The first thing I noticed about the man was his turbulence. He didn’t walk into the store so much as take it over. His presence was like a low voltage force that could ramp up in power without warning.
I busied myself behind a table, where I was signing my latest book about a therapy dog and tried not to make eye contact. It was my way of avoiding being engulfed by his world.
Chuck Mitchell’s face lit up with a wide grin. “Well, sir, you’ve come to the right place. This is my Therapy Dog, Rikki.”
The stranger bent his large, heavily clad body and touched the Golden Retriever’s head. She looked up toward his face for a read, like I’ve seen her do so many times before. As the man started into his story, Rikki moved closer, then somehow adjusted her body to curve around his legs, all the while looking relaxed, with smiling eyes and a soft mouth.
As I signed the next book, I could hear the man babbling, something about a nurse at the VA being “a tall drink of water,” but unable to alleviate his pain. There was a tale about being evicted from his apartment, with no notice, they just tossed him on the street.
I glanced over to the other side of Chuck and Rikki, concerned about how the assistant program manager for Animal Therapy was handling this new force. Heather is in her early twenties, with champagne for hair, and has a natural beauty about her. I was concerned she might be uncomfortable, but I saw engagement, instead. She was relaxed with a pleasant smile on her face and offering visual cues as if following the man’s story as it zig zagged in and out of six decades.
It was a skill she learned growing up around a father who was bipolar and suffered from depression, she told me later. She practiced it at home as a child and while visiting her father at mental hospitals where she was exposed to people with even more severe conditions.
“You’ve just got to let him talk it out, be empathetic and offer a pleasant expression,” she explained. And always have an escape plan, just in case.
During our 40-minute encounter with the man, we saw his emotions range from anger and indignation to sadness that had him in tears. As I greeted others and talked about the book, I could hear Chuck responding to the man, mostly by encouraging him to keep his hands on Rikki.
It reminded me of one of our early conversations, when Chuck was trying to describe the volunteer work he was doing. He’d been a successful entrepreneur, served on important community boards and won business awards. Now he was taking back seat to a four-legged Hurricane Katrina rescue dog and was finding it surprisingly easy.
But the places she took him were unsettling. Working with the mentally ill, trauma victims, and children who witnessed or experienced horrific crimes. It wasn’t until he read a newspaper column about a priest who visited others in their time of need that he better understand his own role. It was described as “entering the chaos of another.” And mercy.
It’s not easy to be with people who suffer, Chuck said, yet every time it’s been a gift. He’s often misty eyed from the experience during the quiet drive home with his therapy dog sprawled on the backseat.
“Those who are successfully able to channel unconditional love for the benefit of strangers embody the presence of God and his love,” Chuck told me. And it’s far easier for animals, particularly dogs, to channel God’s love because that’s what they do, that’s who they are.
“They are relieved of much of the day to day baggage we deal with, so they can focus on love (and sleeping). And that’s why they are God’s great gift to us.”
What I was witnessing in the store that day was a mix of unconditional love and mercy, and it was beautiful. But almost as abruptly as the man entered the store, he departed, guided by some unseen force inside.
As we discussed the interaction, later, Chuck volunteered, “All I can say is that I know my therapy dog made a difference. That man came in here for a reason.”
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