'Til We Meet Again

Hello all! Thank you for all your comments, views, thoughts and sharing of your heart over this past year. I’ve truly enjoyed writing about our travels, my giant baby Little Miss Ethel and what it really means to live disabled in an able bodied world. I’m going to take a break from writing for a bit so that I can pursue a lifelong goal and something I never stopped working towards; I’m applying to medical school! After my accident, I finished my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and completed a Neuroscience thesis to earn an Honors degree. I have not and will not give up on this goal and I’m taking some time to allow for focus. I may post photos of our adventures from time to time, but I won’t be writing. Thank you for all your encouragement towards my book (talking to publishers now!) and I can’t wait to talk again soon. Thank you.

See You Soon

 

‘Til We Meet Again

Hello all! Thank you for all your comments, views, thoughts and sharing of your heart over this past year. I’ve truly enjoyed writing about our travels, my giant baby Little Miss Ethel and what it really means to live disabled in an able bodied world. I’m going to take a break from writing for a bit so that I can pursue a lifelong goal and something I never stopped working towards; I’m applying to medical school! After my accident, I finished my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences and completed a Neuroscience thesis to earn an Honors degree. I have not and will not give up on this goal and I’m taking some time to allow for focus. I may post photos of our adventures from time to time, but I won’t be writing. Thank you for all your encouragement towards my book (talking to publishers now!) and I can’t wait to talk again soon. Thank you.

See You Soon

 

Finding Ethel: Part 3, Sweaty Freedom

DSC00319-2

There’s an argument runners will have over the fierceness of their love for the sport. Can you call yourself a runner after the first personal record at a race or when you want to get your long run in so bad that you weather rain, snow or heat? Every step of freedom, the feeling of conquering, the rush from achieving, makes the sport move quickly from a love to an addiction. I drank deeply the Gatorade of loving to run after watching my sister compete in high school cross country. I tried out for the middle school team soon after and a year later, we raced together (and against each other) for our high school. Every sweat soaked, vomit inducing mile of our 30+ mile weeks half the year made me happier than I knew high school could be.

 

I’m still close friends with a few of my teammates today. There’s nothing more bonding for a group of athletic girls than to lose yourself to your sport time and time again and be pulled forward by the teammates by your side. Every summer we had a week of intense cross country training in the northern Indiana Dunes on the beaches of Lake Michigan, called “Dunes Camp” by both the girls and boys team. We’d bring tents and bug spray and spent a week running up and down the sand dunes and boogie boarding in the water, only to stay up talking all night in our shared tents. I was never more sand crusted and mud splattered, but I was also never more sure of my love for running than during those weeks at camp.

 

To my coach’s frustration, I wasn’t competitive and I was told often that I had the potential to be good if I just applied myself. I didn’t care; I wanted more the memories of team dinner nights followed by the team cheering at the Friday night football game together than I wanted trophies.

 

When high school started, I was in a big hurry to graduate. I tolerated all the drama, all the gossip and all the mood swings, but I didn’t for a second buy into the small-town-Midwest creed that high school is the best time of your life. “Yikes, I hope not,” I’d think whenever someone mentioned they needed a certain dress for prom because these are the best days we’ll ever know. I was also part of a group of friends that already knew life was shorter than our invincible spirits told us they were.

 

The majority of our middle school began attempts at being an adult much too young. I learned the smell and effects of marijuana before turning 13, which was considerably older than most of the people I knew. The acrid smell of vodka and vomit would seep from the bathrooms of middle school dances. I learned how to sneak out of houses during sleepovers to meet up with boys and swagger down streets like we had outsmarted the world. We drank our newfound independence deeply but hadn’t grown the tolerance needed to stomach it.

 

One of our own died of an overdose before middle school ended. The cement under highway passes were strewn with graffiti tribute to our friend and tender skin of both girls and boys in the school were cut with his initials. We moved like zombies through school, the viewing, the wake, not fully understanding the implications in own life. The overwhelming fact that one of our own was gone was all we could handle. There was no sobering realization of our own fragility, but in fact the opposite. We took to the summer and then to high school this fierce dedication to avenge the death of our friend by exploring deeper, partying harder and stretching our limits to find any semblance of meaning.

 

Of course, the ending of that story is heartbreakingly predictable and equally horrible. And so horribly predictable. But that’s a story for another time.

 

As a teenager, I split my time between being who everyone wanted to me. That summer before high school I learned how to be a social chameleon, fitting in with any crowd but belonging to none. I was who I needed to be in order to gain the acceptance every high school student craves. I spent the week and weeknights running my hardest at cross country practice, thinking of and executing girls team pranks on the boys and learning how to take a washcloth sink bath so you don’t stink.

 

But on the weekends that summer and for all weekends later, I stayed out for late nights in a gray haze of smoke and cruising through town with the windows rolled down. The basses of our cars vibrated our headrests and knives made quick work of soda cans to produce a bong. We laughed at the world and scoffed at the adults who tried to contain our wildness. The summer night air was scented with the intoxicating rebellion of youth, but we all denied the stereotypes of teenagers. There’s nothing that will make an adolescent angrier than dismissing their behavior as teenage angst. We thought we were mature for our age, advanced for our generation and given the duty to live as hard and as freely as we possibly could.

 

But in the stale, cramped locker room of cross country, I was surrounded by girls who understood instead that being the best meant working the hardest and listening to the advice of our coach. We could roll our eyes at her determination to convince us that winners were never the ones to drink on the weekends, but in our hearts we knew she was right. And it only took one race where we came out in front of the person we’d been chasing for two mile, finished 15 seconds faster than our previous personal record or even beat the time of the last person on varsity, ensuring your place in the top seven and a letter for the next race to convince us that no rush from a party could beat the high of winning. There’s no greater example of hard work and dedication paying off than having a crowd cheering you on as you come in for a sweat soaked, blood pumping victory.

062_62 013_13A BNGIRLS3

 

I confessed to Dusty one night during my first year as a paraplegic that I felt like something was missing. At the beginning, during the crashing waves of realization and grief that the rest of live will be in a wheelchair, almost every part of daily life felt like it was suddenly gone. Knowing how to talk on the phone while simultaneously putting on pants was suddenly gone from my skills set. Being able to into a pot on the stove to check if the water’s boiling was simply not going to happen. But during that first year, pieces of familiarity began to return and joined together to form a new picture of daily life. New methods of changing clothes were developed so I could once again multitask because I overslept like usual. Changes in cooking were made and my abysmal culinary skills were restored to a “possibly-edible” state. But still, something in my heart was missing.

 

It was running. I missed running, the freedom that a single pair of sneakers can bring and not much more. The frenzied excitement of a road race and the community of fellow crazies were simply gone from my life. After I confessed this loss to Dusty at our dining room table, I looked out the window to the street of our subdivision. We were living in upstate New York at the time, on the Army base, and snow was piled high on either side on the sidewalk. It was early but starting to get dark outside, one of the signature conditions of living in the north. It seemed perfect for a crisp, long run. I remembered what it felt like to start jogging with goosebumps running up and down my legs because of the cold, seeing my white breath from underneath my hat and (burka). But by the end of the run, sprinting back home, my back would be sweatsoaked and my cheeks burning with heat. But no more, I thought.

