Anticipation is a fickle friend. I labored over my application to the Service Dog Project working at a military library in Germany, evaluating and reevaluating every word to be seen as just disabled enough so they would think one of their Dane’s could assist me but also not give away too much about how unsteady our military life can be. After learning about the Service Dog Project, I couldn’t resist loving on any dog in Europe that came my way and telling the owner all about the program. Whether or not the owner could speak English or if I could interpret “Ok, crazy girl in a wheelchair, stop telling my Brutus he’s your ‘widdle tubby man’ “, I would forcibly meet each dog. I couldn’t help it, I was so thrilled that there might just be a dog out there for me that I had to tell everyone. Hopefully mein Deutsche for gross hund was correct enough.
The hope that drives anticipation is a gift, a burden, a motivation and a bondage. And so was the hope and anticipation I felt waiting to come to the Service Dog Project. Through traveling in Europe, I started to understand that the unchecked staring I got when trying to navigate crowded trains packed with people, bags, bikes and guitars was never going to stop. That man who passes me in the hallway of the gym and asks laughingly if he can have a ride will one day ask me again. I’ll once again meet the moms who don’t turn their kid around when she’s walking backwards to stare at me. As well as the parent who yanks their child away from my chair and sternly says “and that’s why we wear seatbelts!”. No, that’s not going to ever going away.
I became so lonely in the crowds at the markets in Germany. I understood that for the rest of my life, my chair will always stand in between me and any person. It’s the barrier we “have to cross” when I make a new friend, what they have to forget to ask about before I can feel like they see me as a person and not a disability. My chair isolates me from the rest of the world, because no matter how much disability education is taught there will always be ignorance. And understanding this, I never felt lonelier.
But suddenly hope began to grow in me from my weekly emails with the founder of the Service Dog Project, Ms. Carlene White. After my application was in and reviewed, I checked in frequently enough for them to know I was a committed applicant but not too frequently as they would know just about absolutely crazy about loving one of these dogs I really am. The correspondence all year was akin to a dating relationship; I polished the parts of me I wanted SDP o like and like a teenage girl, I questioned and redrafted every sentence I sent because I wanted my words to sound just right. The day I made a video outlining some of the specific needs I have with my wheelchair for the trainers at SDP, I was so nervous I spent an embarrassing amount of time doing my hair and makeup.
And then I got an email about Ethel, a very casual note saying that they had a specific dog they were really trying to train with wheelchairs. Like anyone would do, I immediately spent the next two hours scouring the internet for any picture of her. To all my friends I shared a photo of her running in the snow, her beautiful blue eyes bright in the sun and a big smile on her face. I tried to guard my heart when looking at these pictures; Carlene made it very clear to us from the beginning that the dog has to choose me in return before I could take him or her home, there are no guarantees. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but when I saw those gut-wrenching baby blue eyes, my heart was hers.
Photo Credit: Mark Amirault
I counted down the months until the day when Dusty and I would arrive at the farm. Ten months to go, then seven, then four and then one. Counting down the time is a familiar part of my life. Our time spent in the military has been a series of counting down the days until he leaves, the weeks until he comes back, how long until the next assignment’s orders arrive, how much time left until the moving trucks come. The only dating life I knew with Dusty was in distance while we both pursued our educations, leaving us both to count down the weeks until winter breaks when we would be reunited. While we were apart he’d have flowers delivered to my dorm room in Mass and I’d order pizza to be brought to his house in Ohio. Anticipation became one of the only constants in both of our college experiences; we both counted off the days until we felt like our lives could start.
