HEAL! | Randy Hale
The sign reads: “Correctional Facility – Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.”
With a hair trigger reflex, I conjure scenes of mayhem and murder, complete with ominous score, courtesy of The Doors:
“There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad. If you give this man a ride sweet family will die.”
“Snap out of it,” I admonish myself.
But I can’t help wondering how often a hitchhiker, freshly escaped from the prison we’re approaching, actually travels this road. Often enough to need a sign, is my uneasy answer.
I imagine inmates sawing through bars, slipping past guards, crashing through barbed wire and dodging bullets, only to arrive on this road, bloody and desperate, thumbing a ride to freedom. Who in their right mind would stop? But apparently they do.
It’s a well-paved, tree-lined road. Beautiful forests extend into the hills on one side, ocean on the other. More than one signpost offers lots for sale. I shudder. Good luck.
In Social Work school, a friend had an internship on Riker’s Island. The first day her supervisor warned her to be careful not to be taken hostage. My god.
I’ve removed my jewelry, I wear no makeup, baggy clothes, a hat, and dark glasses. I’ve dumbed down my whole look in anticipation of being in the vicinity of hardened criminals. All men. All incarcerated in this medium-to-high security correctional facility. I’m relieved we won’t actually be meeting any inmates, but still. I’m happy to be a chameleon, to blend. Unattractive and unmemorable is my goal.
I admit to being kind of a wuss. I avoid crime and violence in the news, in movies, and on TV. Which can be tricky since it’s trendy these days to insert graphic gore and disturbing content into most everything, even rom-coms. There are few shows I watch cold turkey without first scouring reviews and trailers. I’ve missed a lot.
Like some lethal earworm, I loop back to Jim Morrison’s sinister lyrics:
“Killer on the road.”
“Just stop. Breathe,” I counsel myself.
I sigh, and my husband glances over. I give him a quick smile and turn to look out the window at the ocean.
Maybe I’m too sensitive, but I come by it honestly. In my teens I was the victim of a crime, which began with someone noticing me. The guy was caught, convicted and jailed, but remnants of that experience have stayed. A tinge of the old fear can still rise up. I don’t shower at night if I’m home alone, I’m vigilant about locking doors and windows, I’m afraid of the dark, particularly sudden blackouts, and though I prefer country living, I don’t do isolation.
I like to think of these as practical habits that keep me alert and safe. But I don’t know. They can be limiting, handicapping.
I roll down the window, inhale the salt air, and listen to the crashing waves. For the first time in a while, I feel genuinely unsafe.
I wipe my palms on my pants and try for anticipation instead. After all, the reason we’re here is a happy one. “We’re meeting a dog,” I remind myself.
My husband found her on line, and though I was reluctant, I agreed to meet her. I recently finished six months of chemotherapy—standard fare for early stage cancer, but still wildly unpleasant. The hideous effects of the drugs are just now beginning to loosen their grip, and I feel an inkling of my old self, fighting its way to the surface.
But worse than any drug, during that time my beautiful chocolate Lab died.
Ever since he was placed in my arms at 8 weeks old, Dylan was my joy. As soon as I held him I was a goner. Each day he’d eat, then waddle his delicious puppyness into my lap where I’d pet him to sleep, staying put for however long he slept, a practice that continued as he grew. He was my baby, my friend, my delight for 13 years—a good run for a Lab, I know, but not nearly long enough for me.
Dylan was my sweetest comfort as I stumbled through the uncertainty of two cancers in rapid succession. But when he contracted pneumonia, our roles reversed. Nauseated and weak from chemo, I lay on the floor of the ER vet, holding my boy, comforting him as he struggled to breathe.
Dylan’s death devastated us. My husband—being a man, and a dog man in particular— wanted another dog immediately. But I needed time—to finish treatment, regain my strength and grieve the loss of my Dylan dog, my heart.
My husband agreed, but he forged ahead anyway. He couldn’t help it. He showed me pictures of dogs almost daily. If I remarked that one was cute, he’d ask, “Do you want it?” only half joking.
Then he showed me Haley, a yellow Lab, already being trained and soon available for adoption. She was gorgeous, he was excited, I was hopeful, and in a moment of weakness I agreed to meet her.
But as we near the prison I realize, late in the game, I have issues. I love that this program saves dogs from death, cares for them, trains them and adopts them out to loving homes. I also like that training dogs is a form of rehabilitation for prisoners. “A way to give back,” as one lifer I read about said. It’s a good program—a win for the dogs, the prisoners and the adopters.
The social worker in me is all for it. The victim in me, not so much. She’s not really on board with prisoners receiving dog love. She’s quite sure they don’t deserve it. And I don’t know how to reconcile those feelings.
We turn a corner, wind up a driveway and we’re there. We pull into a parking lot past spaces designated, “Warden,” “Counselor of the Month” and “Guard of the Month.” Of course. Incentives would be necessary to retain employees in a prison environment.