 

Dusty wasn’t having any of my wallowing. He allowed me 15 seconds of self-pity before he had me watch clip upon clips of paraplegics racing in hand cycles and racing wheelchairs, speeding through off road trails and whizzing past runners in road races. I knew about accessible sports and had been introduced to both hand cycles and racing wheelchairs at Shepherd Hospital in Atlanta. But I had held back from jumping into an adaptive sport because I wanted to still believe that one day I wouldn’t need the adaptations. Denial is a poisonous drink that only gets tastier the more you sip. It was time to try something new.

 

Before we left New York for Germany, Dusty and I both spent hours researching where and how to buy a hand cycle. We learned how popular hand cycles are in Europe, how widely used and accepted the cyclists are in road races and how many hundreds of yearly races have hand cycle divisions. I was hooked and within one month of moving to Germany, I purchased my first hand cycle used from a professional cyclist in Munich. Watch out, world.. I’m back.

 

Or so I thought. Until I actually took my bike out for a test drive with Dusty the first time. It was absolutely terrifying; the ride is so low that the headlights of oncoming traffic are actually taller. How was I going to steer this super long, super heavy bike away from any car if that car can’t even see me in the first place? Dusty rode in front of me or to the side, patiently trying to teach me how to change the gears and watching out for traffic. (**Note: A hand cycle is the adaptive equivalent to a road bike. It’s got anywhere from 10 to 30 gears, front disk brakes and three wheels with the main wheel in front. A racing wheelchair is a simpler chair and is closer associated to running. Which, at the time, I didn’t know and didn’t have access to one.) It was a difficult skill to learn how to steer, change gears and stay alert at the same time, but the more harder challenge was how dispirited I became. This wasn’t as free and simple as simply putting on sneakers and heading out the door for a run. Was I ever going to feel that free again?

 

A few months and the end of winter later, I was beginning to feel comfortable going on a ride by myself. Just a few blocks from our apartment was a connection to an old gravel road named “Tank Trail” from its’ previous purpose of being the path tanks would drive 15k between US Army bases in this part of Germany. No cars drove on Tank Trail and it was a safe, wooded trail for me to find my independence and hopefully freedom with my bike.

 

 

A mixture of cobblestones and gravel crunched under my tires and vibrated my small headrest as I bounced along the trail. My eye line was halfway up Dusty’s back tire in front of me and I tilted my head to try to see around him. Suddenly, a very loud pop sounded from the front of my bike and I felt the front tire jump from my handles. “Ahh!” I yelled, true to my very tense and easily startled nature. I downshifted and eased my bike off the path, feeling the ground crunch even harder under my front tire and hearing the metal rim scratch against the gravel rocks with every turn. I transferred out of the seat to the ground so I could examine the front tire. I couldn’t see a break, the tube inside was fully deflated. I didn’t have a tire kit with me; I reached for my phone to call Dusty.

 

“First popped tire, huh?” Dusty jumped out of the front seat of the car that pulled up. I didn’t recognize the driver, Dusty introduced him as another soldier in the unit who had been driving by and offered to help out. “That’s all that was?” I asked incredulously, having been sure we’d just run over an uncovered WWII land mine or something. It’s apparent now that, having never been a cyclist prior to my accident, I knew absolutely nothing in the way of bicycles. “Yeah, see, here’s the break. Ok, well, I’ll teach you how to do this because you’ll need to know when you’re out for a run by yourself.” By myself? Running didn’t have popped tires as a part of the sport. There will be popped tires to think about whenever I go for a run from now on?

 

I watched Dusty change the flat, demoralized. I missed running. I missed pulling on a pair of sneakers and heading out the door. I missed being able to climb hills of beaten trails and jump across streams. The tires, the helmet and gloves, the extra inner tube kit.. These were the chains keeping me on the ground instead of dancing through the air in a runner’s high.

 

The first time I took Ethel to the track with me, wagging her tail and wearing her purple Service Dog vest, I was nervous and a little apprehensive. So far, whenever I’d go for a ride, Ethel would be content in a “down, stay” position on her bed with a Kong full of peanut butter. But recently I’d gotten the opportunity to train for races in St. Louis on a track and Ethel would be accompanying me, so she needed to learn how to stay in a down position and watch me zoom around the track. Dusty helped me transfer into my hand cycle and Ethel stood by me, ready to work. I held the end of her rope leash and pushed the arms of the hand cycle to inch forward, telling Ethel to take a step. She did. I kept moving forward and together we began to walk to the track.

 

Dusty sat with Ethel by the side of the track after I’d gotten her in a “down,stay” and had begun to ride. She was corrected by Dusty a few times, wanting to stand to watch me go around the curve and into the straightaway on the other side. When I came around the bend towards her, she started to bark. I kept going past her and I heard the bark turn into a whine. I felt my heart breaking under my shirt, I couldn’t bear to hear that sound. But her trainer Kati had told me to ignore behavior like this, that she had to learn to sit and watch me. So I kept going and biked my workout.

 

I returned to Ethel, who gave a short bark and wagged tail. I took off her lease and asked her to “walk on” with me to the track and we began to walk around. The corners of Ethel’s mouth were pushed into a smile and I began to roll a little faster. Her tail wagged harder. I started to ride faster, a pace I’d begin a ride at, and she transitioned from trotting next to me to doing what I can only describe as a happy gallop.

Buh-dong, Buh-dong, Buh-dong, she galloped beside me with her tongue flopped out the side of her mouth. The realization of her happiness with being able to freely run made my eyes widen in surprise. This was the freedom I was missing. Ethel’s pure joy in feeling the wind push back her ears was the same bliss I had loved so dearly in running. We weren’t moving very fast, yet Ethel was elated to feel the track under her paws and keep up with me. I watched her purple Service Dog vest bounce along with her stride and the straps pressing around her middle. She was burdened with gear, like me, but she didn’t seem to notice it at all. Her joy in just getting the chance to run was stronger than any attention to the vest and straps she wore. Maybe that freedom I missed from being able to run wasn’t out of reach after all. The chance to speed down a hill, to feel the wind and sweat from the sun, is all I should need to feel that freedom once again. I watched Ethel slow down her gallop to happily trot beside me as we ended our run. She was free. She was happy. Maybe I could be too.

 

Moving to Missouri, I was introduced to an organization dedicated to providing athletic challenges to people with disabilities called Disabled Athletes Sports Association (DASA) in St. Louis. The team is made of people so motivated and positive, making me feel immediately empowered in our first interaction. I joined the triathlon team and swam the first portion of my very first triathlon for my team this past weekend in New Town, Missouri. The intensely muscled and brightly suited community of triathloners around me laughed, yelled, breathed deep and sweated their love for the sport, for the challenge and for the freedom. And hearing the humming buzz of freedom in my ears for the first time, I jumped in the lake for the start of the race and joined them.wpid-img_20150712_110950.jpg wpid-img_20150712_111438.jpg wpid-img_20150712_110950.jpg wpid-img_20150712_111259.jpg wpid-img_20150712_123119.jpg wpid-img_20150712_105309.jpg

Finding Ethel: Part 3, What I Didn't Know

Untitled4It seems like most of my adult life has been a series of learning that I know.. well, really absolutely nothing. What? You mean insurance won’t take my word that I wasn’t truly speeding? I didn’t know that. You have to actually pay the tuition not covered by a loan? I didn’t know that. Sometimes you’ll owe taxes at the end of the year and you won’t get a refund check? I wish I didn’t know that.

 

When I became a paraplegic, suddenly the whole world was a minefield of hidden I-don’t-know situations. Is pain right there okay? I don’t know. Is there a way for me to go rock climbing? I don’t know. (Spoiler- there most definitely is and it’s awesome). Is there an easier way for me to carry all these medical supplies every day? I don’t know. Is it always going to be this hard? I just don’t know.

