Sunday, February 2, 2014

Farewell Marcella and Max

Marcella and Max were a team. Marcella was a strikingly tall, slender black lady, Max a gentlemanly, long-legged blue standard poodle. They appeared made to order for each other. Marcella made it clear that Max's coat was blue. In his early years Max had been black, then turned to a gun metal shade of grey, in poodle circles known as "blue".

They were a team, yet last weekend, family and friends were shocked to discover Marcella and Max had perished in a house fire. Together. I imagine if Max had been given the opportunity to escape, he would have chosen to stay to the end with Marcella.

Two and a half years ago, someone gave me Marcella's number. "She heads up a therapy dog group that visits nursing homes around Danville on Tuesday mornings. Maybe you could take Emmy on an outing with them." Emmy was my Southeastern guide pup in training and almost one year old. As a puppy raiser, I was always looking around for interesting, educational places to work her. A nursing home and some exposures with other dogs might be a good thing.

So I gave Marcella a call. After introducing myself, giving a little background, we launched into a dialogue sharing and swapping favorite dog stories for almost an hour. It was quite delightful. Although not face to face, I felt relaxed and at ease with her. She told me I was most welcome to join the group at next week's visit, and I did.

So began my adventure into the world of therapy dogs. Within a year I had registered as a therapy dog team with my career-changed yellow Lab, Wrangell. As the official Tester/Observer for Therapy Dogs Inc, Marcella and Max were the ones to put us through our paces. Observing us on three different occasions, Marcella signed off our paperwork, and with congratulations, passed us as a team. I was so proud the day Wrangell wore his orange vest with patches stating "Therapy Dog" and "I'm Friendly - Please Pet Me" and his official TDInc tag. Wrangell took to therapy dog work with the same heart that he takes to a Wubba in water. He can intuitively handle people of all ages, shapes and sizes, temperaments and dispositions. Nothing phases him.

Emmy, CeCe and Dorian, my consecutive guide dogs in training, all fell under Marcella and Max's tutelage and guidance, as we winded our way down halls and carefully navigated our way under hands bent with age and voices dry as the wind. Marcella and I liked to take our time as we visited. We let the residents set the pace. When we entered the facilities, time slowed to another dimension.

I loved Marcella's ever-present chuckle-laugh and yet she had a strength. She had not merely traveled but actually lived in several foreign countries. As her father was an ambassador, she grew up in Africa. At present she spent her summers in Arizona, where she kept a horse and rode in the desert. You felt this lady had seen a lot, good and bad, yet loved life, her family and Max.

And so it was unsettling when, week by week, the group noticed her pace become slow and labored. She became unsteady and started using Max for support. When Marcella and I now walked the halls we didn't go as fast, or as far, but we still enjoyed ourselves, our dogs, the residents. Sometimes Marcella seemed confused, or overly forgetful. The group worried about her. She went to doctors who could not conclusively say what was the cause.

Sometimes Marcella would turn to me and say in a serious voice that I needed to become a TDInc. Tester/Observer. I would laugh her off, but somehow I knew she meant it, that she was handing it off to me. Last summer I finally applied and was accepted as T/O. I was thrilled. Around the same time Marcella went on vacation. When fall arrived the therapy dog group looked for the tall black lady with the tall blue poodle, but Marcella and Max never joined us again. I talked with her on the phone and her condition, she said with a laugh, was no better. "Those doctors only prescribe me aspirin. They haven't a clue."

Then last Saturday night, the news about Marcella and Max and the house fire. It is still under investigation. Her husband was on a trip and there was no one home with her except their two dogs. What happened that night may never come to light. I pray she and Max fell asleep, and the fire's fumes kept them under. More than a friend, Marcella was a mentor, a kindred spirit. Between us, running strong and true, was this common thread - our deep love of dogs.

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