On my way back from Camden, I stopped off in Portland and parked downtown. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Maybe it was because he looked so clean, his shirt and sneakers so new, or because he seemed so open. But it was his small pekingese huddled in the bike carrier, and the way he touched it tenderly under its chin that finally drew me to him.
He said he needed money to get to Denver. I asked, Why Denver? He told me that Maine wasn’t friendly towards people with epilepsy in giving financial assistance and that Denver was known for being better. He told me that he was clean, just occasional marijuana and cigarettes. He had no record.
I believed him because of what he told me next, and because of his hands and the gentle and absent-minded way he occasionally touched the dog beside him. He had been making good money in retail but found himself on the floor one day after a seizure and then without a job the next week. His roommate moved out on short notice, his girlfriend broke up with him, and he wasn’t able to prove that he had a recurring condition to qualify for financial assistance. He was able to find another job washing dishes in a cafe, but fell over in the kitchen with a severe seizure which he said was brought on from an overwhelming feeling of contentment.
It was then that he lost his apartment and he and Buzzer moved to the streets. I didn’t realize that epileptic seizures can be brought on by strong emotions, both positive and negative. Without medication, he might never tame his predicament, and when I asked him if he would take medication, he said he believed in more natural remedies, like marijuana. He says he hasn’t had a seizure since the time in the cafe as long as he can self-medicate, but he also hasn’t been able to find a job because of his history of epilepsy.
All the while I was sitting with him in the park, his tiny pekingese Buzzer looked forlornly out of the yellow bike carrier. A woman stopped by us in the park and handed him a bag full of cans of wet dog food and he thanked her as if they knew each other well.
I was amazed at how much Steve knew about the nutritional needs of small dogs – how much protein and vitamins they needed. He told me it was a struggle to make sure Buzzer was getting the food that would keep him healthy and I asked him about his own food. He told me that because of his height, he should be 250 pounds but was only 175. He says he often goes hungry so that Buzzer can have enough. When he teared up talking about Buzzer, his eyes grew red and he had to wipe away tears with his sleeve. it was as if he was letting his stress, his hopes, his disappointment and his love all leak out at the seams.
He brought his arms back to rest on the bike tires that I hoped would carry him and Buzzer to Denver, to the promised land. He told me that he had rescued Buzzer from neglect 13 years ago in Rockland. Buzzer’s companionship kept him going when the people who said were his friends in Portland weren’t there for him. I asked him if Buzzer could tell how he was feeling and he said that often when he was working very hard to focus on the glass half full, Buzzer would whine and hold his head down between his paws. He said that he had never wanted Buzzer to grow old and to be without a home and sense of safety. I couldn’t help think he was talking about himself too.
Hi earnestness opened a tremendous sense of compassion in me. When you love someone, whether a dog or another person, and want to protect them from any harshness in the world, it is all the more painful when you feel time running out. As Steve talked about the Occupy Movement while gently stroking the fur of his one true companion, I imagined the two of them, traveling beneath the open sky, heading west. And I worried if he might just feel too much joy… or too much freedom that he might be found on the side of the road, post-seizure, a little deaf and blind dog huddled at his side.
It is partially for people like Steve and their emotional companions, whether two or four-legged, that I dedicate the One Language Project. For the people who can love and care for others despite their own challenges, and who aim to see the best in life despite their real failings and mental illness. To see more please visit www.onelanguageproject.com