 

When we tooled around Europe, the list of what we didn’t know became much, much longer. No one believes in 24 hour gas stations? I didn’t know. Landlords don’t have copies of your key when you lock yourself out? I didn’t know that. You’ll get fined for running the lawn mower on a holiday? Well, now I know that. Our last group dinner we had with our friends in Germany, we compiled a list of these things that we didn’t know and quickly, painfully learned about living in Europe.

  • Real men drink red wine. Unless you’re in Scotland, where wine means whiskey.
  • Toilets only have 1/3 of the water in their bowl than the toilets in the states, so every public toilet has a shared toilet bowl scrubber. Peeing suddenly becomes pretty intimate.
  • To flush these toilets, you play a game of “Where’s My Handle?” to find the button, lever or automatic sensor whose location changes depending on country. German toilets do not have handles, but some in Portugal do. France loves the automatic sensors and Denmark hides the button in remarkable locations. Always humorous, there must be a European engineer somewhere making sport of Americans sweating over a toilet trying to find a way to flush.
  • In some countries, people are passionate about everything from love to coffee and will tell you with loud voices and (passionate) hand gestures. In others, it’s customary to be stoic and reserved even when Germany wins the World Cup. People of Europe are as varied as Americans; a Southern gentleman is a different breed than rugged Jersey boy and as such a Frenchman is not a Scandinavian.
  • No meal is complete without conversation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner require conversing as much as they require the meal.
  • Being good-looking and young can either get you into a lot of cool places or really get you into a lot of trouble.
  • The universal response to “Yes, I’m an American” will be “Oh ya, I love New York!”
  • Most men of the southern countries have body odor. We don’t know why. It’s still great.
  • Credit card and debit cards are useless pieces of plastic unless they have a microchip.
  • In the states we say “really? ” as an affirmation, meaning “wow, what you’re saying is really interesting to me”. That positive intent is lost in translation in many countries of Europe, for “really?” is taken as “I don’t believe you. You must be lying so give me three more examples until I believe you”
  • No one really knows there are states in between New York, California, Texas and Florida
  • Most US appliances and lightbulbs will not work here and vice versa.
  • There does exist European versions of rednecks, hicks, suburban moms, city kids, punk, hippies and every other stereotype. People are still people everywhere you go.
  • No one is here to cater to your needs.
  • Western pop hits play on every radio and Justin Beiber is just as hated in Europe as he is in America.
  • You have to eat slowly. It’s embarrassing to be the last ones to sit down and the first ones to go because you don’t know how to enjoy a meal. But the food is so delicious it’s. so. Hard. To. Eat. One. Bite. At a. time.
  • The further south you go, the better the food and the smaller the coffee cups.
  • The no such thing as personal space. You simply make friends wherever you go. No matter what they smell like.
  • Water is NOT free. You pay for a glass and you specify if you want it “with or without gas” (carbonated). Free water is a thing of the past.
  • “EG” in an elevator means first floor. The first floor in Europe is our second floor in America. Ground floor is the first floor.
  • Public bathrooms are NOT free. Most stores will not have a public bathroom and for many malls and public transportation, you pay a Euro or two to enter and use their toilets.
  • People value healthy lifestyles in ways I wish we could adopt in the states. Sundays are days for walking trails in the woods, biking, or simply being outside with family or friends. Smaller portions of food are served and GMO’s are outlawed in most countries. Binge drinking is not a common practice, even for the enthusiastic drinkers of the UK, so teenagers grow up learning how to drink responsibly from watching their parents.
  • To fit in you need a pair of skinny jeans. And girls should wear them too.
Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Overall though, it has been our attitudes and Dusty’s mechanical mind that have carried us from researching every medical need to having a really clutch wheelchair decked out with military hooks and doodads to carry everything I need. I’ve scuba-dived off the Greek coast, rock climbed Canadian cliffs, hiked Spanish volcanos and kayaked with Atlantic dolphins thanks to having the “we’ll figure it out attitude”. We intend on carrying on that attitude permanently but this newest addition to our lives of me having a service dog is proving to be different in the best sort of sense. There’s nothing for me to “figure out” or push myself against, no roadblock or challenge. Unlike every other change Dusty and I have had in our life together, Ethel only helps. She gives, more than I knew a dog could. The I-don’t-know’s of having a service Dane don’t require the same resiliency or strength of will that every previous situation has called. The things I don’t know this time around are usually goofy things about Great Danes or perks that come with having a service dog. This time, these I-don’t-knows are easy.

There are, however, quite a few of these things about Great Danes that I just didn’t know. The most prominent one being their, um, distinct smell. Ethel is beautiful, patient, regal…. and gassy like no one’s business. Both her trainers Kati and Megan warned me of this little trait early on and I assured them I’ve been living with and around Army boys for a good while now, nothing would surprise me. And while she really can stink up a car like I’ve never seen (or smelled), it’s absolutely the most adorable thing. We’ll hear a loud ripping and look over at her, laughing, while she looks around startled at whatever made that noise. I’ll be in the study working and I’ll hear an unmistakable “pffffttt” from her bed,

“Ethel! Ewwph, that’s smelly!”

“Arrumm phumppphh,” she’ll say back to me. Then her nose will perk up, sniffing, and she’ll grumble away as she gets out of her bed to lay on the other side of the room to get away from the terrible smell. That she caused.

“Try some Gas-X”, Megan once suggested as we once covered our noses in the guest house at the farm where I trained. But I can’t. I actually don’t mind, it’s another endearing part of what makes my girl so, well, Ethel.IMG_20150526_183426

 

Ethel was accompanying me on a speech therapy appointment last week and was sprawled out in boredom on her mat in the office where I was doing exercises. I was sitting across from a speech therapist and concentrating on the exercises she was asking for my brain injury rehabilitation.

“Give me three definitions of the word court in sixty seconds”

“Court. To court someone is similar to dating someone but with intention of marrying. Then there’s the judicial court where sentences on lawbreakers are passed..”

“ffffrrrrpppttttttt”

My face turned red. “Andthelastisthekindofcourtyouplaysportson” I finished quickly. I looked down at Ethel, still sprawled out, and wanted to laugh but I had never met this therapist before and she had already proven to be a very strict, no nonsense type of person. She acted like she hadn’t heard anything in response to Ethel’s contribution to my answer.

But before she could ask me the next question, I started to smell it wafting up from below the table. Ethel’s unmistakable mark. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from cracking up.

“Ahem. Now tell me everything you can think of that is blue in sixty seconds.”

“Blue. Um, blueberries. The sky. Bodies of water…” I saw my therapist give her nose the slightest of wrinkles and I knew the smell had hit her too. “.. Donald Duck’s shirt. Sometimes Christmas lights….” She got up from her seat and moved to the doorway where she, without a word, opened the closed door to give the cramped office some ventilation.

I finished that exercise and soon I was released, where in the hallway I buried my face in Ethel’s neck to bust out laughing. Later that day I was finishing up at the Rehab Institute where I get all my medical treatment and had just been handed a copy of my appointments for the following week. I knew I was going to be scheduled for speech therapy again but I started laughing when I saw I was not going to be seeing that therapist again. Maybe she didn’t find my girl’s uniqueness as adorable as I most certainly do.Snapchat--7909754257345803981

Finding Ethel: Part 3, What I Didn’t Know

Untitled4It seems like most of my adult life has been a series of learning that I know.. well, really absolutely nothing. What? You mean insurance won’t take my word that I wasn’t truly speeding? I didn’t know that. You have to actually pay the tuition not covered by a loan? I didn’t know that. Sometimes you’ll owe taxes at the end of the year and you won’t get a refund check? I wish I didn’t know that.

