Litchfield Magazine, CT - March/April 2019 issue
By DAVID CORRIVEAU
Valley News Staff Writer
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 email@example.com and at 603-727-3304.
Greater New Milford Spectrum, CT - January 25, 2019
Eagle Times Weekend Edition, NH - December 29, 2018
Blindness in the eye of the beholder
By GLYNIS HART firstname.lastname@example.org Dec 29, 2018
UNITY — Tom Farmen’s book about his dog Bessie’s going blind, “Watching the Lights Go Out,” is sentimental without being schmaltzy, uplifting without being preachy, and a reminder of why we like dogs in the first place.
The Farmens’ chocolate Lab, Bessie, was diagnosed with progressive retinal atrophy at age 4. The vet told them she’d be completely blind in a year, but with luck and good supplements, Bessie managed to preserve some vestiges of sight for two and a half years.
Farmen, who was headmaster at Rumsey Hall School in Washington, Connecticut, uses the progress of Bessie’s fading sight as teaching moments — to himself and others — about aging with courage. Bessie accepts her handicaps and works around them without those very human emotions of self-pity, discouragement and blame.
Forewarned by a book on blind dogs, the Farmens deliberately kept Bessie active and engaged as her sight deteriorated. They take her to friends’ houses where she doesn’t know her way around. They let her bump into things. They make little adaptations, like exchanging her ball for an orange bumper, so when they toss it in the lake she can find it more easily.
And they realize that pity for a dog who goes forward with determination and cheer is misplaced. It’s painful to watch Bessie bump into furniture, or run past a ball she can’t see — but the pain is in the eye of the beholder, not the dog.
“Sometimes I feel regret, but then I let Bessie out the back door and the contagious enthusiasm she exhibits storming into a new day inspires me ... She heads out that door each morning with the boundless high hopes and great faith — no, blind faith — that this will be the best day of her life. If Bessie could talk I’m pretty sure she’d simply say, ‘Be strong and spread joy.’ That’s a pretty good message from a dog whose world is getting darker every day.” (p.99)
It’s always difficult to write about animals without anthropomorphizing, but I believe Farmen perceives Bessie’s fears and sorrows correctly: when she can’t find her people among a group of hikers, she has a moment of panic, he thinks, because she’s failed in her job.
Bessie is one of those great dogs who befriends everyone she meets. Like the Boddhisatva who has reached enlightenment yet returns to earthly life to teach others how to live, her joy and acceptance of people is a gift to humanity. She has dog friends and sleepovers, and she has a purpose in life: to protect her family, and to get the ball. As long as she can do those things, she’ll be fine.
The book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The Farmens will deliver locally if contacted through email@example.com. Violet’s Bookstore in Claremont, Morgan Hill Bookstore in New London, Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock and Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord also carry the book.