Mr. Cheech, Joseph and Autism by Jackie Olenick
I’ve been told that animals speak via their own mystical wavelengths and call out to their people. After a vivid dream one night, I was compelled to head out to the local Humane Society in Boca Raton.
Our previous pet, Cleo, a large black lab, was part of our family for 17 years. Although she had a typical clutzy black lab start, she became everyone’s best friend and loving companion. When we had to put her down the entire family, including our three adult kids, and three little grandchildren went to the vet to say good-bye. After that experience, we said, never again. It was too hard parting with Cleo.
My husband, with much hesitation and eye rolling, came along for the ride that morning. Joseph, our teenage grandson who lives with us, also came. Both were still carrying pain in their hearts from losing their beloved pets. Joseph was sad because along with his parent’s divorce, he also lost his two labs, Hershey and Teal. Joseph slept with these dogs every night and then, one night, they were gone. Joseph has a hard time speaking with people, but seems magically in touch with animals. Joseph has high functioning autism. He manages quite well in the world, but speaks only when necessary. He also has a hard time showing love and he doesn’t like to be touched.
We had no idea that the puzzle of autism, the mystery of the animal world and the quality of love would merge together in a miraculous way in the relationship between Joseph and our new family member when we went to the animal shelter that morning.
My husband was still remembering Cleo and after 10 years of being petless, still didn’t think he was ready for another dog. The first kennel we came to had a pathetic looking little six pound creature, foaming at the mouth and crying. He jumped right into my arms and nuzzled my neck. “I’ve found him”, I said. My husband said that he looked sick, and this wasn’t a “real” dog, still remembering our eighty pound Cleo. Joseph also agreed that this couldn’t possibly be our new pet. In his estimation, this was just a squiggly, furry toy, maybe appropriate for a toddler.
The people at the Humane Society said that he had just been dropped off by a sobbing woman who didn’t speak English and that they were told his name was Chi-Chi. He looked like an exotic species, cuter than the designer dogs that we see all the time in Boca Raton. His two oversized ears were comical – one stood straight up and the other drooped down. His soft long brown hair had flecks of black and his little nose resembled the famous plastic surgeon’s designer nose that we saw on lots of women in our part of the world in Boca Raton – straight with a cute little upturn at the end. He kept nuzzling my neck and whimpering.
“But I know it – Chi-Chi is ours.” We signed the papers and brought him home.
It became quickly apparent that Chi-Chi, whose name is now upgraded to Mr. Cheech by our young grandson, Elijah, didn’t understand us when we spoke to him – so we learned his language. He rarely barked, only when a stranger came to the door. We had a hard time training him because he wouldn’t signal us with any barking. He would leave dainty tootsie roll sized doggie doo-doos in our bathrooms, which we thought was brilliant. How did Mr. Cheech know to go to the bathroom? We became very adept at looking down before we entered the bathrooms that we now shared with Mr. Cheech.
Mr. Cheech in short order became a member of our family. He had the most amazing way of letting each of us think he belonged solely to them. It became normal for us to handfeed Mr. Cheech his food. He refused to eat dog food and refused to eat from his doggie bowl on the floor. We quickly became so accustomed to hand feeding Cheech that we became insulted when all our friends and family told us he was the most spoiled dog on the planet. We thought the privilege of hand feeding Mr. Cheech Boar’s Head turkey was totally normal. He would turn up his cute little nose and walk away if we tried to feed him anything else.
Mr. Cheech is loving, patient, kind and is especially wonderful with people, including small children and even the mailman. But he becomes ferocious when he is near any other dog. He is an unwelcome visitor at the doggie park. The only dogs he tolerates are his flamboyant cousins, the pappilons, Fi-Fi and Blackberry. He lets them visit us, but doesn’t get much “naches” from their company. Cheech is selective with commands. Sometimes he will “fetch”. Sometimes he will “sit”. Sometimes he will “heel”. We don’t mind any of his strange little peculiarities. He has unconditional love for us. He’s warmed the hearts of the entire family.
My husband now looks forward to coming home from work and taking Mr. Cheech for his early evening walk. This is their special time together and the bathrooms have become less and less the domain of Mr. Cheech. Joseph has the morning walk, I, the afternoon and Leon, early evening. If Mr. Cheech’s walking schedule is disrupted, he goes right back to his old habit of using our bathrooms. We don’t mind.
Because I work from home, Mr. Cheech occupies my time during the day. He sets up residence by my feet and we hang out together. But the real miracle of Mr. Cheech is the relationship between him and Joseph. Starting at about 3:00 Mr. Cheech takes up residence by the front door and waits for Joseph to come home from school. He becomes gloriously happy when he catches sight of Joe because he knows he will get the special loving that only Joseph can give – only give exclusively to Mr. Cheech. Joseph could never find the words to express love. Nor could he stand to be hugged or kissed or cuddled – even when he was younger. Now a strapping almost six foot tall young man, over 200 pounds with huge muscular shoulders and arms, he cradles his new tiny friend like a tender infant. Mr. Cheech sleeps cuddled up with Joseph every night and before the two of them go to bed, Joseph comes into our room to retrieve Mr. Cheech and tells us that he comes so Mr. Cheech can kiss us good-night and tell us now much he loves us.
Joseph speaks his emotions through this dog. Joseph never acts out now – something that was a regular occurance for many years. If he’s feeling uncomfortable, he just gets Mr. Cheech for a cuddle and he settles down immediately. Joseph’s grades in school jumped from mediocre to Honors level. Joseph, who struggled tremendously throughout grade school, graduated “mainstream” public high school with Honors and is now a Junior in college looking forward to a degree in Ocean Engineering – something that seemed an impossible dream when he was a young child.
Mr. Cheech, who is a little of this and a little of that – perhaps part papillon, part Pekinese, part long-hair chihaua, has upgraded this family, who is a little of this and a little of that. He’s enhanced our quality of living, has calmed our nerves and warmed our hearts. He’s helped Joseph find his way through the strange, unnerving labyrinth of autism to emerge as a successful student, a loving grandson, and who has grown into someone who will help to guide others from darkness to light.