 

When I became a paraplegic, suddenly the whole world was a minefield of hidden I-don’t-know situations. Is pain right there okay? I don’t know. Is there a way for me to go rock climbing? I don’t know. (Spoiler- there most definitely is and it’s awesome). Is there an easier way for me to carry all these medical supplies every day? I don’t know. Is it always going to be this hard? I just don’t know.

 

When we tooled around Europe, the list of what we didn’t know became much, much longer. No one believes in 24 hour gas stations? I didn’t know. Landlords don’t have copies of your key when you lock yourself out? I didn’t know that. You’ll get fined for running the lawn mower on a holiday? Well, now I know that. Our last group dinner we had with our friends in Germany, we compiled a list of these things that we didn’t know and quickly, painfully learned about living in Europe.

  • Real men drink red wine. Unless you’re in Scotland, where wine means whiskey.
  • Toilets only have 1/3 of the water in their bowl than the toilets in the states, so every public toilet has a shared toilet bowl scrubber. Peeing suddenly becomes pretty intimate.
  • To flush these toilets, you play a game of “Where’s My Handle?” to find the button, lever or automatic sensor whose location changes depending on country. German toilets do not have handles, but some in Portugal do. France loves the automatic sensors and Denmark hides the button in remarkable locations. Always humorous, there must be a European engineer somewhere making sport of Americans sweating over a toilet trying to find a way to flush.
  • In some countries, people are passionate about everything from love to coffee and will tell you with loud voices and (passionate) hand gestures. In others, it’s customary to be stoic and reserved even when Germany wins the World Cup. People of Europe are as varied as Americans; a Southern gentleman is a different breed than rugged Jersey boy and as such a Frenchman is not a Scandinavian.
  • No meal is complete without conversation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner require conversing as much as they require the meal.
  • Being good-looking and young can either get you into a lot of cool places or really get you into a lot of trouble.
  • The universal response to “Yes, I’m an American” will be “Oh ya, I love New York!”
  • Most men of the southern countries have body odor. We don’t know why. It’s still great.
  • Credit card and debit cards are useless pieces of plastic unless they have a microchip.
  • In the states we say “really? ” as an affirmation, meaning “wow, what you’re saying is really interesting to me”. That positive intent is lost in translation in many countries of Europe, for “really?” is taken as “I don’t believe you. You must be lying so give me three more examples until I believe you”
  • No one really knows there are states in between New York, California, Texas and Florida
  • Most US appliances and lightbulbs will not work here and vice versa.
  • There does exist European versions of rednecks, hicks, suburban moms, city kids, punk, hippies and every other stereotype. People are still people everywhere you go.
  • No one is here to cater to your needs.
  • Western pop hits play on every radio and Justin Beiber is just as hated in Europe as he is in America.
  • You have to eat slowly. It’s embarrassing to be the last ones to sit down and the first ones to go because you don’t know how to enjoy a meal. But the food is so delicious it’s. so. Hard. To. Eat. One. Bite. At a. time.
  • The further south you go, the better the food and the smaller the coffee cups.
  • The no such thing as personal space. You simply make friends wherever you go. No matter what they smell like.
  • Water is NOT free. You pay for a glass and you specify if you want it “with or without gas” (carbonated). Free water is a thing of the past.
  • “EG” in an elevator means first floor. The first floor in Europe is our second floor in America. Ground floor is the first floor.
  • Public bathrooms are NOT free. Most stores will not have a public bathroom and for many malls and public transportation, you pay a Euro or two to enter and use their toilets.
  • People value healthy lifestyles in ways I wish we could adopt in the states. Sundays are days for walking trails in the woods, biking, or simply being outside with family or friends. Smaller portions of food are served and GMO’s are outlawed in most countries. Binge drinking is not a common practice, even for the enthusiastic drinkers of the UK, so teenagers grow up learning how to drink responsibly from watching their parents.
  • To fit in you need a pair of skinny jeans. And girls should wear them too.
Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Overall though, it has been our attitudes and Dusty’s mechanical mind that have carried us from researching every medical need to having a really clutch wheelchair decked out with military hooks and doodads to carry everything I need. I’ve scuba-dived off the Greek coast, rock climbed Canadian cliffs, hiked Spanish volcanos and kayaked with Atlantic dolphins thanks to having the “we’ll figure it out attitude”. We intend on carrying on that attitude permanently but this newest addition to our lives of me having a service dog is proving to be different in the best sort of sense. There’s nothing for me to “figure out” or push myself against, no roadblock or challenge. Unlike every other change Dusty and I have had in our life together, Ethel only helps. She gives, more than I knew a dog could. The I-don’t-know’s of having a service Dane don’t require the same resiliency or strength of will that every previous situation has called. The things I don’t know this time around are usually goofy things about Great Danes or perks that come with having a service dog. This time, these I-don’t-knows are easy.

There are, however, quite a few of these things about Great Danes that I just didn’t know. The most prominent one being their, um, distinct smell. Ethel is beautiful, patient, regal…. and gassy like no one’s business. Both her trainers Kati and Megan warned me of this little trait early on and I assured them I’ve been living with and around Army boys for a good while now, nothing would surprise me. And while she really can stink up a car like I’ve never seen (or smelled), it’s absolutely the most adorable thing. We’ll hear a loud ripping and look over at her, laughing, while she looks around startled at whatever made that noise. I’ll be in the study working and I’ll hear an unmistakable “pffffttt” from her bed,

“Ethel! Ewwph, that’s smelly!”

“Arrumm phumppphh,” she’ll say back to me. Then her nose will perk up, sniffing, and she’ll grumble away as she gets out of her bed to lay on the other side of the room to get away from the terrible smell. That she caused.

“Try some Gas-X”, Megan once suggested as we once covered our noses in the guest house at the farm where I trained. But I can’t. I actually don’t mind, it’s another endearing part of what makes my girl so, well, Ethel.IMG_20150526_183426

 

Ethel was accompanying me on a speech therapy appointment last week and was sprawled out in boredom on her mat in the office where I was doing exercises. I was sitting across from a speech therapist and concentrating on the exercises she was asking for my brain injury rehabilitation.

“Give me three definitions of the word court in sixty seconds”

“Court. To court someone is similar to dating someone but with intention of marrying. Then there’s the judicial court where sentences on lawbreakers are passed..”

“ffffrrrrpppttttttt”

My face turned red. “Andthelastisthekindofcourtyouplaysportson” I finished quickly. I looked down at Ethel, still sprawled out, and wanted to laugh but I had never met this therapist before and she had already proven to be a very strict, no nonsense type of person. She acted like she hadn’t heard anything in response to Ethel’s contribution to my answer.

But before she could ask me the next question, I started to smell it wafting up from below the table. Ethel’s unmistakable mark. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from cracking up.

“Ahem. Now tell me everything you can think of that is blue in sixty seconds.”

“Blue. Um, blueberries. The sky. Bodies of water…” I saw my therapist give her nose the slightest of wrinkles and I knew the smell had hit her too. “.. Donald Duck’s shirt. Sometimes Christmas lights….” She got up from her seat and moved to the doorway where she, without a word, opened the closed door to give the cramped office some ventilation.

