New Englanders are bottled up, taciturn people who find it difficult to improve on silence. It’s not just me; we have that well deserved New England clam reputation. It could be the weather, flinty topography or colonial history. Could be our DNA, but a new thought came to me at a party last night. Maybe New Englanders simply need a catalyst, encouragement or the right excuse to open up.

Dinner was a fundraising gala, a glamorous affair with long evening gowns and black ties. As we sat at our assigned tables on my left was the wife of a major donor. She was a handsome woman who offered her name, but that was the limit of her interest in any conversation.

As the main course was finishing my wife leaned over to suggest, “You haven’t said a word to your dinner partner. You really ought to say something”.

“You’re just not trying. She seems very nice,” my wife urged.

“I can’t get a word out of her,” I whispered back. “She won’t say anything! She has her ‘mute button’ on. She won’t say a thing, or she dislikes me! Or maybe she is a mute!”

“You’re just not trying. She seems very nice,” my wife urged.

Well, I thought to myself, someone can be very nice AND still be a mute. Still, I resolved to go in for one last attempt.

I caught the mute’s eye and asked, “When you are with a dinner partner and run out of things to say, what should he ask you about? What is it you care about or topics you love to discuss? What are your passions, hobbies or grandchildren stories?”

She wasn’t biting and I was casting out my last best lure . She more or less spat the lure out of her mouth saying “I’m a good listener and am happy to hear whatever my partner has to say.” I looked back at my wife for affirmation and she motioned to continue trying. I persisted.

“Well, when you get up in the morning are there things you like, care about and look forward to?”

She offered no encouragement but neither was she hostile. Since her husband was engrossed in conversation with his other cute dinner partner, she turned back to answer me,

“I volunteer at the VA hospital a couple of times a week,” she admitted, but with no expectation of follow up.

VA hospitals are not my preferred topics to start a scintillating conversation, but I asked, “What sort of volunteering do you do? Do you look forward to VA visits?”

Strangely that seemed to break the silent ice dam. Slowly at first, she introduced a story. 

Strangely that seemed to break the silent ice dam. Slowly at first, she introduced a story. Then it grew to a torrent of vocabulary, experiences, and feelings that I don’t expect from New Englanders. The emotions gush out.

“I visit wounded warriors with my assistance golden retriever, Sherry. Veterans’ stories are universally tragic and yet with each visit, I witness miracles. I see the reaction, the bonding, the interplay between a dog and a patient. Sherry instinctively knows to be affectionate and what is expected of him. It’s a beautiful thing to see!”

“Today I encountered a young soldier who just found out his chemo would no longer be effective, and suddenly he was now terminal. His future would be brief. The young man displayed a stoic detachment showing no emotion at this horrific news. Then Sherry approached him. Suddenly, as he was petting the dog, his eyes filled with tears and he experienced a catharsis. What had been a dazed, detached young man changed completely.

“As a dog handler, I am not supposed to become involved with the veterans because I’m just the caretaker. But I can’t help the fact that these visits affect me more than I can say. You see, in my former career as a scientist, for forty years I ran a cancer laboratory. I never saw anything like this kind of emotional interaction. If the VA room has ten healthy people and one severely troubled patient, therapy dogs instinctively seem to know who to seek out, what is needed and how to behave.

I have no explanation for the magic that happens between these patients and the dogs.

“All my life”, she continued in a non New England tone, “I dealt with cause and effect, cold evidence and scientific facts. I have no explanation for the magic that happens between these patients and the dogs. It’s more than a powerful reaction. It’s an inexplicable wonder that takes place every day I visit.

‘Yes,” she concluded with understatement, “when I get up every morning I look forward to visiting the Veterans Hospital.”

By now the Gala was winding down and so was her story. They started clearing the dessert dishes and guests were getting up to leave. As my partner stood up, I saw a small tear in her eye.

In conclusion, as we parted I became aware of how quick to judgment I’ve been regarding comfort animals and the service they perform in easing discomfort and tension. It’s also possible that my mute dinner partners and many other silent New Englander clams just need to receive a similar bit of encouragement and comfort to open up and to be more expression.

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Categories: Humor, Up lifting

3 replies

  1. That’s a beautiful story and I thank you for sharing it. I also think your dog up there is pretty terrific.

  2. My former doc, who is still a close friend, always refers to dogs as “Angels With Paws”. I have to agree. When I was younger I would take my infant kids to the mall in a stroller and troll for compliments. Now that they are grown, taking one (Or more) of the dogs to the park works as well.

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