It’s a joy to talk to her. I’ll call her Joy. This great-grandmother works with Cocoa, her therapy dog and just talking to her is therapy for me. Joy takes Cocoa, an 11-year-old mixed breed dog with her into hospices. Cocoa is a Sheltie-Chihuahua six-pound who seems to sense what gravely ill patients need. In my telephone interview, Joy tells me that Cocoa even ministers to grumpy people in airports. The team of Joy and Cocoa have been going into hospices, cancer centers and nursing homes in Pennsylvania and Georgia for eight years.
“I feel ghastly,” one patient said to Joy, politely declining an offer to pet Cocoa. Joy answered, “Of course, I understand.” But in minutes, despite the nauseating effects of chemo, this woman found herself irresistibly drawn to the little creature. The patient’s whole demeanor changed. She relaxed and concentrated on Cocoa, even laughing, not on how bad she felt.
Joy says Cocoa is God’s love in a fur coat. She takes him into places where “some of the powers that be” - doctors, nurses, administrators - are at first skeptical. After they see Cocoa’s interaction with the patients and the patients’ remarkable reaction, skepticism instantly vanishes. “He looks at people with such love, such sensitivity.”
For years, Joy paid for airline tickets for herself and Cocoa. Eventually, her hospice director of many years suggested she get him certified as a Therapy Dog. She did, and now Cocoa flies for free, and is welcomed in restaurants and stores, thus continuing his ministry. Joy carries him through airports in his own little wheeled carriage. There, the happy hound seems to brighten up every place he goes. “Even grumpy people waiting for delayed flights start to smile when they see Cocoa,” Joy says. It is not a rare occurrence that Joy is asked if Cocoa could have his picture taken, which they graciously agree to.
Joy knows what it is to have a purpose in life. She wasn’t expected even to have a life. She was born some years ago, she tells me, at a mere one-and-a-half pounds. I don’t press her for her age, but she is a great-grandmother. I know I am talking to a miracle baby.
Sometimes, she sees preemies in neo-natal units. She hopes all their parents realize what a gift that human life is. She sometimes has an opportunity to talk to the parents of these very little ones. Joy is blind in one eye, but she has a vision few of us can claim to have.
She does not find it depressing at all to constantly be visiting those gravely ill and in the final stages of life. Far from it. She believes it is her God-given purpose and a privilege of well over 20 years to be there during their final journey to provide peace, comfort and support, not only for the patient, but the family as well. Sometimes, she will say to a patient in their last days, “If you need to go home, or God takes me before my scheduled return to you, it’s ok, I’ll see you soon.”
She relates that Cocoa has so heartened the families of these patients that some of them have told her, after their loved ones have died, that they will get their own dogs certified as Therapy Dogs.
Joy has known sorrow. She tells me of the terrible time when her son was murdered. The hardest thing wasn’t agreeing to donate her healthy young son’s organs, it was telling her son it was okay for him to grab God’s hand. “There’s no greater test than to lose your child,” she says. She was honored at the wedding, sitting with the parents of one young man whose life was saved by Joy’s son’s organs. “To God be the glory,” she says.
It was my joy to talk to this amazing woman and to see a picture of Cocoa she emailed me. She doesn’t want credit. But I cannot help but be encouraged by her dedication. “It’s my passion,” she says, “and Cocoa is my love machine.” She only regrets that Cocoa is now eleven years old. She knows that dogs have a shorter life span, but this little fellow has put more life into the last days of those humans he has loved than anyone can imagine.
I haven’t had a chance to meet Cocoa, or Joy. Just talking to this incredible all grown-up preemie made my day, my week.
Robert Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.