‘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, Service Dog Project Fest 2015

SDP Fest 2015

SDP Fest 2015

SDP Fest 2015

SDP Fest 2015

Ethel, my mother-in-law, and myself were given the generous gift of appearing at the Service Dog Project Annual Fest to speak about the impact Ethel has had on my life. A weekend is not long enough to speak of her help, her affirmation of my own strength, and the continual gift she’s been to me.

 

The three of us boarded our first plane ride together in St. Louis and unsurprisingly, Ethel did fantastic on the flight. Her legs are too long to be laying down when people are walking on the aisle, so I had Ethel stand up on the courtesy free seat Southwest Airline had given us. She put her front paws on the seat and towered over the aisles as she watched passengers awkwardly climb over each other to get to their seats. If she was thinking like I was, then she too was judging their choice of airline attire of each passenger.

On the plane to SDP Fest 2015

On the plane to SDP Fest 2015

I painted her toes for the flight and tied a big pink ribbon around her neck that she wore for the crowd at SDP as well. It is absolutely, 100% not her personality to be near anything pink, let alone suffer through a pedicure of “Petal Pink” polish. But it’s my personality to do all this and, well, she didn’t stop me.

 

We landed in Boston and made our way through the notorious Boston traffic. My mother-in-law had never traveled east of PA and was enthralled in the river and harbors of the city. After touring Boston and taking the obligatory “holding a tea bag over the Boston Harbor” tourist pictures, we made our way to Crazy Acres Farm. I wrote Carlene of SDP about my experience with Ethel in Boston:

Legal Sea Foods

Legal Sea Foods

Tea. In the Boston Harbor. Get it? Don't worry. Unlike those Patriots, we didn't litter.

Tea. In the Boston Harbor. Get it? Don’t worry. Unlike those Patriots, we didn’t litter.

 

“Widda Great Dane, e’erybody yor Naybuh”

 

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing more charming than a friendly face speaking a Boston accent. We always enjoy traveling back East, but this was our first time returning to the Boston area with Ethel. And this time, I’ve never encountered so many new “naybuhs jus’ wantin’ ta halp”.

 

It was incredible, heads turned, people stood, chairs were pushed in and cars stopped whenever we went by. All through downtown to north end to the back bay neighborhoods of Boston, I got offers for help from some of the friendliest Bostonians I’d ever met. People have this reaction to Ethel in the Midwest, as well, but this was a remarkably different Boston than I’d known before.

“Gawd, dat’s a huss ya got dere!” We heard over and over again, but left and right strange things were happening. First our rental car got upgraded without asking because Ethel had the bluest eyes our attendant had ever seen. Then our parking ticket for the garage got validated without needing a payment from a nice gentlemen who owned a Corgie himself. Then “wadduh” was brought out to Ethel by strangers whenever we stopped for coffee or to eat or even just to rest for little while. People moved aside in lines, mainly so they could snap photos of us. Our table at dinner was in a remote spot with beautiful scenary looking over the Harbor, while people crowded in the terrace. What was happening?

 

I can only deduce that Bwahstan, a favorite city already, is a city of people who appreciate relationships. Bostonians responded to the relationship I have with Ethel with the friendliness of a “naybuh”, love responding in kind to love.

I knew I gained a travel buddy with Ethel. I didn’t know I’d also gain the help and kindness of hundreds of new “naybuhs” as well.

____________________

 

We drove north through the city and up past Beverly. Ethel, usually enjoying a nap in the backseat while traveling, suddenly popped her head out the window sniffing the air as we approached the turn in to the farm. Then the tail began to swing and as we approached the gate to the farm, her whole body began to wiggle with excitement. She was back.

SDP Fest 2015 SDP Fest 2015

When I met Ethel, she wasn’t so much a fan of other people as she just wasn’t interested in them. You don’t have a cookie for me? Then I’m not going to stay still to let you pet me. She’d sniff a person to introduce herself when a friend approached me and she’s off vest, but then she’d retreat back to my side with no interest in making friends. Although she has great social skills with dogs and humans, she’s just didn’t seem to be a very social girl. My little introvert would rather live alone with me in a cabin in the middle of the woods than sit through a doggy tea party with my friends and their dogs. Which is too bad, because that’s exactly what I love to do.

