I talked about cane skills last month which are very important and necessary, but I really don’t like using a cane. Why? Well, a cane can’t see. A cane can’t hear. A cane can’t think. Invariably, the cane gets stuck in a crack and pops me in the stomach which is very painful and leaves numerous bruises. Of course, everyone has to start with a cane. You have to have those skills before you can upgrade. I consider it an upgrade, anyway. My method of navigation can see, hear, and think. My method is a beautiful, loving, and extremely smart black lab and golden retriever mix named Little Joe. I call him Joey. He is my sighted guide through the Dark Silence. He is my best friend.
Joey came to me in June of 2006 while in the guide program at Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc. in Bradenton, Fl. The 28 day program and graduation was a culmination of a journey God set me own beginning a few years before I even knew I was slowly becoming blind. We began raising puppies in 1997 for the SEGDI school as a homeschool project. We joined with a group of several other homeschooling families and worked together during our two year process of training and socializing our puppy before sending them back to the school for formal training as a guide dog. (As a side note, this is a great project for homeschoolers and even better if a homeschool association spearheads it, so all the meetings for working on skills and socialization can be done at homeschool-friendly times.) My family actually continued to train puppies for another 12 years even after I lost my sight in 2002. God was preparing me I realize now. My fears of becoming blind were lessened by the support I received from the school staff even before I applied for a guide dog. They gave me information, love, and encouragement until I was ready a few years later to apply for my own guide dog.
I have written a lot about the time I spent learning to work with Joey. You can read about it on my blog. For now, you can just know that it was the best thing I ever did for myself. Joey is the perfect companion and guide. He leads me fearlessly wherever I need to go. He has also saved my life more than once and in different ways. He has stopped me twice from walking into the path of a speeding car. He has alerted me to rapidly dropping blood sugar (I am type 1 diabetic) numerous times even though that was never a part of his training. Once while training at the Helen Keller National Center for the Deaf-Blind, Joey even left my side after I had collapsed unconscious with asthma and pneumonia to bring a facility nurse to my aide. Yes, Joey is the perfect guide for me. With Joey, I am independent. Well, I am almost independent, but I am totally confident again.
Joey has helped others, too, while with me. Joey has shown tremendous patience with store workers, medical personnel, etc. who were afraid of dogs, often helping them to begin to overcome their fear. He has brought momentary joy and friendship to lonely or overstressed people that we have come across in our paths. For a short time, they sit and rub Joey’s head and smile. Once, Joey helped a child regain her voice. The parents told me this story after the fact. This child of about six had been mauled by a vicious dog several months before. She had barely escaped with her life and had endured several surgeries to reattach her left arm and repair other injuries. This little girl had not spoken one word, since the attack and never smiled. She came to our church and as the other children would come after the service to visit Joey, this child would stay far back and tremble with tears. Joey never looked her way as he happily licked children’s hands and accepted ear and belly rubs. After several weeks, the child stopped trembling and would watch intently. After the other children would leave, the girl would continue to sit and watch. Joey would lie down and watch her. Yes, this was a weekly ritual after a while. Her parents would spend thirty minutes or so chatting with other members of the congregation including me. In time, the little girl began moving down the aisle closer and closer to where Joey and I sat on a front, side pew in what was called the Deaf section. Joey continued his play of the children until they left and then would lie quietly and would watch the little girl as she watched him. One day she had gotten so close that she could reach out and touch him. Joey lay very still except the slight wag of his tail. The little girl reached out her one unencumbered hand and touched Joey’s side. Joey responded by only wagging his tail a little faster. Evidently they stayed like this for a while as the parents talked to people around. The mother finally called her, saying it was time to go. The child said, “No, Mommy, I want to play with the doggie.” Momma turned around and stared as she realized that not only was her child speaking for the first time in a long while, she was actually touching a dog, the very species that had attacked her before. Joey had in his own way taught this little girl how to trust again. He instinctively knew that she needed something different than the other children along with a lot of patience.
I have learned a lot from watching my Joey interact with me and the people we meet. Joey watches those around him, not just me, but everyone. He pays attention to the smallest details. He patiently waits until he sees what good he can do for me and for others. Then Joey acts. I try now to watch my children, my students, parents, and anyone I come in contact with daily. It doesn’t matter that I can’t see or hear. I can feel through our touches the things that are most important. I can tell when someone is happy, upset, sad, or whatever. I listen without sound through our conversations to catch the subtle tones. When I think I understand what I can do to be a blessing, like Joey, I act. It may be a word of encouragement. It may be a touch or hug filled with love. It could be a story from my experience from which they might glean a little insight. Sometimes, it is nothing, but my willingness to be there and just love them if we can’t communicate.
Three weeks ago, I had emergency gallbladder surgery and was hospitalized for six days. I was away from Joey for four days. We were both miserable. I was slowly improving and followed orders including walking with my husband as guide as much as I could though it was very slow and tiring. On the fifth day, Joey was allowed to stay with me, and he assumed his duty of guiding me up and down the hospital hallways. All the doctors and nurses and a few patients fell in love with my little Joey. He, as usual, won their hearts and made people smile. Everyone noticed and commented how I was practically running the halls and seemingly at ease. I said, “Well, it is because I traded my guide in for one who knows how to do the job properly without running me into doorways, crushing my toes with the IV cart, and elbowing me in the stomach. Yep, it is all because of the guide.” Everyone laughed at that including my husband who knows I still love him despite my extra bruises.
Guide dogs are the perfect upgrade, in my opinion. Joey is by far the best, too, though I am probably quite prejudiced. True fact is that Joey understands about touches and uses them well to take care of me and spread a little love and goodness to others. Hopefully, I can continue to learn from him about how to pay attention to the needs of those around me and how I can quietly touch them with love.