One man comes up to us every morning. He always wears the same clothes—baggy blue sweatshirt, knitted cap, lone cigarette behind his right ear—and his greeting never varies. He bends over, touches Willa’s nose with one stiff finger, chuckles, grips my shoulder hard, and shuffles away again. He never says a word. That one finger offered with courtly precision is his whole conversation, his way of telling us that he’s still here. Willa receives his homage graciously. I wait. Someday, I hope, he’ll speak.
Willa’s most important role at the hospital is also the one she likes best: official conversation starter and soaker-up-of-affection. Before we begin our weekly spirituality group for acutely ill adults, she prances from patient to patient. She nudges hands, snuffles pockets, whacks knees with her tail. Occasionally, she decides that more drastic measures are required. Then she shoves her entire head into someone’s lap and sighs theatrically until her patient cracks a smile.
This is Willa’s version of pastoral care. I follow her around the circle and gather up the crumbs of stories she shakes loose. People talk haltingly, wistfully.
”I had a dog like that, when I was a kid. Lost him when I got sick.“
”My dog’s waiting for me, at home. I trained him special.“
”When I go home, I’m gonna get a dog like her.“”When I go home, I’ll raise a puppy.“ When I go home … when I go home …“
Willa reminds people of home. That’s the simplest way to explain what she does at John Umstead. My job, as a chaplain, is to stay with my patients wherever they are; I try to keep them company within their shattered realities. Willa’s job, as a chaplain’s dog, is simply to be real. She is a living, nudging, shedding, thoroughly insistent reminder that life outside the hospital exists. Beyond John Umstead’s maze of locked doors, beyond the maze of mental illness, there’s a wide, clear world. With dogs in it. Trees. Squirrels. People. Homes. Even cats, if you like them (Willa doesn’t).
Because if the world—neatly personified as a Labrador rubbing her face on your jeans—is still there, perhaps there’s room to keep hoping. In the end, that’s what chaplains come here to say. I can’t fix anything. I can’t make my patients well (though I want to). But I can stay with them, and hope with them. And, by God’s mischievous grace, I can bring my dog along.
Claire Wimbush is a senior divinity student; Willa is her second service dog. The first was a golden retriever named The Patience of Job by the rescue organization that found him and nursed him back to health following treatment for injuries that required amputation of his tail. Affectionately known as Jobie, he retired from service at the age of 9, just as Claire left home to attend the College of William & Mary.