2013 La Palma, Canary Islands Spain
Two New Year’s ago (before I learned about the Service Dog Project) we were traveling in the Canary Islands of Spain, a surprisingly affordable and easy vacation when you live in Germany. So many Germans travel annually to Tenerife island of the Canary Islands that it’s nicknamed “alemán-ita” (little Germany). We traveled with the pursuit of mountain biking for Dusty to the westernmost island of La Palma, one of the most mountainous islands in the world because of its’ two still active volcanoes. Off the coast of Africa, the island boasts large banana farms that sweeten the air and has the type of rugged terrain that deters tourists from visiting. We loved every minute of that island. We had already traveled in Europe for a few months at that point but I can regretfully saw that most of those travels run together in my memory as a blur. But sipping some of the best coffee (a specialty of the island) I’d ever tasted and munching on roasted potatoes with their famous salsa verde (which is served with everything, including potatoes for some reason), I wanted time to stop. For the first time in my life, I didn’t want the minutes to go any faster. I’d had happy times before, days like our wedding or dates that we’d had, that I’d wanted to last forever but this was the first time I just wanted time to stop. I didn’t want to get to the next day of the trip, I didn’t want to get to next week or next month or even next year. It wasn’t that I wasn’t excited about our future life or that I was depressed, but that I so badly wanted to stay in that moment for as long as I could. I had never valued that skill before, the ability to just take a breath and let all your thought melt into nothingness as you take in the moment.
Puerto Naos near Sol de la Palma
Mirador El Time
Puerto Naos playa, Canary Islands, Spain
No, I had been wanting life to fast forward since high school. I didn’t understand the purpose of all the social nonsense of high school before classes even started. I was starting college applications before Thanksgiving freshman year and never saw the point in school rallies or competing for the best prom theme idea when these four years were just a blip on the map that couldn’t go fast enough. Yet I still had all the typical high school experiences, more or less just to boost my resume; by senior year I was student body president, I led charity blood drives, I lettered in cross-country, saw police break up one of our proms, skipped plenty of classes to be with a boyfriend and found clever ways to hide my phone. But each day was just another day to get through before I would be closer to the finish line of leaving my home town for college. Time needed to go faster.
Even meeting Dusty didn’t put the pause button on my fast forwarded life. I had just been certified as a lifeguard the summer after my freshman year and a friend told me about a church camp a few hours away that was looking for a guard. I was hired soon after and even though it didn’t pay what I was making working in surgery at our hospital, it meant two months away from home. I packed a duffel and was given a tour of the camp by one of the college kids thrown into a managerial position. As we walked from the staff lodge onto the soccer field and the shelters near the basketball court, we walked past a shorter guy wearing no shirt and covered in grass clippings. He threw us a one-handed wave as he continued walking back to the staff lodge. And because he didn’t pay me any attention in that first passing, I zeroed in on him being someone I just had to get to know.
Five years married on the black volcanic beaches of La Palma, Canary Islands of Spain
Later that week I ran into him in the kitchen of the staff lodge, alone for the first time. It was the end of the day and I had just finished a grueling session guarding at the pool. I was dehydrated, dirty and tired. Dusty looked like he had had a similar day, once again shirtless and covered in grass clippings and sweaty mud. But he’s one of those people who’s got a smile ready in their back pocket anytime, so I hoped he wouldn’t be too tired to talk.
And this being a religious church camp, my too-nervous mind chose this as an opening line:
“Hey, you want to do some shots?” I wanted to smack my forehead and hide under the sink.
His head did a 180 spin from the open fridge and he gave me a slow half smile. “Um, I think it’s my turn to be the designated driver tonight. But thanks.”
“No no no, I meant with Gatorade. Shots. Gatorade shots. No alcohol. I mean, not that I’d judge if you wanted to drink. Well maybe I would seeing as we work at a church camp. But, you know, it’s like whatever.” I added casually at the end, beginning to sweat more profusely than I already was.
“Ha! Sure, I mean, I’ll try it. How does this go?” He pulled out an Artic Blast from the fridge and set it on the industrial island in the middle of the kitchen. He leaned against it, waiting.
