Joan leaned against the gray chicken’s cage, cooing quiet comfort to the interested bird. As the bird grew closer to her, I reminder her of the time the llama had spit in her face because she had overstepped the boundaries and suggested if she wasn’t careful we might be rescheduling her upcoming eye appointment from November to an emergency room visit. She backed away, but not before clucking one last “sweet nothing” to her new-found friend.
That’s what going to the fair with Joan is like. You can’t really talk about animal love without bringing up her name. For me the two have become synonymous. Not everyone would live the way my friend does. A former concert pianist, Joan has let her house go to the dogs literally, having one in every corner of the house and many more on her bed at night, where the climb upon her hip, curve into the crook of her neck and the small of her back and on top her head, making it impossible to turn.
Also a former nurse – she’s had many careers – she helps her animals through to the end of their days, nursing them when others would choose to give up. Before I met her and in the beginning, I was sure I knew what it meant to love an animal – limited numbers, vet care, a peaceful goodbye when the pain gets too bad – and, there’s wisdom in that, but now that I’ve known Joan I’m no longer as sure my way is the only way. I have been with her when dogs passed on car rides to pug socials and while I would have rushed them to a medical end, she has wrapped them in towels and blankets, placed her palm on their brow and sat with them until their labored breathing ceased. As I look at her with blind, failing Ghanny and see the deep affection pass between them, I wonder once again, is it the worse thing to die where you have lived – in Joan’s bed or in the car where you rode as a pup, head hanging from the window? If you could talk would you choose the comfort of that palm and the familiar smells around you to a doctor’s needle?
But, this story is not about death. It’s about life, with Joan it always is and that’s why my beliefs expand. I see the life all around her and the love pouring out of her. She can’t pass a dog, donkey, chicken, goat or frog without stopping to caress and chat with it. For a while, she volunteered, helping during rainstorms to move frogs safely off the roads. She had a pet toad that hung outside her door and she would occasionally have to save from the pugs. She once brought it inside and placed it on the bed beside a litter of puppies, so I could take pictures of them both. The toad was bigger than they were. She has even been known to leave spider webs up in her home so as not to disturb the creatures.
But what I love most is seeing the immense and simple joy these animals bring Joan each time she meets a new one. Her face lights up, her blue eyes literally twinkle, she puckers her lips and begins chattering away. The story goes that she received her first pug from Prime Minister Clement Attlee after she burst in on a meeting he was having with her husband. She had just been outside Harrods in London and saw her first pug on the street. She ran into the meeting breathless, exclaiming, “you wouldn’t believe what I saw and describing in detail the little fawn pug on the street.” Shortly after she returned home to the United States to be greeted by Attlee’s gift of her own fawn male, Harrods Bugle Boy, who came with a mile-long pedigree that unrolled like a scroll.
When I see Joan interact with an animal, she experiences pure, unadulterated glee and being witness to it, I feel a little bit rub off on me. Joan’s unconventionality, her child-like joy reminds me to open myself up to wonder, to crow with the chickens and howl with the dogs. She may not be right about everything, but she is right about this and so, I learn to open my mind, but mostly my heart to possibility, to move beyond judgment to awe.