It is a raw, windy morning in late April in Vermont, but at least it’s not snowing, as it did, according to locals, three times the previous week. When Sue Halpern pulls to the curb of the Middlebury Inn to pick me up, however, it appears to be snowing—inside the car. A fine sprinkling of white is accorded all surfaces—but of course! This is a dog car. Indeed Halpern’s star Lab mutt, Pranksy, the principal character in her new book, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home, is now galumphing out of the shotgun seat to the back in order to accommodate me up front. That’s a good girl. “Now let’s get to work,” Halpern says over her shoulder.
We are headed to the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center just south of town, where Halpern and Pransky have gone just about every Tuesday for the last three years, serving as a volunteer therapy-dog team, walking the floors of the home, bringing the kind of cheer that a friendly dog seems to inspire among humans. Halpern’s book tells the story of their experience, and also explores virtue, the nature of relations between generations, between species, and the state of elder care today.
After we arrive at the modern, single-story complex, it sure doesn’t seem like work. Halpern strolls through the front doors of the facility with the lively 10-year-old Pransky already on a leash, and they start wandering the floors, the dog as the star attraction, greeted by workers, nurses, patients, and visitors, including children. Later in the day, Pransky and another working dog will exchange comradely nods.
“I didn’t come here to write a book,” says Halpern, once we settle into a small office, her dog sprawled between us on the floor. I had expressed surprise that she and Pransky (who is named after Halpern’s grandmother) still come every Tuesday. “I came here to do this; so it wouldn’t make sense to stop now.” Her book, which PW praised for “get[ting] to the essentials about human nature,” is being published this week by Riverhead, and, with “dog” in the title and a setting all too familiar to millions of Americans, it might well be headed for the bestseller lists. An excerpt last Sunday in Parade magazine (circulation: 33 million) and an upcoming Today show segment with Jane Pauley give an idea of the demographic that Riverhead is aiming at—a big one.
Halpern, a journalist and editor (she cofounded the magazine Double-Take and is a contributing editor at the New York Review of Books), is the author, now, of five books (including a children’s book). Her first, Migrations to Solitude (Pantheon, 1992), looked at the narrowing options for finding privacy “in a crowded world”; Four Wings and a Prayer delved into the mysteries of another migration—that of monarch butterflies (Pantheon, 2001); and Can’t Remember What I Forgot (Crown, 2008) is an inquiry into memory loss. I ask Halpern if there is anything (“You looking for a through-line?” asks the veteran journalist) that connects these inquires.
“This will sound so abstract,” Halpern begins, and one can sense that she might often work to restrain a tendency to sound too intellectual (she’s a Rhodes Scholar, a Guggenheim Fellow, and scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College). “I’ve always been interested in subcultures, in groups of people doing something because they are passionate about it, which is how I ended up writing about butterflies. And while it is not how I ended up writing about memory [her father suffered from memory loss], there is this subset of people who are very concerned with it or researching it. I am always interested in finding these corners in which people congregate for whatever reason. This book was almost a direct corollary of having written about memory, yes.”
Nonetheless, says Halpern, volunteering herself and her dog at a nursing home was not exactly a career move.
“I was home alone a lot,” says Halpern, who is now in her mid-50s. Her daughter, Sophie, was in school abroad, and her husband, the author and climate change activist Bill McKibben, was often on the road. “And here was this dog, who I thought was pretty extraordinary in her ability to learn. And she was kind of bored. If I were her, I’d be bored too. So I wanted to do something with her to stimulate her—I had done a lot of research on brain plasticity, and even a dog would benefit from new experience. As would I.” It wasn’t so much an empty-nest syndrome, she says, when asked. “We were in the nest together.”
Halpern admits that, even though the dog-therapy project was not born of a book idea, once she started the therapy visits, “the whole time I’m thinking, what is the story here? What is happening? What am I learning? My sense was that, ultimately, you could not be in a place where people are at the end of their days, are dying, without starting to think about the big questions—there is simply no way.”
Halpern did ask some big questions. A self-described “poster child for liberal arts education,” she started going back to things she had read a long time ago. “Aristotle, Toqueville. I read the Gospels and Augustine and Merton.” This is reflected in the book’s organization, structured around the seven Catholic virtues: restraint, prudence, faith, fortitude, hope, love, and charity—a chapter on each. These virtues are explored movingly, and sometimes comically (think dog/restraint/chocolate fudge left unattended in the back seat of a car). The dog raised questions as well.
“Pransky was much more fluent than I was. Theoretically I knew what I was doing but I had no idea what I was doing, while she knew instinctively what she was doing. I began to look at her and say, I need to be more like her and less like me.” (Later, walking the rooms with the team, the dog’s “fluency” is evident when an elderly patient in a wheelchair, and with a freshly set leg cast, lodged behind tables and chairs and a rolling tray, struggles to greet us. Halpern and I hesitate—perhaps this is not a good time?—while the dog knows how to navigate the maze and present her withers for a good scratching.)
The issue of death and dying is never far away in a nursing home, nor in a book set there. By now, says Halpern, many of the residents featured in the book have died. “Death registers differently with the dog. Fran, who was the first person who invited Pransky to get up on the bed... well, it was really tough for the dog. It was confusing. We’d spent 20 minutes in this room every visit for over a year. We didn’t go into that room for nearly a year after.”
As for the effect on her, Halpern cites her experience going on rounds while teaching medical ethics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and how this experience deepened her response to death. Of her earlier hospital work, she says, “Yea, I saw people die, usually under acute circumstances—this was the height of the AIDS epidemic—but here it’s usually under chronic circumstances, and it feels… normal. It doesn’t feel good, but it feels… correct. It is not confusing, it is kind of a working relationship with our mortality, which I think is probably healthy.”
Halpern admits that the caring experience has helped her in other ways.
“Part of it is, as a writer, I spend a lot of time in a room with a blank piece of paper in front of me—a fairly distanced relationship with other people. But showing up at this place, the expectation is, you are going to be friendly, you are going to be social, and you are going to have to overcome whatever natural reticence you might have—this is good for me.”
Halpern has had what many authors would consider a charmed life, a career working with editors she loves and is still close to—Dan Frank at Pantheon, John Glusman at FSG, then Crown, and now Becky Saletan at Riverhead.
“Becky Saletan, I would like to say for the record, is phenomenal, and the reason she is phenomenal is she let me go off and do what I was going to do in this book. She had a couple of suggestions, all of which I resisted, all of which were completely correct.” When asked for an example, Halpern says that Saletan’s “basic instruction was, you need to be present, this is about your journey. And as much as I resisted that at the outset I eventually came to the conclusion she was absolutely right and I had to do the same thing writing as I was doing in this place—get out of myself.”
At the end of our visit, back in the car, I ask her what she might say were she a guest with Stephen Colbert and he opened with, “Okay, Sue, a dog walks into a nursing home… Then what?” She thinks for a second… “Chaos ensues. People die. People get happy. She gets into trouble. I have to figure out how to be. I have to take my lessons from my animal. All these things are small, all incremental, but ultimately, you are talking about life. Life happens here.”