricanes slammed into Florida, so I continued to work.
But for John, who retired in 2018, and Sylvie, everything stopped. No school or nursing home visits and no events or classes. By the beginning of April, like an approaching hurricane, COVID-19 consumed the news, sending people into a panic. It would have been very easy to spend time thinking of self-survival with all the doom and gloom in the media.
But this was an opportunity to pause and enjoy just being together without needing to rush out as soon as I got home from work. Our lives slowed to a gentle pace. In the evenings, we enjoyed home-cooked dinners on the porch while listening to the birds. We watched the gopher turtles roam the yard and the bees enjoying the flowers. Although this may seem perfect, something was missing and we felt a tugging at our hearts. Sylvie was restless and we recalled something we once read. As Fr. Dave Kelly wrote, “our lives are intertwined with one another” and we knew what was missing.
Our hearts yearned for the friends we made during Sylvie’s visits, especially those in the nursing homes. We reflected on the happy faces that would greet us. While Sylvie sat quietly, she would gaze upward with loving eyes as John and I listened to stories of long ago. For some, the lockdown was filled with loneliness and empty hours wondering if they’ve been abandoned.
Perhaps it was our roots in Precious Blood spirituality that kept gnawing at our inner selves: “what about those on the fringes? What about those forgotten?” We wanted to continue the therapy dog work, but the restrictions prevented it. Church moved to Zoom or the internet. Nursing homes went from facility lockdown to room lockdown. We couldn’t get over the thought of all those people not being able to see anyone from the outside. Some have no family and were not even getting phone calls. As coordinator for the visits, I set out to let them know we still think about them and care. We started making flyers to give residents updates on the dogs, handlers and that we miss them and will visit as soon as it is safe.
When COVID-19 numbers dropped, John and Sylvie were allowed to visit the school again but only to walk through the class rooms for a quick visit with each child. The children were spaced out for social distancing and everyone had to wear masks. The children said they missed the days they could sit and read to Sylvie. And John’s heart broke to see the sadness behind the masks.
By the end of August, one nursing home said we would be allowed back for visits, but as the numbers climbed the second time, the visits got canceled. Again we all dealt with the rollercoaster of emotions. The solution was the handlers would wear masks to meet County rules and would walk around the outside of the building, waving hello through the windows and glass doors. As our eyes met there was a spark of joy and recognition! We are now greeted with thumbs-up and kisses through the glass.
In October, the hospital visits resumed but only at the nurses’ station. Even though we wear masks, we can visit patients only if they are out of their room. On Thanksgiving night, we saw masked smiles so bold and eyes so bright. Several nurses said they were just finishing a 12-hour shift, were exhausted but after being with the dogs thought they could do another shift if needed.
As Precious Blood people, we know we are called to go where the people are, especially those who are alone and we are happiest when we are serving others. We are all compelled to respond to the cry of the blood and to openly share our gift of hospitality, reaching out to the lonely, even if only through glass doors.
(Trish Frazer and her husband, John, are Companions in Lake Mary, Fla.)