I finished that exercise and soon I was released, where in the hallway I buried my face in Ethel’s neck to bust out laughing. Later that day I was finishing up at the Rehab Institute where I get all my medical treatment and had just been handed a copy of my appointments for the following week. I knew I was going to be scheduled for speech therapy again but I started laughing when I saw I was not going to be seeing that therapist again. Maybe she didn’t find my girl’s uniqueness as adorable as I most certainly do.Snapchat--7909754257345803981

Finding Ethel: Part 3, I'm Hers

imhers

After I did my inpatient rehabilitation for my injury, I was impatient to go right back to college with the promise that I would continue physical therapy. Getting back to life was incredibly important to the both of us. We both knew that walking again may not be possible but getting a college degree could be. I was scared to go back to college and the question of whether or not I could finish tortured me the entire summer. I spoke with therapist after therapist while I was in inpatient rehabilitation about attending college as a paraplegic and I was hesitant to believe their encouragings. But while I was learning to tie my shoes, lay down in bed to put pants on and take a shower the new way, Dusty was working on my fall schedule at college with my advisor and making sure that the financial aid portion was still intact. I hadn’t been convinced yet that I was capable of finishing college but Dusty knew that I was.

 

Fort Jackson, South Carolina

Fort Jackson, South Carolina

As the beginning of the fall semester neared, we said goodbye to the therapists at Shepherd Hospital and with the attitude of “nothing is impossible”, I went forth into college. We were met with a community of love unsurpassed by any other that I’ve ever known. I had gotten to know some of the local women of Fort Jackson in South Carolina in a Bible study called Protestant Women Of the Chapel and two women in particular took me in as their own. They adopted me as my new Army moms and as they listened to my worries and fears, they gave me the humor and the courage to be able to face any trouble about the Army could and would bring in our future. Just a few weeks after my new moms and I met , they rose to the occasion of my accident and rallied behind Dusty every minute of every day. Dusty was able to come and go from the hospital due to the schedule they made to have someone by my side, whether it be a chaplain, themselves or another one of our many Army friends that they brought into our lives. Dusty didn’t spend a single dinner alone but was surrounded by Army families night after night. It was truly a miraculous time of the Army surrounding one of its own. When I awoke and learned all this, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more loved.

 

Graduation with Honors 2012, University of South Carolina

Graduation with Honors 2012, University of South Carolina

We had motorcycle escort leaving the hospital to take us all the way home to Fort Jackson. The Army and Dusty had worked hard to find us an accessible home on post and the women of PWOC had unpacked us, decorated and moved us into a beautiful, settled house. Even my underwear had been folded. I got out of the car in our new driveway to cheers and shouts of love by the Buffalo soldiers, PWOC women and Army family that had come by to greet us. I surprised the crowd by showing them that I could stand up with my four arm crutches before being lifted by Dusty and carried over the threshold to our new home. And what a beautiful house it was. We both felt too young to live in a house this organized and picturesque, reminding us more of a Better Homes and Gardens ad than our previous college apartment. How blessed were we.

 

Presidential No Limits Student 2012, University of South Carolina

Presidential No Limits Student 2012, University of South Carolina

College started and there are volumes to write about those first few weeks. But quickly I learned one thing, that I was terrible at pushing my wheelchair through anything that wasn’t pavement. Sidewalk cracks? Fell right over. Cobblestones? Don’t ask. The lip from exiting the elevator to the tile? Yep. For some strange reason, seeing a girl in a wheelchair fall on her face out of her chair really freaked some people out and they thought they should probably call the ambulance. Dusty would get weekly phone calls from some stranger who’d taken my phone to tell him that I was on the way to the emergency room. Again. Soon I began to recognize and know the EMTs who’d pick me up,

 

“Well hey Julia! Looks like someone fell again, you do know that wheelchairs only work when you stay in them.”

 

“Hi Joe. Shut up.”

 

I was always fine but with a new spinal cord injury and fused vertebrae, falls meant X-rays and double checking. Dusty would have left his meetings, briefings or yelling at some basic trainee to arrive at the hospital to take me back to get my car. Eventually he started designing inflatable cushions that I could deploy from my chair and would poof! surround and protect me. Or tried convincing me to wear a bike helmet to class. I squashed both those ideas and promised him I’d get better at paraplegic-ing.

 

One of the hardest things to learn in rehabilitation for my spinal cord injury was learning how to fall. It seems counterintuitive to try to fall from a wheelchair, but falling properly will save a head and a neck from further injury. I rolled down hallway after hallway with physical therapists who had me on a gate-belt leash and tried tucking my head and rolling forward from my chair to the floor. Absolutely terrifying every time, no matter how prepared I was for the fall. I thought I’d grow use to seeing the floor rapidly approach my face and feeling my elbows scrape the ground, but here I am four years later and I’m still scared. I know I’m only a few feet from the ground, so it’s not as big of an impact as if I were one of those standing people but the floor has not yet become my friend. So when I was told about my options to get a service dog, my first thought was “Aha! A bodyguard to protect me from my nemesis!”

 

Some people are bad at swimming, some people are bad at dancing, I’m bad at being in a wheelchair. I was clumsy before the accident but now add clumsy with four wheels and sometimes it spells disaster. I’ll routinely forget to lock my breaks, I won’t look when I’m turning a corner and I’ll smack into a wall, or I bend over without checking to see what direction my wheels are pointing in to only forward out of my chair. So when Carlene told me during my applicant process that the main responsibilities of the dog would be to help me transfer, stabilize me and help me get back into my chair, I was ecstatic. Someone to help me dummy-proof being a wheelchair-er? Sign me up!

A wounded vet's  emotional therapy dog, Stuttgart Germany

A wounded vet’s emotional therapy dog, Stuttgart Germany

 

Fast forward a year and I now have by my side the most beautiful Great Dane I’ve ever seen. She watches me all day and trots along beside my chair whenever I leave the room. She gets upset if I go into a bathroom that’s too small for her and will try to stick her nose or paws under the door to reach me.

IMG_20150523_143715 IMG_20150515_152714 IMG_20150429_214020

 

But the first scary medical emergency cemented a bond between Ethel and myself that I didn’t know we could have. I was home without Dusty and blaring Taylor Swift in the bathroom as I took a shower. I had my wheelchair by the tub and was sitting on a sound shower bench, but I’m not ashamed to say I was also doing a good amount of dangerous dance moves. Ethel had fallen asleep on the fluffy in our connected closet while she waited for me. The song changed to Katy Perry and I turned off the shower,

 

“You hear my voice, you hear that sound,” I sang along, badly, grabbing a towel.

“I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything…” I reached for my chair and grabbed the shower railing to lift myself to transfer, but the railing was slippery from spilt conditioner and my hand came slamming down on the edge of the tub as I tumbled down to the floor.

 

My legs had been twisted painfully in the fall and the shoulder I landed on was throbbing. I gasped a breath and opened my eyes to Ethel standing over me, her nose in my face. “Ethel, lie down”, I commanded from remembering that lying down was the first step in the procedure for helping me back into my chair. She pushed aside my chair to make room for herself to lie beside me next to the tub. She crossed her paws and watched me trying to slow my breathing down and stay calm. “Thank you Ethel, okay sweet girl. Okay, we’re okay. I’m okay. It’s going to be okay,” I spoke between deep breaths. I had landed on the same shoulder that had been injured in my spinal cord injury accident and it was starting to radiate pain down my back. “Okay.. It’s going to be okay”, I put my arm around Ethel and held her, burying my face in her neck. When I felt calm enough, I asked her to stand and brace, pulling me up to knees and able to grab my chair and transfer safely. I got into my chair and exhaled and then hugged her as tightly as I could while she smiled and wagged her tail. She got a Kong full of peanut butter, her favorite treat, before we went to bed that night.