I grabbed two glasses from the counter, hopeful that I wasn’t coming off as idiotic as I thought. “It’s just like it sounds. We do this during cross-country camp to stay hydrated when we’re in between workouts. You sort of play a game, like trying to bounce a quarter in a cup to make the other person drink it or just do toasts or whatever. And today was really hot out and I know I need to hydrate so I just thought this could be fun.”
He laughed and grabbed a glass. Jumping up to sit on the industrial island counter, he poured a Gatorade shot for both of us. He lifted his glass in the air.
“What’s the toast from the Pirates of the Caribbean?”
I jumped up on the counter to join him. Taking my glass, I looked him in his smiling eyes and grinning, I replied
“Take what you can! Give nothing back!”
But still the journey meant nothing to me as compared to the destination. Sitting in that café in the Canary Islands, though, my heart and soul ached for a change. They were tired. I had driven my entire spirit to the point of exhaustion with my need to forever be moving forward. It was time for a change.
On the island of La Palma, they have naturally occurring infinity pools which I previously thought only existed as really fancy hotel pools. But these pools were sections of the black cliffs that made up the shoreline of the northern part of the island, where the petrified lava made steep black walls against the sea. And reaching out of these walls would be two hands of rock to form a small, sheltered pool that water could only reach at high tide. The waves would crash into the pools when they were high enough and the salty water would get trapped, heating in their shallow inlet during the day to become a warm swimming estuary. Sometimes little fish get trapped in the pools as well, swimming up to the toes and legs of swimmers.
Infinity pool in La Palma, Canary islands Spain
Dusty carried me from our car down the steep, carved stone walkway to the infinity pool. The black and grey rock around us was almost hot to the touch from the sun and the tide was high, causing huge waves to crash into the sheltering rock walls that partially enclosed the pools. I waded into the water, able to walk/swim once I was deep enough. Dusty took the underwater camera and was trying to film the fish surrounding his toes. I watched the giant waves, steadily crashing the cliffs further along the shoreline. The consistency of the waves amazed me, for some reason. They were so rigid with their own rhythm, it was forever unchanging. There was always going to be another wave after the last, no matter what. That fact, as unremarkable as it may be, struck me. I thought about how I felt earlier at the café, when I didn’t want time to move forward. And it clicked. Just like I couldn’t stop the next wave from crashing after the first, I wasn’t going to be able to stop time or move it forward. I had failed time and time again to make time move faster. And I couldn’t stop time from moving on earlier at the café, either. Why was I continuing to try to move something so unyieldingly constant?
So as the next wave crashed on the black rock and rolled back out to sea, so did I begin to let go of my need to control time. I deserved to live my life doing things with meaning instead of just to get them done. I wanted to speak with purpose from then on instead of speaking just to move people out of my way.
A year and some change later, I finally got the email from Carlene that said, “Yes, go ahead and come here.” There had been a heartbreaking and nerve–wracking email a month earlier telling me that Ethel, the dog they had trained with a wheelchair, had gotten very sick. We were on a train from Copenhagen to Sweden when Dusty, who had been on my phone, looked up and told me. I swallowed and watched Denmark go by out the window of our cabin. “God has a plan” was all I could say and Dusty nodded, giving my hand a squeeze.
But when we got the go ahead that Ethel was, thank the Lord, doing better and ready to try to pair with me, we made our plans. And then countdown continued from one month to one week. With the timeline for the military to ship household goods back stateside from our apartment in Germany, it wouldn’t make sense for me to start stockpiling dog care accessories from Germany since they wouldn’t arrive until after we got our new house. Instead, I did the only thing I could think of doing to satisfy my mommy-nesting fever and I took all of Dusty’s and my old t-shirts. We had shirts from old races I had run before the accident, from Dusty’s military units, from my old lifeguarding uniform and from the baseball game where Dusty proposed under the fireworks of Fourth of July. I cut and stitched and sewed to make Ethel a t-shirt blanket of our life and then began to sleep with the blanket so it would absorb my scent. Again, it took great restraint on my part and pleading on Dusty’s to not mail this blanket ahead of time to SDP least they find out too soon just how crazy I really am.