 

But when we hopped out of the car and were immediately greeted by Service Dog Project friends, Ethel excitedly ran from person to person to sniff hands and pockets for treats. She sniffed the other dogs with her tail wagging and ran back and forth from person or dog to me with the biggest smile. My little introvert, loving spending time in this great crowd of her family.

SDP Fest 2015

All weekend this continued. Ethel would be by my side when I called and when I needed her, slowing down to pull me back and forth across the Crazy Acres grounds. But as soon as I told her to go play, she’d run through the tents set up to meet everyone and use her beautiful blue eyes to swindle treats from the pockets of the SDP family. When she saw trainers Kati and Meg, I worried that maybe she’d forget that I was her human and she’d want to stay with them. But after she ran to each of her trainers, she’d gallop back to me with a huge smile as if to say “Mom! My friends! My friends are here!”

Over the weekend, her confidence mounted. At the beginning of our pairing together, I had slowly been given glimmers and a glimpse of her real personality. Over the six months we’ve been paired now, those glimmers are part of our everyday life. She’ll sassily paw at me when she wants attention or doesn’t want to do the command. She protects her friends Max the Husky and Rocco the Boxer by leading the way when they explore the parks. She likes her back scratched more than her ears. While she’ll walk away from Dusty when he offers a hand for rubbing, she’ll lean against him firmly to make sure he’ll scratch her back when she wants it and come to him when he calls. Her favorite position for sleeping is her head hanging over her bed and her arms and legs outstretched, groaning and grunting like an old man all night.

 

This wasn’t the Ethel I met my first time at Crazy Acres but this is the real Ethel that I know the SDP family knew and loved from her birth. And now I know her too.

SDP Fest 2015

I promised a surprise in my last post and I announced the news during the “Question & Answer” session of the Fest. I’m so thankful for all the encouragement I’ve been given in my writing by all you and more and I am happy to say that your kind words were not unheard. I have written a book!

Finding Ethel

Finding Ethel: Part 3, With and Without Vest

Finding Ethel

 

 

I went out to St. Louis with a friend and up to that point, she’d never been around Ethel wearing her vest. At our house, even with friends over, Ethel doesn’t wear her vest. She’s always working, however, and doesn’t stop watching me or following me wherever I go to see if I need any help. She’ll still brace for me so I can get up from my yoga mat and when we go for walks in our neighborhood, she’ll happily pull me along. When friends come over, if Ethel rubs up against them they’re allowed to pet her and give her a cookie or two. But when the vest is on, no one, not even Dusty, can touch her. When her vest is on, Ethel knows without a doubt that she’s working. It was a different experience for my friend to see Ethel working but even more unique for her was seeing how people reacted to Ethel. I’m used to walking around with a celebrity, people stopping to stare at Ethel and provide the obligatory “is that a horse?” comment.

 

When we went to lunch, we were given the special attention by the wait staff that only a guest like Ethel can bring and she was given her very own water dish with ice. When I take out Ethel’s vest and tell her to get dressed, she wags her tail. She’s excited to work, she knows she makes me happy and proud and if she does a good job she’ll get plenty of treats. When her vest is on, Ethel isn’t interested in anything except me which is an enormous tribute to the genius of Carlene White and the skill of her trainers at the Service Dog Project. She looks away when a stranger’s hand is outstretched for her to sniff before I can say anything. She watches, with ears pointed and eyes very alert, at the many squirrels crossing our path but doesn’t chase them. (She did a few months back, but I was able to remind her that squirrels are off limits when the vest is on. She does chase squirrels, however, when I say it’s okay and when she’s not working.) She sits and waits for me on the floor while I browse books at the library or when Dusty and I sit to listen at church. She’s far more patient when her vest is on and always, her eyes follow my every movement to make sure I’m okay.