 

But that experience flipped a switch for Ethel and I. When I’m stressed, she’ll come to my wheelchair and paw at my hands with her nose or lay down in front of my wheels. She watches me and knows my mood sometimes as soon as I do. She’ll relax when I relax and open her paws when she’s lying down so that I can rub her tummy. She knows now just how much I need her and I believe that makes her happy. When she’s free to roam around a nearby field and sniff to her delight, her mouth opens in the biggest grin when she gallops back to me when I call. She asserts herself into every interaction I have with the world, not so much for me to know that she’s my dog but for her to tell the world I’m actually hers. I’ll lean down and rub her ears, telling her she’s my good girl but when she reaches out to put her paw on me, I believe she’s telling me that “no, actually, you’re my good person.”

Rehabilitation Center of St. Louis, Washington University MO

Rehabilitation Center of St. Louis, Washington University MO

 

Finding Ethel: Part 3, I’m Hers

imhers

After I did my inpatient rehabilitation for my injury, I was impatient to go right back to college with the promise that I would continue physical therapy. Getting back to life was incredibly important to the both of us. We both knew that walking again may not be possible but getting a college degree could be. I was scared to go back to college and the question of whether or not I could finish tortured me the entire summer. I spoke with therapist after therapist while I was in inpatient rehabilitation about attending college as a paraplegic and I was hesitant to believe their encouragings. But while I was learning to tie my shoes, lay down in bed to put pants on and take a shower the new way, Dusty was working on my fall schedule at college with my advisor and making sure that the financial aid portion was still intact. I hadn’t been convinced yet that I was capable of finishing college but Dusty knew that I was.

 

Fort Jackson, South Carolina

Fort Jackson, South Carolina

As the beginning of the fall semester neared, we said goodbye to the therapists at Shepherd Hospital and with the attitude of “nothing is impossible”, I went forth into college. We were met with a community of love unsurpassed by any other that I’ve ever known. I had gotten to know some of the local women of Fort Jackson in South Carolina in a Bible study called Protestant Women Of the Chapel and two women in particular took me in as their own. They adopted me as my new Army moms and as they listened to my worries and fears, they gave me the humor and the courage to be able to face any trouble about the Army could and would bring in our future. Just a few weeks after my new moms and I met , they rose to the occasion of my accident and rallied behind Dusty every minute of every day. Dusty was able to come and go from the hospital due to the schedule they made to have someone by my side, whether it be a chaplain, themselves or another one of our many Army friends that they brought into our lives. Dusty didn’t spend a single dinner alone but was surrounded by Army families night after night. It was truly a miraculous time of the Army surrounding one of its own. When I awoke and learned all this, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more loved.

 

Graduation with Honors 2012, University of South Carolina

Graduation with Honors 2012, University of South Carolina

We had motorcycle escort leaving the hospital to take us all the way home to Fort Jackson. The Army and Dusty had worked hard to find us an accessible home on post and the women of PWOC had unpacked us, decorated and moved us into a beautiful, settled house. Even my underwear had been folded. I got out of the car in our new driveway to cheers and shouts of love by the Buffalo soldiers, PWOC women and Army family that had come by to greet us. I surprised the crowd by showing them that I could stand up with my four arm crutches before being lifted by Dusty and carried over the threshold to our new home. And what a beautiful house it was. We both felt too young to live in a house this organized and picturesque, reminding us more of a Better Homes and Gardens ad than our previous college apartment. How blessed were we.

 

Presidential No Limits Student 2012, University of South Carolina

Presidential No Limits Student 2012, University of South Carolina

College started and there are volumes to write about those first few weeks. But quickly I learned one thing, that I was terrible at pushing my wheelchair through anything that wasn’t pavement. Sidewalk cracks? Fell right over. Cobblestones? Don’t ask. The lip from exiting the elevator to the tile? Yep. For some strange reason, seeing a girl in a wheelchair fall on her face out of her chair really freaked some people out and they thought they should probably call the ambulance. Dusty would get weekly phone calls from some stranger who’d taken my phone to tell him that I was on the way to the emergency room. Again. Soon I began to recognize and know the EMTs who’d pick me up,

 

“Well hey Julia! Looks like someone fell again, you do know that wheelchairs only work when you stay in them.”

 

“Hi Joe. Shut up.”

 

I was always fine but with a new spinal cord injury and fused vertebrae, falls meant X-rays and double checking. Dusty would have left his meetings, briefings or yelling at some basic trainee to arrive at the hospital to take me back to get my car. Eventually he started designing inflatable cushions that I could deploy from my chair and would poof! surround and protect me. Or tried convincing me to wear a bike helmet to class. I squashed both those ideas and promised him I’d get better at paraplegic-ing.

 

One of the hardest things to learn in rehabilitation for my spinal cord injury was learning how to fall. It seems counterintuitive to try to fall from a wheelchair, but falling properly will save a head and a neck from further injury. I rolled down hallway after hallway with physical therapists who had me on a gate-belt leash and tried tucking my head and rolling forward from my chair to the floor. Absolutely terrifying every time, no matter how prepared I was for the fall. I thought I’d grow use to seeing the floor rapidly approach my face and feeling my elbows scrape the ground, but here I am four years later and I’m still scared. I know I’m only a few feet from the ground, so it’s not as big of an impact as if I were one of those standing people but the floor has not yet become my friend. So when I was told about my options to get a service dog, my first thought was “Aha! A bodyguard to protect me from my nemesis!”

 

Some people are bad at swimming, some people are bad at dancing, I’m bad at being in a wheelchair. I was clumsy before the accident but now add clumsy with four wheels and sometimes it spells disaster. I’ll routinely forget to lock my breaks, I won’t look when I’m turning a corner and I’ll smack into a wall, or I bend over without checking to see what direction my wheels are pointing in to only forward out of my chair. So when Carlene told me during my applicant process that the main responsibilities of the dog would be to help me transfer, stabilize me and help me get back into my chair, I was ecstatic. Someone to help me dummy-proof being a wheelchair-er? Sign me up!

A wounded vet's  emotional therapy dog, Stuttgart Germany

A wounded vet’s emotional therapy dog, Stuttgart Germany

 

Fast forward a year and I now have by my side the most beautiful Great Dane I’ve ever seen. She watches me all day and trots along beside my chair whenever I leave the room. She gets upset if I go into a bathroom that’s too small for her and will try to stick her nose or paws under the door to reach me.

IMG_20150523_143715 IMG_20150515_152714 IMG_20150429_214020

 

But the first scary medical emergency cemented a bond between Ethel and myself that I didn’t know we could have. I was home without Dusty and blaring Taylor Swift in the bathroom as I took a shower. I had my wheelchair by the tub and was sitting on a sound shower bench, but I’m not ashamed to say I was also doing a good amount of dangerous dance moves. Ethel had fallen asleep on the fluffy in our connected closet while she waited for me. The song changed to Katy Perry and I turned off the shower,

 

“You hear my voice, you hear that sound,” I sang along, badly, grabbing a towel.

“I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything…” I reached for my chair and grabbed the shower railing to lift myself to transfer, but the railing was slippery from spilt conditioner and my hand came slamming down on the edge of the tub as I tumbled down to the floor.