It was a sunny, cold morning when we drove into Massachusetts. There had hardly been any snow in Scandinavia, in Bavaria, in our village in Germany and all of a sudden we were confronted with a scene from Frozen. I focused on breathing calmly as we turned down the drive of the place I’ve been telling people about all year. Immediately dogs greeted our car from inside a fence as we drove up to the gate and pressed the button to come in.
For copyright reasons, Germany stopped allowing the explore.org site to stream the farm for almost the entire time I waited to come to the Service Dog Project. I was able to see just a few weeks of Puppy Hill and the Arena before I received an error message and had to switch to the recorded videos. But I still got the vague sense of déjà vu coming through the doorway of the puppy room in Carlene’s house and seeing the dogs scamper just beyond the guest house on Puppy Hill, having watched these same scenes for months previously. The Great Dane mama at the moment to the newest litter of puppies is Scarlett and she tolerated me as a I cooed all over her week old puppies, laughing as the squirmy worms puppy-mewed back at me. And then suddenly Dusty was helping push me into the guest house and then waving goodbye as I got ready to meet Ethel alone.
Carlene sat on the love seat across from the couch where I transferred to while we waited for one of the Project employees Ryan to bring Ethel. I keep wanted to check my hair and then angrily reminded myself, idiot she’s a dog she doesn’t care what you look like. I tried to impress upon Carlene, the head honcho that she is, that I was well-educated on Great Dane care and I had done my homework while we waited.
“So I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the preventive care of bloat-”
“Everything that you read is wrong,” she waved her hand at me. “No one knows definitively what causes bloat and those who say they do are just trying to sell you something.”
She went on to debunk just about everything I’d read on Great Danes, about how they have a short life span (Bailey is 12 years old right now and she’s in great shape, she said) or how a Great Dane suffering from bloat is sure to happen if they don’t rest an hour before and after eating (Dog’s eat fast, it’s in their nature. Everything could cause bloat or nothing can. I’ve raised over 600 dogs and only had bloat happen twice). But before I could learn the falsities of Great Dane hip rumors, Ryan knocked on the door.
Blue-eyed beauty Miss Ethel
And there she was. Beautiful, sleek and totally uninterested in me. She came over to Carlene, sniffing her hand and turned her baby blue eyes on me for a brief second before going over to sniff the kitchen.
“Here, call her and give her a cookie,” Carlene ordered.
I like to think she appreciated the sound of my voice as well as the handfuls of cookies I gave her over the first day, but for whatever reason by the end of the day Ethel was sitting up on that couch with me. The first day of pairing at the Service Dog Project is a 24-hour bonding session of just you and the dog. Dusty came back to the guest house much later that night, giving Ethel and I six or seven hours alone. One of the trainers, Kati, came in to check on us and encourage me. I was still sitting on the same couch and Ethel was on the coach too, but way on the other end and only came close to grab another cookie.
“Hi! How’s it going in here?”
“Hi! I think ok? She only seems to really want cookies from me, she gets up if I really try to love on her.” As I was saying this, Ethel had scooted closer to me and was letting me rub on her sides and back while she sniffed the hand holding her treat.
“She looks happy! And don’t worry, it takes time. This is just the first day, it would be crazy if she was on your lap or something already.” Kati was very sweet and looked sympathetic to my deer-in-the-headlights, new mom face.
But later that afternoon, Ethel was already backing her rear up closer to me to scratch and staying next to me so that I would rub on her ears. That evening, when Dusty slowly came through the door for the first time, Ethel let out a low growl at the intruder and immediately jumped on the couch and sat down on me. She was protecting me. She looked back at me when I told her that I was okay and let out a big sigh as she laid down to sleep by my side. This is good, I thought. She doesn’t completely despise me and they don’t think I’m too crazy to have her. This is just might work.
And so we began on Day 1.
Training on the train out of Beverly, MA