 

We were out bowling with the same friend and her husband at the bowling center on post. I don’t know, but I’m pretty confident that Ethel had never seen bowling before this outing. She was working, her vest was on and she pulled me up the ramp and led me down to the seats where we were gathering. I pulled out her mat and had her in the “down, stay” position as we got our balls and threw our first round. She loved it and her tail began to wag as she watched the bowling balls fly down the alleys. Her ears were on full alert and her head followed the flying, giant toys racing down the alleys to crash into more toys at the end. When I went up to throw my ball with Dusty’s help, she got up to follow me and that wasn’t too surprising. She doesn’t want me to go far from her and here I was with this giant toy that I was going to throw. I got her back down and our friends helped while she watched me bowl. When we were done, I took her to the balls so she could sniff them and she promptly opened her mouth to eat the blue one.

Finding Ethel Finding Ethel

 

Without her vest, Ethel is a different kind of dog. She’s the sweetest, gentlest soul, but can have an attitude with a capital A every once in a while. When she doesn’t want to go on a walk, she’ll stare at me holding her leash like she can’t believe I’m asking her to go outside. When I get the leash on, she might weave in front of me or pull to show me that she does not appreciate going on a walk when she clearly showed me she wasn’t interested. A few commands in a calm, assertive voice and few “woahs” and “walk ons” later and she’s reluctantly listening. A big part of Ethel’s life not wearing her vest is simply being my shadow. She’ll trail me from room to room, groaning when I leave a room just as soon as she’s gotten comfortable. When we go for walks, she waits for my command on which direction to go and then she begins pulling me along. Something about living on a military post, however, is the tendency to stop and chat when seeing neighbors outside the home. When we walk in the morning, we’ll usually come across a neighbor or two and I’ll stop to chat. As patient as Ethel is, when she’s not wearing her vest she’ll let me know she’s bored when this happens.

 

Finding Ethel

 

 

The other morning I stopped to chat with the mother and sister of one of my neighbors, holding the newborn twins my neighbor just delivered. We must have been chatting for a quite a while and Ethel, wearing her sassy pants, began to let me know she was bored of all this talking. As I cooed over the babies, she looked up at me expectantly, hoping that if she stared at me long enough she’ll get a cookie. When that didn’t work, she threw her paw up on my knees. And because I kept ignoring her, she climbed up on my knees to do her command “hug!” and barked (the “say amen!” command when I taught her how to pray) to demand a cookie.

I told her no and to “leave it”, saying that I didn’t appreciate the attitude. I gave her the down command and she rolled over in the boredom state while I finished my conversation. Miss Sassy Pants, indeed.

 

When Ethel had a sore paw for a hot minute

When Ethel had a sore paw for a hot minute

 

Fort Leonard Wood is home to various outdoor hotspots right on post, our favorite being a short hike to a spring that feeds into the Piney River. The other day the three of us were loaded up in Dusty’s car and he turned on the ignition. But Ethel has to lay down in the backseat before we can drive and for all my commands, she was giving me a blank stare as she stood on the seat. “Ethel,” I said, trying to imitate Cesar Milan’s calm, assertive voice, “lay down”. After a beat, she lowered her butt down but stopped when it came to rest on the top of the backseat. Technically, she was sitting and had gotten partially down like I asked. She looked at me like, “Fine. I’m down. Is THAT what you wanted?” and I couldn’t help but laugh. She sits like that on our coach at home, her butt resting on the top of the couch while her front paws are on the couch cushions. Close, Ethel. But not quite. She did eventually come all the way down with a gruff groan of irritation at us and we continued on our way.

Finding Ethel

 

Get ready for next week on Finding Ethel when we announce a special surprise!

 

Finding Ethel

 

Finding Ethel: Part 3, A Week in Review

Monday:

Ethel and I now have vocal communication throughout the day. She grumbles, I joke, she barks, I answer. She pants to tell me how much she hates being outside in the Missouri heat or she’ll stand by the refrigerator to tell me that I haven’t given her nearly enough of the peanut butter ice cubes she knows are in the freezer. As soon as I open our front door, she dramatically begins to pant and sometimes will grumble to the floor in a faux fit. Her personality is as big as her theatrics about staying out of the heat. (Note: She wears a wet cooling vest, takes breaks in the shade with plenty of water and is only outside for minimal amounts of time. And still the drama.) Monday was no exception and after our morning walk, Ethel gave me absolute refusal to join me for breakfast on our back porch. When I asked her to come out to me sitting in the sun, she grumbled, flopped down on our floor inside and yawned in refusal. She stayed there for the entire time I was outside and would return to the “boredom” position of sprawled on the floor every time I caught her watching me outside.Finding Ethel

