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A dog’s insight: Account of a pet’s blindness offers a lesson in grace

  • Thomas Farmen plays fetch with his dog Bessie on Crescent Lake in Unity, N.H., on Feb. 20, 2019. Farmen wrote "Bessie's Story - Watching the Lights Go Out," a book about the chocolate Lab's gradual loss of eyesight and the lessons for his own experience with aging. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Thomas and Ashley Farmen walk with their dog Bessie on Crescent Lake in Unity, N.H., on Feb. 20, 2019. The couple tries to take Bessie to the lake every day, because they say she loves running around in the open without any fear of bumping into anything. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Ashley and Thomas Farmen take their dog Bessie to play on the lake near their home in Unity, N.H., on Feb. 20, 2019. Ashley had to hold back Bessie, who is blind, while snowmobiles passed, out of fear of her running into them. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bessie, the nine-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, poses for the camera in the home of Ashley and Thomas Farmen in Unity, N.H., on Feb. 20, 2019. At the age of four, Bessie was diagnosed with progressive retinal atrophy, and over a couple years became completely blind. "There wasn't any loss of joy," Thomas said of her continual positive energy, despite the change in vision. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2019

While Thomas Farmen read an excerpt from Bessie’s Story: Watching the Lights Go Out on a recent winter afternoon, the title character rested her chocolate-and-gray muzzle on the knee of a 97-year-old man at an assisted-living facility in New London.

Once again, the blind, 9-year-old Labrador retriever was seeing with her other senses.

“Turns out he’s going blind himself,” Farmen said of the nonagenarian listener during an interview this week. “And Bessie found him.”

At the end of the visit, the gentleman asked to buy a copy of the book, which details lessons that Farmen and his wife, Ashley, who live in Unity, have learned from their dog since her retinas started degenerating in 2013.

“I hesitated, wondering how he was going to read it,” Farmen said. “Finally he winked at me and said, ‘My 92-year-old girlfriend is going to read it to me.’ ”

Such encounters seem to punctuate every appearance at which Farmen, a retired boarding school headmaster, has been spreading Bessie’s message-by-example of adjusting to adversity with a blend of determination and tail-wagging joy.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Ashley Farmen, who as a teacher served with her husband at Rumsey Hall School in Washington Junction, Conn., for more than 40 years. “A real journey, in all senses.”

Bessie and the Farmens stopped by the Valley News on Tuesday, on their way home from a reading that morning at Thornton Central School in the White Mountains.

“We talked with the kids about the chapter, ‘Talking to Dogs,’ ” Tom Farmen said, while Bessie reclined across a reporter’s feet. “At the end we asked them, ‘Talk to each other in your dog voices, the way you talk to dogs.’ The place just lit up.”

Such moments are enhancing and enriching an experience that began with the then-4-year-old Bessie’s diagnosis of progressive retinal atrophy, an inherited disease that leads to blindness. Farmen describes his reaction to the news in chapter 1, titled “Time Remaining”:

Impossible! Bessie can run down a batted ball 250 feet from home plate. From across a room she spots a peanut dropped in the corner at a cocktail party. She comes to a screeching halt when out of the corner of her eye she notices a squashed salamander on the side of the road. This dog has radar and yet in twelve months, according to her doctor, she’ll be lights out, pitch-blackness blind. I cry when I look at her, and then I laugh, because as with most things in her life beyond food, chasing balls or loving us, Bessie is wonderfully unconcerned.”

Well, she grew somewhat concerned, or at least puzzled, over the 2½ years during which the light faded. And her people took the many early collisions with furniture and other obstacles even harder, as Farmen recalls in a chapter titled “A Night Out.”

The evening is going fine until after dinner, when Bessie signals that she needs to go for a walk. As we head out our friend’s back door onto the porch, Bessie walks into a chair. I help her negotiate a step down onto the patio and then she walks headfirst into a boxwood hedge. There she is, standing still with her head fully immersed in the hedge, looking like some sort of silly sculpture by a demented artist.

Rather than rescue her, Farmen waits for Bessie, who at this point can still make out some light, to employ her legs, her nose, her ears … and her mind.

“She thoughtfully works her way to my voice, scraping a few bushes along the way,” Farmen writes. “She gingerly manages the two steps onto the patio and then hits her shin on the porch, which is one step higher. No complaints or anguish, just a careful lady coping. My God, I hope I can age with that same courage, grace and dignity.”

Farmen said he started documenting Bessie’s adaptations, and the revelations that followed, in journal form, during his and Ashley’s last three years at Rumsey Hall.

“At that point it was a chronicle of a transition, hers and ours,” Tom Farmen said. “It wasn’t about turning it into a book at first. This was ... ”

“ … almost a relaxing thing for you,” Ashley Farmen added.

By the time the Farmens retired to their house on Crescent Lake in Unity in the summer of 2016, it became more of a mission. A Rumsey Hall alumnus read some of the journal entries and suggested sharing them more widely.

“That,” Farmen said, “was when I first thought, this might have some value for people, not just for us.”

So far, the self-published memoir is finding a receptive audience — whether at schools, bookstores, libraries or nursing homes.

“We’re being embraced by a whole different group of people — groups of people,” Farmen said. “Everybody’s got some weakness or insecurity. I think that’s why a lot of kids can identify with Bessie. When they meet her, they become more affectionate, more interested, more helpful with people who are different. And the older people, the more concentrated audience, nod their heads when I talk about the lessons Bessie taught me. There’s a potential for this message picking up speed and improving lives.”

So far, Ashley Farmen estimates, Bessie’s Story has sold about 900 copies, part of the proceeds of which the Farmens donate to NEADS, an agency that raises, trains and adopts out service dogs.

Upper Valley booksellers stocking the book so far include the Norwich Bookstore, Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, Violet’s Book Exchange in Claremont and the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, where the meter has been running particularly fast since Ashley left a shipment in late November.

“We’ve sold quite a few so far already, in both hardcover and paperback,” Yankee co-owner Kristian Preylowski said Thursday. “The book seems to be selling itself. It resonates with people on so many levels.”

While Bessie enjoys meeting new people, she lives for her outdoor explorations around home. While they often take to the woods, their most common destination is Crescent Lake — for swims about half the year, and for leash- and obstacle-free outings in winter.

“Out there it’s wide open,” Ashley said. “She doesn’t run into anything.”

The rest of the time, Bessie adjusts to whatever and whomever she does run into.

“I wouldn’t say winter is her favorite season,” Tom Farmen said. “Today is her favorite season.”

Bessie and the Farmens will appear at the Summercrest Senior Living Community in Newport on March 25 at 2:45 p.m., and at the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock on April 18 at 6 p.m. To learn more about their schedule of appearances around the Twin States, and about acquiring the book online, visit bessiesstory.com.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.