It’s a series of large, spare, cement blocks connected by enclosed, cage-like pathways— campus and fortress. “Visitor Center” displays across the front block. A few people come and go. They look regular.
Two women beckon to us from the side lawn —the Public Relations person and the dog trainer—a uniformed guard—who holds a dog on a leash. I recognize Haley immediately: approximately 2-years-old, a seventy-pound yellow Labrador Retriever.
As we approach, her fat Lab tail thumps the grass. I can’t help smiling. I’ve missed wagging.
The PR woman fills us in. Haley lives with an offender —the preferred term for inmates —who is her trainer. They are together 24/7. She is one of 15 dogs being trained in this round. Since 2009, this prison has trained and adopted out 240 shelter dogs, who might otherwise have been euthanized. This makes me glad.
A failed bomb sniffing dog, Haley was unable to withstand the long periods of isolation required to make her cleave only to her handler. She chewed up her own feet in anxiety and loneliness, so they gave up on her. But the shelter where they dumped her enrolled her in this program, saving her life.
For offenders, dog training is a privilege of the highest order. Haley’s offender/trainer had to be on good behavior for a year prior to being assigned to her. Even now, should he falter and commit an infraction, say, smoking dope or worse, she is taken from him, his privilege revoked. Good. I approve. Although—smoking dope? In maximum security?
The PR woman tells us that no one with a history or conviction of violence like child, animal or domestic abuse is eligible to train a dog. This makes sense to me.
But then I ask—because I have to—“What about rape?”
The PR woman says she isn’t sure. We agree rape is a violent crime, but still, she can’t say for sure. We hit an impasse, and we both go silent.
And then I leave. Not physically, but I definitely vacate. I have no idea how or where I go. I’m just —gone.
The thumping of Haley’s tail brings me back. She’s looking at me, smiling that wide- open Lab smile.
I feel a pang. I don’t know if I can get past this. I do know that I can stop this adoption process right now—just go home.
I look into Haley’s brown eyes, and touch her soft, yellow coat. I feel her warmth, her breath, her heartbeat. She turns and gives my hand a lick—a dog kiss. I feel my soul uncoil a tiny bit—enough to brave a decision: I will not pursue this conversation further.
The trainer woman prepares to run Haley through her paces. So far she can heel, sit, stay and lie down—the most difficult command for this happy-go-lucky, energetic girl. In spite of myself, I’m impressed.
Haley has had little freedom until today on this lawn, and she keeps her eye on the squeaky ball in the trainer’s pocket. Occasionally the trainer tosses it for her to fetch until Haley commandeers it and happily chews it to shreds. I laugh.
The PR woman tells us the entire tone and aggression level of the prison is lower with dogs present. Haley’s green neckerchief identifies her as a friendly dog. She can be petted by anyone. My heart thaws a few degrees as I envision lonely hands reaching out to her—comfort on 4 legs.
I walk Haley around, give her commands and slip her treats in a shameless effort to win her heart. By the end of our visit she sits beside me and leans against my leg, seducing me with that small doggy intimacy.
Haley has five weeks to go until she graduates in a ceremony where her offender/trainer shows off her new obedience skills. Then he hands her over to us along with a journal he keeps daily on her activities and progress.
I don’t attend Haley’s graduation, but my husband goes. He reports that her offender/trainer’s eyes filled with tears as he handed over her leash along with a picture of her. My husband took the leash but handed the picture back saying, “To remember Haley by.” The offender/trainer had to turn away.
I read Haley’s journal. Her offender/trainer sounds like a normal dog owner. His entries are peppered with smiley faces. I don’t know his name, crime or sentence. All I know is what he writes about Haley. Halfway through the hand changes and a cold voice—one I’d professionally label “flat affect”—takes over. But the attentiveness to Haley’s care is still evident.
Haley and I grow closer daily, bonding over treats, tennis balls, walks and couch time. My heart sings each time her tail whacks the floor. I think about writing a thank-you note, but somehow I never get around to it.
Then, at a dog event, we run into the prison PR woman. She recognizes Haley with a cry of delight. The feeling is mutual as Haley jumps on her.
I confess I’ve been meaning to write a love letter about how totally and completely Haley is adored, and how grateful we are to have her. I hear myself say how sad I feel for the offender who had to give her up. How excruciating it must be for him to experience such affection, only to lose it.
Feeling self-conscious and overwhelmed by my own avowal, I kneel and snuggle Haley. When I glance back up, I realize the PR woman and I are both in tears.
Randy Hale is a retired Oncology Social Worker who lives in Washington with her husband, two dogs, and a cat. “Heal!” is the winner of the 2016 Intima Essay Contest, “Patients, Providers and Pets: One Health for All,” a call for stories that reflect the term zooeyia, which has been coined to account for the salutary effects pets bestow upon humans.