Tuesday:

Ethel, like all the service Danes, elicits some peculiar responses from the public. We’ve all heard “Wow, I like your pony!” or “How’d you fit that horse in your car?” or even “She must eat you out of house and home!”. My favorite, though, are the responses from some of the elderly vets in our community, shopping at the commissary in their “I served in Vietnam” baseball caps and electric scooters. They always laugh when they see Ethel, astounded at her size, her eyes and how she maneuvers me through some of the cramped shopping aisles.

I have a favorite veteran gentleman, someone I usually see when I grocery shop on Tuesdays at the commissary. He doesn’t say much, but has a smile that lights his whole face when he sees us coming. He’s always wearing some declaration of Vietnam, either in a hat, button or sometimes a leather vest, and has more wrinkles that just multiply when he smiles. He calls Ethel “his princess” and doesn’t try to pet her, but instead takes it upon himself to lead us down the aisle on his electric scooter. He’ll loudly declare to everyone in our way “Excuse me! My princess is coming through!” and then laugh and laugh when we get to the end of the aisle. Ethel loves him, as well. Her tail wags when she spots him now and will get into her “down, stay” position in front of his scooter while I grab what I need from the aisle. I don’t know his name, he actually hardly talks directly to me and instead prefers to coo at Ethel, but he makes our Tuesday shopping day something to look forward to.Finding Ethel

Wednesday

Wednesday Dusty began a four day training exercise and had left early that morning with a rucksack filled with beef jerky snacks for the field, which Ethel had found very interesting the night before and proceeded to try to unpack for him. Nights without Dusty have been spread sporadically throughout our entire marriage, little reminders of the comfort of each other’s presence in the day to day and how big of a void that absence can become when he’s missing. Ethel has changed the emptiness of the house during these times for me with such magnitude that the hardship of this lifestyle have greatly lessened. Her personality is as big as her giant yawns, loud grumbles and deadly swinging tail, making our house still full of sound and love when I’m alone. All day she talks, chases the lone fly that gets inside, prods me for cookies and is only too happy to give a hug. That’s changed Army life for me, indefinitely.Finding Ethel

Thursday

On Thursdays I travel the two hours from Fort Leonard Wood to St. Louis for all-day treatments at Washington University Medical School. I have physical therapy sessions, occupational therapy sessions, meetings with spinal cord injury specialty nurses and occasional lab work. When these appointments were first made and I realized the potential travel stress on Ethel, I asked Dusty to help me modify my car to better fit her.

I drive a Dusty-designed three door coupe, a small sports car with a third suicide door behind the driver’s seat. This third door is crucial; a suicide door swings the opposite direction of a normal car door, so I can essentially open the entire left side of the car by pulling open both doors. When I transfer from my wheelchair to the driver’s seat, I can then pull my wheelchair directly behind me. Dusty figured out how I could drive soon after my accident and went on a hunt to find a car with this type of suicide door. When he found the car, he then removed the entire backseat and replaced the flooring with an elevated carpeted floorboard for my chair to be pulled onto and rest right behind the driver’s seat. I then drive with hand controls and when I park, I simply open both doors on the left side and bring my wheelchair down to transfer. I drove myself to college, was independent through Dusty’s deployments and am able to be as functional as I want because of the freedom given by this car.

So where does Ethel ride? A small car does not, at first, sound suitable for a Great Dane but Service Dog Project founder Carlene White told me about the time she fit three Danes in the back of a VW bug without a problem. Dusty modified the front passenger seat of my car and lowered the back of the seat to an almost horizontal surface for Ethel to lay. When I tell her to “load up!”, Ethel climbs in the car through the back floorboard, lays down in her seat facing the back and rests her head on the headrest. Sometimes she’ll bring her head up to lay it on the open window when we’re stopped or even try to sniff out the cookies I’ve hidden in the middle compartment between us. Dusty attached a bone to the headrest and for the two hour drive to St. Louis, she’s more than content chewing on her bone or sleeping. I was worried about the stress of traveling so much on her, but Ethel has proven to be one strong, resilient and goofy lady.

