Cleopatra is one of the most amazing dogs I’ve ever known. She is certainly in the top 2 dogs in my life. She’s smart and sweet and chill yet playful and can fetch like nobody’s business. She can even snag a frisbee from midair, exhibiting athletic prowess and agility. Best of all in that realm, she brings whatever you throw right back to you and drops it at your feet. She is sleek, jet black with shiny curls and doesn’t shed. Who could ask for more? Well, as long as you’re asking… she does look more poodle than lab. Something I don’t love. But that’s just my negative bias against poodles (got bit on the bum by a stinking yapping poodle when I was a kid). Anyway, the poodle likeness aside, I really love this dog. She is my constant companion and I find her a calm loving presence. No small benefit for my other constant companion – my anxiety.
One of the reasons I got Cleo was to train her as a therapy dog so I could bring her to work with me. Though she is also on the anxiety spectrum (no doubt inherited from me), she has a great disposition as a therapy dog. The work we have done together is nothing short of astounding, surpassing my wildest dreams of compassionate ministry to frail folks at the end of life. She is quiet and reserved, offering an abundance of unconditional love and companionship. She doesn’t need to be a nuisance, in-your-face, wet-nosed-prodding for attention. She is completely happy to provide quiet presence, a beating heart, a soft sigh. People visibly calm when she is near them, when they pet her. They stop screaming, crying, rocking back and forth. People who have aphasia or dementia, who haven’t spoken in years, we find talking to and loving Cleo. Whether or not they make sense to us, they clearly make sense to Cleo, and that makes all the difference in the world. That is just her energy, her charisma, her deep abiding friendship.
I have several stylish (and some not so stylish) collars for Cleo. Depending on the day, my mood, and sometimes what I am wearing, I change her collar to keep her dressed for success. As we walk the halls I am often stopped and asked about her. She sits patiently (though I can see the glimmer of hope in her eyes that she might just get a treat for such stellar behavior) as I talk about her and answer questions. One of the first questions I generally get is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” If I am feeling particularly roguish I simply say, “yes”. Another of my spirited responses to that question is to make a joke about the difficulty people seem have gendering either one of us. It usually gets an awkward laugh, in addition to a surprised, quasi-impressed, head-tilted look (as if to say, “I can’t believe you just said that out loud?!”). Sometimes I can’t believe I said it out loud either.
There is generally a sense of relief (at least to me) when I can put it out there like that, when I can and do acknowledge it, even if I am not naming my trans-status specifically. I know the residents I work with in the nursing home question my gender (as well as Cleo’s) because they are more straight-forward about asking – usually shouting something like, “Is that a man or a woman?!” to one another as I stand right there or as I’m walking by. And I hear it pretty much every time because I am not so hard of hearing. Anyway, I’m fairly certain that the staff wonder what’s up with me as well, but are too tactful to ask directly and can hear if a co-worker whispers, “is that a man or a woman?” in their ear. I’m not complaining. I get it. I would wonder were I in their shoes.
It’s certainly an awkward thing. I don’t necessarily know how to bring it up and I’m guessing others don’t necessarily know how to ask. If I put too much thought into it, I get to a point of *who really cares* and *what difference does it make anyway*. At the same time, saying nothing feels like there is a wall around me, an elephant in the room, something significant that prevents a real, deep, meaningful connection. It is the purposeful not saying anything that gives the secret its power and shame. So saying something, even jokingly, allows me to acknowledge the awkwardness and seems to diminish the taboo shameful designation of being *other*. I’m not sure. I just know that it seems to lighten my load a bit. As well as changing the energy around me, allowing me to be more real, allowing for connections that are more real. I also know that Cleo has been a quiet catalyst in helping me speak my truth. Thanks Cleo. I love you.