 

My legs had been twisted painfully in the fall and the shoulder I landed on was throbbing. I gasped a breath and opened my eyes to Ethel standing over me, her nose in my face. “Ethel, lie down”, I commanded from remembering that lying down was the first step in the procedure for helping me back into my chair. She pushed aside my chair to make room for herself to lie beside me next to the tub. She crossed her paws and watched me trying to slow my breathing down and stay calm. “Thank you Ethel, okay sweet girl. Okay, we’re okay. I’m okay. It’s going to be okay,” I spoke between deep breaths. I had landed on the same shoulder that had been injured in my spinal cord injury accident and it was starting to radiate pain down my back. “Okay.. It’s going to be okay”, I put my arm around Ethel and held her, burying my face in her neck. When I felt calm enough, I asked her to stand and brace, pulling me up to knees and able to grab my chair and transfer safely. I got into my chair and exhaled and then hugged her as tightly as I could while she smiled and wagged her tail. She got a Kong full of peanut butter, her favorite treat, before we went to bed that night.

 

But that experience flipped a switch for Ethel and I. When I’m stressed, she’ll come to my wheelchair and paw at my hands with her nose or lay down in front of my wheels. She watches me and knows my mood sometimes as soon as I do. She’ll relax when I relax and open her paws when she’s lying down so that I can rub her tummy. She knows now just how much I need her and I believe that makes her happy. When she’s free to roam around a nearby field and sniff to her delight, her mouth opens in the biggest grin when she gallops back to me when I call. She asserts herself into every interaction I have with the world, not so much for me to know that she’s my dog but for her to tell the world I’m actually hers. I’ll lean down and rub her ears, telling her she’s my good girl but when she reaches out to put her paw on me, I believe she’s telling me that “no, actually, you’re my good person.”

Rehabilitation Center of St. Louis, Washington University MO

Rehabilitation Center of St. Louis, Washington University MO

 

Finding Ethel: Part 3, Accidents Happen

Untitledsdf

On the flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta, GA, I leaned over the tray table of my cramped business-class seat of the plane and typed,

 

“I’m finally on the flight home to the United States from living in Europe for 19 months. This journey has felt exhaustingly long and fleetingly short all at once. I have seen the sights the world has celebrated for centuries, touched the same paths my heroes walked and lived in cultures that trace back to medieval custom. I have been Eur-roped and there’s a different person in my seat flying home.

 

Almost every college kid will talk about backpacking through Europe one day, taking that Eurotrip to find themselves and let the universe and God take hold of their life. It’s nearly impossible to grasp the magnitude of standing in the Colosseum, watching the Highland Games, touching the Berlin Wall and not let it change you.

 

But experiencing this didn’t feel small, looking over the ocean from Morocco, I didn’t feel like I was a small note in the endless symphony of time or another somewhat cheesy analogy. Coming home, I feel invincible. Like a wheelchair version of Iron Man, I feel like nothing is out of reach now. Traveling Europe has forced me to accept my limits as a part of my identity, not in its entirety, but a non-negotiable part of who I am now. I don’t need to waste time fighting against those limits, trying to recreate a world where I’m as close to walking as I can. That’s wasting valuable, precious time that I can be and have been spending seeing how incredible God’s world is with the love of my life.

 

I’m a wheelchair woman and I’m incredibly proud. I’m disabled and I live loudly, enjoying the ups and downs of the path I’m meant to ride. It took getting my butt kicked time and time again figuring out how to live and travel in Europe, but I’m through the other side more refined and toughened.”

 

Reading this now, only a few months later, I understand that what I thought was strength I now see as perception. The perception to be able to deescalate a situation because there have been worse or the ability to see someone’s pain through their anger. Because strength is more than the accumulation of personal experience and the determination to persevere. Ethel has taught me, in just a few short weeks, strength is the ability to know when you need help and to ask for it. Because there will always be a wagging tail and a wet nose only too eager to lend a paw.

Getting a belly rub after a day helping me in physical therapy

Getting a belly rub after a day helping me in physical therapy

 

But it was my change in perception that allowed me to approach my first Ethel outing crises with complete and utter zen. We had arrived in Missouri and were in the process of setting up our house. Movers had come and gone, come and gone and come and went again throughout the week and it was finally time to spend the night in our new bedroom. We had a long “we’re-outta-this” list (and I’m only partially ashamed to say that by this point of the move, we may or may not have been using the hotel bath soap to wash dishes for want of remembering to pick up dish soap) and in this area so aptly named Fort Lost-in-the-Woods, the closest superstore is Walmart and that’s where we headed.

 

It had already been a long day for Miss Ethel. She had a vet appointment that morning and later had escorted me to the hospital for my own appointment. I had stuffed my pockets that morning with cookies and rewarded her with one every time she waited to let me go through a door first or ignored a person thrusting their hand out to pet her before I could smack it away (seriously, people?). I was also very vigilant about her overheating and stopped often to pour her a quick dish of water from her trusty water bottle/dog dish. What I wasn’t so vigilant about, however, was remembering that all that water she was drinking would eventually need a place to go of its own…

 

Ethel has the right face for a week of moving

Ethel has the right face for a week of moving

After we left the hospital and were driving down to Walmart, Ethel began to stand and pant in the back seat. She’s a very vocal dog, I’ve found. She’ll grumble at me when I ask her to do something she doesn’t want to do, like stay in the down position when I prepare her food. And she’ll grumble at me when I leave the room when she just laid down in her bed, rising dramatically from her fluffies with a groaning yawn and puffing her cheeks out in defiance. If I’m taking too long, a grumble. If I’m not going fast enough, a grumble. Even now, as I write this:

 

“Ethel, we’re not going to bed yet, I want to finish this.”

 

“Hrrggrrmmm….harrrumph.”

 

But when she pants, it means one of three things- either she’s hot, she’s excited or she needs to go to the bathroom. I didn’t know that last meaning until too late. We parked at the Walmart and as I waited for Dusty to grab my wheelchair out of the back of the truck, I put Ethel’s leash on. Her vest had stayed on since the last outing and as soon as she descended from the car, we were moving towards the entrance. Dusty veered off to get us a cart and I paused at the entrance next to the friendly greeter, a larger guy with a big smile for Ethel. Until she squatted right at his feet, next to those clean, blue baskets, to make a large Ethel pond for everyone to step in.

 

“Oh dear. Well oh my, I, uh, need to get some napkins,” the greeter stumbled and quickly retreated while his shoes were still dry. As I apologized and told Ethel it was alright, that this was my fault for not paying attention to her needs, another employee came forward with a tiny washcloth. Oh, sweetie. That just will not cut it.

 

Three towels and two mopping employees later, they managed to not be required to rename the entrance Ethel Pond and we were on our way. We turned the corner and stopped to collect ourselves. I gave Ethel lots of love, patting her and rubbing on her while I told her I loved her. I knew Ethel felt terrible, but I was sending off the same guilty energy. How could I do this to you?, I thought and wanted to give myself the same sort of disciplining punishment someone would give to a bad dog. Then Dusty let out a huge sigh of relief and I turned to him, curious,

 

“Thanks for being so calm back there and talking to her. That whole scene was really outside my comfort zone. It really helped that you stayed so chill,” he explained. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and I gave Ethel a rub on her ears.