She’s grown to love car trips for another reason; Puppychinos at Starbucks. There’s one Drive-Thru Starbucks on our route and I’ll always pull in to grab a pick-me-up before heading on the two hour drive home. I learned a while ago about Puppychinos from Starbucks; you can ask for this special treat free of charge and they’ll present a cup of whipped cream for their canine patronage. When Ethel smells the coffee as we pull up to Starbucks, she sits up and pants in excitement. By the time I’ve ordered and approached the window, she’s nearly leaned over me to stick her head out demanding for her treat. The baristas now know us, but never fail to give a “Woah!” when they’re presented with this giant dog head trying to pant her way into whipped cream. Usually they’ll get a bigger cup when they see her size and add a little more than the usual amount of topping, which she’ll nearly inhale and then proceed to rip up the cup to get every last lick.

However, this has led Ethel to think that every Drive-Thru will have a cup of whipped cream coming out of the window and we’ve scared many a fast food worker with a giant head watching them in anticipation. The poor baristas at Panera felt so guilty when I explained her behavior to them that they returned with their own cup of Puppychino whipped cream, to which Ethel actually barked a thanks.Finding Ethel

Friday

Friday nights are usually a date night with Dusty and by a stroke of luck (bad luck for the soldiers, good luck for me), it was raining so fiercely that Dusty’s field training had to be ended a day early. Dusty returned muddy, wet and ripe smelling but we were able to squeeze in an impromptu date night after all. A shower and a shave later, we were on our way to our favorite restaurant in this area, a little Italian ristorante hidden in the hills of the Ozarks. We learned in Europe that for many, the location of a good restaurant is based on a scenic view and not on accessibility for the best traffic. There were very, very few places to eat by the side of a major highway or near any discernable route. Dinner was something you valued enough to go out of your way to find and took time to enjoy.

There’s a large European population in the Fort Leonard Wood area due to all the branches here, mainly Army Engineers and Army Military Police, having a large presence in the bases of Germany and Italy. Many, many soldiers have tours in Europe like the one Dusty and I just finished (we were living last year in Germany) but many of these soldiers return to the States with German or Italian spouses. A large percentage of these same soldiers have lived in Europe for years and years, adapting to German or Italian culture and bringing some of their customs back. Oktoberfest is celebrated here and there are many German hubs and taverns built right outside Fort Leonard Wood. This Italian ristorante is no exception, the owners and chefs all of either European descent or citizenship.

The views from this ristorante portray the breath-taking green hills of the Ozarks but Ethel enjoys this restaurant not for the view, but for the special care she receives. As a family business, all members of the staff have come to know and greet us. We have a special, accessible table and Ethel is given plenty of space to spread out on her mat. But while we order wine and dinner, Ethel is given her very own dish of water with specially prepared ice cubes. After our third or fourth date night here, the chef brought out an ice tray to our table. “I just love your dog,” he sheepishly admitted. “And I thought she might like some chicken broth ice cubes. I give them to my dogs at home.” Her tail wagged and wagged as she chomped on chicken broth ice the rest of the night, completely content. Now when we arrive, the chicken broth ice tray is brought out with the appetizers and she’ll sit with her hips relaxed in anticipation of her treat. Needless to say, Friday nights are a date night for everyone involved.

Saturday:

On Saturdays Ethel will sometimes have a play date with our neighbors’ husky puppy, Max. Dusty and I will take our lunch outside to our back patio and Ethel will sleep on the cot outside or roam around the backyard sniffing and eating grass clumps. We’ve dogsat Max before and now whenever he’s brought outside to pee, he runs the two houses down to our house if he can smell that his friend Ethel is outside. He loves jumping on, batting at, and rolling onto Ethel but Ethel just tolerates Max in return. Every once in a while she’ll lift a paw to bat to appease the puppy, but she generally does not consider playing something worth getting up from her nap.

