It's late, I'm tired, and my teen daughter doesn't need help with her homework — but I know the importance of being there, thanks to my best canine friend.
by Frank South
Going on midnight on a Tuesday night in the middle of last December, I’m rubbing my eyes, scratching my head, and doing that neck-rolling stretching thing to try to stay awake and focused.
Sitting next to me in our living room, her feet propped on the edge of the coffee table, my 18-year-old daughter Coco flips through her textbook on the cushion beside her, checks something on her laptop on the arm of the couch, and writes another answer in the AP Environmental Science worksheet on her lap. Like me, Coco wrestles with ADHD, but tonight, unlike me, she has the wandering daydream distraction part of it whipped. She’s got the hyperfocus part of our shared condition dialed up to ten and is powering through her homework and studying for finals like a fiend. I dropped my writing yellow pad under the coffee table a couple of hours ago and after reading some have degenerated into playing FreeCell and Blackjack on my Kindle. But I don’t even have the gas to keep my mind on that.
Back in the fifties and sixties, when ADHD symptoms just meant you were a vacant, lying, retarded troublemaker, the school systems in Illinois, Colorado, and Missouri, each tried their best to bang some sense and basic life information into my out-of-sync, sidetracked, moving-target head. We moved a lot, but not because of me. Though right before we left Chicago I was drummed out of Boy Scouts for being a thief and a liar (true). And the month before we followed the moving truck out of Fort Collins, Colorado, I was getting in fist fights and threw the school into an uproar with my letter to the school paper's editor that the Principal called pro-communist (a misinterpreted stand for free speech, I thought, but I did get carried away a little, so, okay — true).
The point is, back then homework was something you got right to after dinner, in your room, alone. This was how a kid, especially one like me, was supposed to develop a sense of responsibility, self-motivation skills, and learn that there were consequences for what you did or didn’t do. Instead in my room, I developed greatly advanced procrastination and day-dreaming skills along with the practiced wide-eyed deceit to avoid any and all consequences for as long as possible.
By now, though, many of those vacant, lying, retarded troublemakers have grown up to be doctors and researchers, and discovered what was really going on. So today we know that some brains are wired differently and parents have tools to help their attention-challenged kids. At our house I often “co-pilot” homework time with Coco, which means keeping her company while she does the work. I help if I’m asked, but most of her work is way beyond me. I’m just there to help her keep calm and focused.
I stop at the end of a neck-roll, and look at her as she puts away the science stuff and picks up her Spanish textbook. This is the third night in a row we’ve been down here from after-dinner to late night. Plus she has tutoring after school. Man, I envy her energy and concentration. She’s completed mountains of worksheets, class projects, study guides and book reports and tucked them neatly into her backpack every night.
I, however, got maybe half a paragraph scratched onto my pad Sunday night and have since only made signpost and arrow doodles in the margins before giving up in favor of detective novels and video card games. Then those get too hard and I get back to my primary skillset: daydreaming. I yawn, sigh, and scratch the back of my neck. I’m tired; maybe I can beg off early tonight. I know this co-pilot thing works for her, Coco says it does — but part of me says, Oh, come on, how can having me, the worst student that ever was sit next to you and stare into space like a big empty-headed dog possibly help you at all?
“The X-rays don’t show any kidney stones, Mr. South,” Marcia, our veterinarian says, “or anything lodged in his stomach, but Danny Boy has lost another ten pounds since you left. His blood work doesn’t look encouraging, and even after the I.V. and hydration treatment, he still shows no interest in food. This is more serious than a dog missing his family, I’m afraid.”
I’m afraid, too. It’s last July and Coco, my wife Margaret, and I are in the middle of our family summer vacation up in Delaware to help my mom sort things out after my dad’s death in March, and I’m on the phone with the vet back home in Georgia. My best friend — a big standard poodle only eight years old — is most likely dying with canine hepatitis and I’m stuck seven hundred miles away, unable to help. We won’t be back in Georgia for another two weeks. There’s no way I can go back early, so Marcia and my brother-in-law, Earl, will do their best to keep him comfortable until we get back.
I hang up and pretend it’s nothing that serious with Danny Boy so we can focus on helping the family we’re with in Delaware. But as I put another load of my father’s clothes into the car to take to Salvation Army, all I can think about is that dog. He’s with me when I work in the backyard, he’s right behind me room to room as I pick up, do dishes, laundry, make dinner. I talk to him all the while and he mostly he agrees with me, unless he thinks it’s time to take a break and throw the ball. I bounce ideas off him when I write. I do my best work when Danny Boy is in the room with me.
“Dad?” Coco says, “You okay?”
I blink at my daughter sitting on the couch next to me. “Who, me? I’m fine,” I say, “just stretching my neck.”
“Okay,” she says, “I’m almost done; you can go up to bed if you want.”
“Nah, I’m good,” I say, grinning at her the way Danny Boy used to grin at me, except my tongue isn’t hanging out. She shrugs, then bores back into the Spanish textbook. I lean back into the couch. I’m not going anywhere. Because Danny Boy, my co-pilot, taught me that just being there is the biggest help of all.