 

I was able to stay calm because this whole scene is not new to me. One of the wonderful quirks of the spinal cord injury life is the inability to hold ones bladder. Sounds super fun, right? Some people combat this by drinking and emptying on a schedule, drinking exactly 8 oz every hour and not drinking after 7pm. Others, like myself, have enough feeling to hopefully know in advance that a bathroom break is needed. Sometimes I make it to the bathroom. Sometimes I don’t. In my last post I talked about how I’ve peed on highways in every country in western Europe. Well, I have one even better. I can say with a mixture of tortured pride and resolving humiliation that I’ve sat in my own puddle of pee in every country I visited in Europe and in 9 different states in America…. Accidents, oh boy how they happen.

 

When and how and where is the bathroom are always on my mind when I take a sip of water- photo credit: Copenhagen, Denmark

When and how and where is the bathroom are always on my mind when I take a sip of water- photo credit: Copenhagen, Denmark

It was in Germany that I learned how to utilize the magic of Foley catheters. Foley catheters, for those who don’t know, are indwelling catheters that attach to bag that stays either on your leg or by your side. Sounds inconvenient, but it means for the entire day I don’t have to rush to the bathroom or monitor how much I’m drinking in proximity to availability of a toilet. We were traveling on a weekend in the Bavarian Alps of Germany to do some hand cycling and biking in the summer and I wanted to be able to get in the car, get on my bike and drink water all without fear of having an accident. Unfortunately, leg bags are kind of small and they’re visible as this big bulge on your leg underneath your pants. Not pretty. So I had the brilliant idea of attaching a larger bed bag instead and stuff the bed bag down in my long boots. Invisible, right?! I applauded myself for my genius as we got in the car and started driving through the beautiful Alps.

 

I don’t read directions. Usually ever. Either a huge fault or an endearing trait, depending if you’re talking to my husband or myself. If I had read the directions on the bag or translated the German from my German bed bags, I would have read that there is an emergency overflow filter that will start to seep out the liquid when the bag reaches a certain pressure. With my bag stuffed down into my boot, the bag was already at a high pressure from being crunched and squeezed. And then as I downed my liter of water, the pressure mounted. I don’t have sensation in my feet or I would have felt that my ever-so-cute boot was slowly filling with warm pee. Don’t worry, dear reader, I eventually did notice. When I shifted my legs and I noticed my boot was dripping. The last time I sacrifice practicality for vanity.

Konignsee, Germany

Konignsee, Germany

 

So when Ethel spread her haunches to take a squat in front of the entire store, this was no big deal. At least this time I was staying dry.

Untitled

 

Later that week….

 

My husband and I have been going to marriage counseling since before we were married. We were required to attend premarital counseling to be married in my church and when we went, we realized how much we loved it. You mean there are people who tell you how this whole marriage thing is supposed to work? That other people fight in the middle of grocery stores and it’s not just us? Dusty was 21 and I was 19 when we married and as many know, kids don’t al know how to be married. So at every duty base, we look for marriage counseling. This has given us the communication tools to build a foundation strong enough to outlast each struggle we’ve come across, including me becoming a paraplegic two years into marriage.

 

Today was our first meeting with the chaplain that we’ll be counseled by. We gave him our back story and told him a little of the communication struggles we’ve come across in this six-month transition of moving back to the United States. He talked to us about expectations and informed us of a little marital formula; when you have expectations – reality = there’ll be disappointment. The expectations of a smooth move minus the inevitable reality of how complicated the military turns a move out to be equals disappointing frustration in how messy our transition turned out to be. He then referenced the variable of my disability into this equation (which was fine, we were already talking about the different parts of the move that involve my medical needs) as “when you have this tragedy in your life already…”

 

My skin crawled. I reached down to stroke Ethel’s back laying down beside me. She had achieved boredom almost the minute she laid down and had arranged herself along my wheels so that I couldn’t possibly move while she slept. I traced her heart patch on her shoulder while I listened to him continue. He wasn’t out of line for calling my disability a tragedy, not at all. We were talking about some of the hardships of the move back to the United States that concerned my chair and how Dusty and I can communicate effectively about these hardships. But still I felt my defensive shields go up.

 

On paper, becoming a paraplegic is very tragic. It’s traumatic and sad and is cause for overwhelming sympathy. On paper. And in my opinion, on paper only. Because becoming a paraplegic and living as a paraplegic are completely different things. Becoming a paraplegic is tragic but not hopeless. Living as a paraplegic is defined by the person in the chair. It’s a choice to make the life of a paraplegic a good one and not turn the chair into a tragic piece of your existence. My disability is not tragic. My story of becoming a disabled woman may be tragic, to some. But that accident does not define the life I live now. My chair is not negative to me, I don’t hate my body or “could, would, should” my dreams away.

 

Paris, France

Paris, France

Walking the Thames is one of the quieter spots in the city and is a good break from the crowded tourist zones

Walking the Thames is one of the quieter spots in the city and is a good break from the crowded tourist zones

University of South Carolina 2012

University of South Carolina 2012

This is hard to understand, as evidence by the strangers who ask me at the grocery store “how I could ever keep living like this”. Is it too fantastical to imagine a disabled person as happy? And not “only as happy as their broken body allows them to be” but truly, honestly happy. Happier than many able-bodied people. How much imagination does it take to see someone with a disability as a person content with their life?

 

So sitting in the counseling session, there was a pause as the chaplain finished talking. Ethel perked her head up at me as I stroked her and looked back at me. I felt her calm strength flow through her skin to mine and give me courage to speak. “This is a great life,” I firmly said. “I love living like this, moving and exploring and doing it all from my chair. There might have been heartbreak at the beginning, but when given the choice to live or give up I chose to live. What kind of life would we have if I hated living in a way that I couldn’t change? What kind of life would we have if I stopped trying to be happy? It wouldn’t be a life. It couldn’t be. This is a good life we have and I’m glad we’re living it.”

 

Dusty smiled and leaned over the gap in between our chairs to give me a kiss. Ethel looked up at me, mouth open and tongue hanging out, and smiled.

 

Ethel getting ready to help me out of my handcycle after a ride

Ethel getting ready to help me out of my handcycle after a ride

We’ve truly began building the layers of bonding that are needed between a service dog and her human. But when emergencies happen too early, it may or may not be instinct for the dog to be able to respond quickly when they haven’t had a chance to get to know their human because it may not be instinct for the human to be able to control the dog. Can I stand up the test of being in control with Ethel in an emergency? Can Ethel respond to me when I can’t tell her I’m in trouble? Find out on the next Finding Ethel…

Finding Ethel: Part 2, Day 4

Continuation from Part 2 Day 1 in the Finding Ethel series

Continuation from Part 2 Day 1 in the Finding Ethel series

 

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.

 

Training on the train out of Beverly, MA

Training on the train out of Beverly, MA

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.

 

 

Training with Ethel in Danvers, Massachusetts

Training with Ethel in Danvers, Massachusetts

 

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.

 

Touring as Miss Wheelchair South Carolina 2011-2012

Touring as Miss Wheelchair South Carolina 2011-2012

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.”

 

Ughh.

 

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.

 

The North Sea off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland  June 2014

The North Sea off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland June 2014

 

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.

Training in Danvers, Massachusetts March 2015

Training in Danvers, Massachusetts March 2015

PicMonkey Collage3

Finding Ethel: Part Two Day One

IMG_3667_edited

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

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

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.

 

Banana farms

Banana farms

Puerto Naos near Sol de la Palma

Puerto Naos near Sol de la Palma

Mirador El Time

Mirador El Time

Puerto Naos playa, Canary Islands, Spain

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

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!”

Untitled

 

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

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

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

Training on the train out of Beverly, MA