At least, until Max tries to jump on me. This little husky is still a puppy and is learning the commands of not jumping and not nipping at hands for play. Ethel will let Max run around to jump on Dusty, but as soon as Max tries to jump up on me to lick my face Ethel is by my side. She’ll stand and put her front paws on my lap and use her body to shove Max away from me, gently nipping at him if he doesn’t get the message the first time. She’ll stay close by for the next few minutes and let Max bounce around her, but she’ll mark me as her territory by continuing to stand in between Max and me. If Max ever gets too out of hand, all Ethel has to do is stand over him and Max rolls on his back in a quick surrender. Smart boy.

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Sunday

Sunday mornings we sleep in, eat late and head to church for the late morning service. Ethel loves church for the always available donuts carried around by all the people who walk past. Each Sunday she hopes will be the Sunday that someone drops one and I’ll let her eat it, but before the service starts she’ll grumble and flop over to surrender to boredom.

As some have seen, I’ve taught Ethel how to pray with me and we give the blessing before she eats breakfast and dinner. “Ok Ethel, down” I’ll command before I give her any food. She’ll be wagging her tail in anticipation and when food’s involved, she’s always very quick to get in the down position. “Let’s pray,” I’ll say leaning over and holding out my hand. She’ll lift one paw up for me to take or she’ll lift a paw and put in on my feet. “Thank you God for our food. Say Amen!” I’ll tell her and she’ll excitedly bark in return.

It took a week for Ethel to learn to bark on command and it was not something that seemed to come easy for her. She’s an incredible service dog, trained by the best, and I never have to worry about her barking at another dog or person when she’s in her vest. She’s vocal in other ways but barking is only something she does when someone knocks on the front door or rings the doorbell. So I used the doorbell to teach her to bark in response to the phrase “Say Amen!” and within a week, she had it. Watch here!

Then I saw the flaw in this plan at church. You see, the prayer is led by our lead pastor and we all declare at the end of the prayer a loud “Amen!”. This particular Sunday Ethel hadn’t yet achieved boredom and had been staring pointedly at me because Dusty’s donut was right by my side. When she heard “Amen”, she did what she had been trained to do and excitedly barked her contribution.

To preface the church reaction, let me explain that a Great Dane bark is no cute, little thing. It’s a loud, fierce sounding vocal expression that to be honest, can be a little intimidating. But Ethel doesn’t know this. So when the church body, including her owner, gave a loud “Amen!” Ethel shook a few chairs and prompted a few gasps with her contribution. And a woman sitting next to us, bless her heart, responded by shaking her head up and down and said “Mmhmm, that’s right sistah. Feel that Spirit!”. I couldn’t have asked for a more welcoming response. And Ethel still prays with us today.

Finding Ethel

Finding Ethel: Life in Pictures

Finding Ethel

 

Finding Ethel

 

 

Finding Ethel

Little Miss Ethel and friend Max the Husky

Little Miss Ethel and friend Max the Husky

But now not sharing with friend Max the Husky puppy

But now not sharing with friend Max the Husky puppy

Little Miss Ethel was very concerned if Mr. James fussed. She'd help by licking his feet

Little Miss Ethel was very concerned if Mr. James fussed. She’d help by licking his feet

Listening to her favorite podcast, Stonebrooke Church

Listening to her favorite podcast, Stonebrooke Church

Little Miss Ethel and Mr. James

Little Miss Ethel and Mr. James

Little Miss Ethel takes turns with friend Max the Husky puppy chewing the bone

Little Miss Ethel takes turns with friend Max the Husky puppy chewing the bone

Finding Ethel: Ethel and the Poison Frog

Finding Ethel

A kiss for being the Best Girl.

A kiss for being the Best Girl.

With the intense heat of Missouri summers, we’ve resorted to taking walks in early morning or at night. There’s a great paved trail here at Fort Leonard Wood that the troops will occasionally use and is open to the rest of post, so we try to hit this trail whenever possible. The trail meanders up and down the hills of Missouri and takes us on a scenic route past shooting ranges with plastic, green army dummies used for target practice, empty shed-like buildings where raids are taught and locked gates to dusty roads that run to some secret deep in the woods. There’s nothing uninteresting about living on an Army post.

