The first week of training with Ethel at the Service Dog Project was all about bonding and trust. I was essentially “locked in” the guest house with her for the first 24 hours, without Dusty, in order to start the bonding process. The next few days were a blur of training myself, in between day long training outings, to adjust to her feeding schedule, learning her cues to go potty and cleaning up accidents from missing her cues and getting as much physical and verbal contact with her as possible. I awoke in the middle of night several nights in a row to Dusty coming back to bed and shaking my shoulder because he had wet feet from stepping in accident puddles. We were all learning and adjusting, quickly familiarizing myself with the notion that her big eyes flashing at the door meant a need to go out. In between the morning and afternoon outings to the grocery stores, malls and hospitals, our trainers and the three of us would break for lunch in the guest house. I’d come home at 4pm with Ethel and she’d eat, she’d go out and then I’d just crash. It was wonderfully, beautifully exhausting.
I can’t explain how privileged I felt the first time I told Ethel to “get dressed” and put her harness on, the words “Service Dog” clearly outlined on her shoulders. There are a few silver linings in the storm clouds of becoming a paraplegic. I always appreciate skipping the security line at the airport, the discounted tickets to shows and of course the handicapped parking spaces. But walking through the mall with her, my idea of disability silver linings was blown away.
Ethel and I continued to bond through the next few days by me forcing her to tolerate my baby talk and constant loving. There were plenty of times where she looked up me saying “Seriously, though. Chill” with her big eyes. But I couldn’t chill. I was so sure the moment I stopped petting her, she’d go to her trainer Meg and beg to be paired with someone else.
What I didn’t know at the time was that her trainers Meg and Kati had already tried to pair her with other people and they had all failed. By the time I came to the farm, Ethel was almost two years old and older than most of her cousin Danes when they’d been paired for their forever homes. Ethel is a strong, muscular girl and can really throw her weight into walks. Kati and Meg told me how much trouble they had getting her to walk with anyone without her pulling on the leash. They feared they’d have to take her out the program of becoming a service dog because she’d be unsafe with all her tugging. Then it clicked in their minds to try her out with a wheelchair, the thought being “let her tug away!”. A few weeks later I contacted the Service Dog Project to see if they’d have a dog for me. Maybe, just maybe she pulled on all the leashes because she knew it wasn’t her person on the other end. Maybe she was just waiting for me.
As I’ve written before, I’m the former Miss Wheelchair South Carolina 2011-2012 and have been in the public eye since the onset of my injury. Articles were written about the support we received from the Army community when we returned from the hospital to a brand new home on post, already unpacked and set up for us. I ran for the Miss Wheelchair South Carolina crown a few weeks before returning home from the hospital, while I was still day patient in therapy. I was treated at Shepherd Hospital in Atlanta, an incredible facility and community for spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. The only reason I was able to be as independent as a was after the accident was because of the conquer-all attitude I inherited at Shepherd. The majority of my fellow patients were around my age, young adults and young professionals. But that summer I was the only patient to return to college, the intimidation of accepting a new life as a paraplegic too daunting for many. That broke my heart and I wanted a platform to reach out to other disabled twenty-somethings. So I ran and won the crown of Miss Wheelchair South Carolina. I toured the southeast United States talking to peer support groups of the Spinal Cord Injury Association and students at high schools, colleges and graduate schools. I met with new injury victims one-on-one and corresponded with many nationwide. I love public speaking and felt comfortable in the public eye.
Suffice to say I can handle the stares, the rudeness and the people who park in my handicapped spot. But I have one Kryptonite encounter that will render me incapacitated and wanting to isolate from the world. The pitying glance, the empathetic clucking, the I-don’t-know-how-manage-such-a-terrible-affliction comments, these are the encounters that stop me. This was true before my accident, in high school after my mom passed away.
There’s the trauma of going to high school, then there’s the trauma of going to high school after a parent has died and everyone knows. It was similar for my friends when some of our best friends died, as well. You walk down the halls as this exhibit in a zoo, other kids watching you to see if you’ll burst into tears at any moment. And like a zoo, they talk as you walk past as if you have that thick wall of plexi-glass and can’t hear them.
“Look, it’s her,” a pimpled freshman would say. “Yeah, she’s the one who’s mom died of like cancer of something,” the Nicki Minaj-makeuped friend would reply. “I know how she feels. My neighbor’s aunt’s boyfriend had a tumor once. Do you think she’s, like, totally going to cry or something?” “She’s like, so strong. I’m going to like take an Instagram of her and hashtag it #beatcancer.” “You’re like, such a good person.”
And unfortunately, these exchanges returned even after I escaped my hometown. I was in an accident and when I became a paraplegic I began to hear:
An acquaintance I just met at dinner- “Oh my gosh, you poor thing! I know how you feel, I broke my leg once and spent like , an entire week in a wheelchair.
The cashier checking me out at the grocery store- “So like, what happened? It must have been a pretty awful accident or something. Did anyone die?”
The mom educating her child- “And that’s why we wear seat belts!”
The man opening the door for me at the gym- “Look at you in your little chair! Such a big girl doing things all by yourself!”
Another man at the gym- “Hey, how about a ride?”
A woman at the university café – “You’re not contagious, are you?” Really? I just… I just can’t even.
So by the time I was learning how to go out with Ethel, I was over trying to cater to the public. Yes, if you start cooing at my dog I’m going to ignore you. If we’re taking too long, go around us. No, I don’t want to start a conversation and learn about all the illnesses in your family that aren’t even close to spinal cord injuries but you think are related some way. I don’t give a Florida Fourth of July if my disability makes you uncomfortable.
One of our first big outings while Ethel and I were training was going to a local Stop and Shop grocery store for me to learn how to navigate her through a cacophony of interesting and delicious smells. Dusty and I had a list and I was carrying a shopping basket on my lap, while Ethel and I and two trainers began making our way through the produce section. Like a true professional, Ethel paid no attention to any of the food or the carts squeaking around us. She continued to calmly mosey down the aisle, her head swinging back to check on me every thirty seconds. I, on the other hand, was having trouble keeping all my directions straight. “Woah!” I would say, giving the command to stop, but I’d keep going because really I was just needing her to slow down. “We’re going left!” I’d command and then turn right. “Eh!” I’d grunt, without any interpretable meaning. Ethel looked up at me almost pleading for me to get my act together. And then, flustered and anxious, I made the mistake of looking around at the other shoppers surrounding us. I saw first the astonishment on their faces at this giant dog in their grocery store and then, as I felt stomach drop, the pinched eyebrows of pity as they looked at me.
Maybe my already stressed mind imagined it. Or maybe it was just one shopper who looked at me like that but my mind copied their expression on every other shopper’s face. I felt my heart quicken and a sob caught in the back of my throat.
“I need a break,” I managed to say. Dusty, well versed in my panicked look by now, put his hand on my back and gave my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. I put Ethel in a “Down (lay down) and Stay” position, which she immediately did, and I closed my eyes from the store and the shoppers. I reached my hand down and started stroking Ethel’s back as she lay on the floor.
With my eyes still closed, I felt her turn her body around and suddenly her nose was nudging under my hand. I opened my eyes to her watching me. She calmly looked up at me, her blue eyes trusting. I slowed my breathing down and stroked her long ears as she closed her eyes in enjoyment. I wasn’t doing any of this alone anymore. She didn’t care about the pitying glances we were receiving. She only saw me. I exhaled slowly.
From now one, I could try to only see her too.