 

That night Dusty joined Ethel and I as we began walking on the trail, beginning with Ethel leading me and ending with allowing her to roam a little as we walked back. She loves the trail and loves bounding in between the trees beside us to smell something interesting or eat a clump of grass or two. There had been a lot of rain and that night frogs were cautiously creeping up on the dry pavement. Ethel was ecstatic. She bounced from one frog to the next and followed them with her ears flopped forward and nose to the ground as they hopped away for dear life. She’d lose them in the grass when they figured out to stay still but then she’d see another one on the pavement and begin to terrorize the other instead. Frogs release urine as a defense and suffice to say, every frog jumping left behind a wet mark on the pavement. Then there was the Toad. The biggest, ugliest frog I’d ever seen sat on the trail ahead of us and stared at our oncoming party.

“Craaawwwk” the Toad loudly threatened as we approached. Ethel looked up at me, panting from excitement and from the exertion of chasing much, much smaller amphibians. “I don’t know if she should chase that guy,” Dusty warned but Ethel was already gone, springing forward to reach the still immobile frog. She stood over the beast, her ears hanging down over her face as she looked down on his lumpy back. She bent closer to sniff him and in one horrible, awful moment, opened her mouth and lifted him up.

 

“NOO! ETHEL, NO!” I yelled, absolutely horrified that my perfect princess lady had just eaten a disgusting, slimy monster. Hearing me yell in terror, she jumped back and immediately dropped the still-alive Toad from her mouth. The Toad gave another croak and then hopped off into the grass as Dusty ran forward to grab Ethel, who was already trying to get back to me. But when I got to her, she was shaking her head back and forth as if to get the taste of the frog out of her mouth. The sides of her jowls started to drip a white foam and when she shook her head, she sprayed handfuls of foam all over us. “Ethel! Ethel, what’s wrong?!” I cried and Dusty went after the Toad to get a better look at what it was. “Maybe call Meg or Kati?” Dusty called back to me. “I’ll call the vet first, see if I can get anyone,” I answered, trying to stay calm. Dusty ran for the car and Ethel and I made our way after him, foam still flying from her mouth. Loaded up in the backseat with her, I finally reached someone at the 24-hour vet located off post.

“Hello, what’s your emergency?” a bored teenager answered. “Hello, I th-think my Great Dane ate a poison frog. Or tried. Eat the poison frog. But it was in her mouth! And now she won’t stop shaking her head and there’s so much foam coming out of her mouth!” I babbled panicked to him. “Hold, please” he said, sounding not in the least bit empathetic or even interested in this dilemma.

The most obnoxious hold music began but thankfully only played for a second until a voice came on the line. “Hello? Are you the one with the Great Dane?” A female voice asked, sounding more caring than her teenage coworker. “Yes! She tried to eat a poison frog! She can’t stop spitting foam!” “Was this a pet frog or a frog from outside?” “Outside. In the woods. It was a wood frog! A huge, poison wood frog!”

The woman on the other end chuckled and answered in her Missouri drawl. “Hun, there’s no type of poison frog in Missouri. These frogs just taste bad, real bitter, to the dog. They just can’t stand the taste and their spit starts to foam. Great Dane’s a real big dog and they have big mouths, so that’s a lotta foam. Ain’t nothin’ to worry bout.” “They just taste bad? That’s it?” I asked in disbelief. I was sure Ethel was dying. “That’s it, hunny. Dontcha worry. Just give her some treats or let her drink some water and that’ll get the taste right outta her mouth.”

 

So we made it home, got Ethel to drink some water and gave her plenty of some homemade peanut butter ice cube treats. There have been plenty of times that I’ve felt like an idiot and the night Ethel ate a poison frog is no exception.

Needless to say, when there’s a frog on the path now Ethel switches sides to steer clear.

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Playing into the summer evenings with friend Max the Husky

Finding Ethel: Adventures on Instagram

Then she just picked it up and shook it to get the treats #greatdanesofinstagram #dogsofinstagram @danesofinstagram

#littlemiss_ethel and friend Max love frozen watermelon on a hot day #dogsofinstagram #greatdanesofinstagram #huskiesofinstagram

#littlemiss_ethel learned how to pray! Thanks @jrayfulkerson for the idea #greatdanesofinstagram #dogsofinstagram #servicedog @servicedogproject

 

 

 

 

 

Finding Ethel: Part 3, Sweaty Freedom

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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.

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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