Longevity

In these posts, I often talk about misperceptions, misinformation, and misguided notions about blindness or blindness related issues. Today’s topic is the life expectancy of a guide dog.

I got my first Seeing Eye ® dog, Mindy, in 1982. Since then, I’ve worked with 4 more. Dora is my fifth Seeing Eye. I’m always surprised when a person engaged in conversation about my guide dog is confused about why I’ve had so many. Why didn’t I just keep the first one, they want to know. My sarcastic self wants to say, “think about it. If my first guide dog was 2 when I got her in 1982, she would now be 35 YEARS OLD. Dogs do not live to be 35. I must admit that the people who are surprised by this fact are not dog people. Most people who have dogs as part of their family understand that dogs do not live as long as people do. In fact, one of the saddest truths about being a dog guide handler is that it’s pretty certain that you will outlive your dog.

My first Dog lived to be 11. She died as a result of surgery that should not have been performed on such an elderly dog. My second dog, Sherry, became gravely ill, at age 13, suddenly, and I had to put her down that night. My third dog, Pippen, is still living and thriving as a retired dog guide. When I get to this part of the story, the uninformed person wonders, “If she is still living, why isn’t she still working as a guide dog?” Pippen is now 13. That’s like saying, “So what if you’re 100 years old. Why aren’t you still working?” Dogs, like people, get old and tired. For those of you who knew Pippen, you’ll be glad to know that she is loving her retirement. She lives with a family out in the country, where she can sniff around in the woods and lie in the garden in the sun or curl up by the fire in the house. My 4th dog, Cisco, was with me only 6 months, and then he returned to The Seeing Eye to be matched with a person with different needs from mine. So that brings us to my darling Dora, who is now 2-1/2. I suspect we’ll be together for at least another 8 years. Depending on my health and stamina, she might be my last, but I can’t dwell on that right now.

When I went to The Seeing Eye for my first dog, when I was 37, and I met people who were getting their 5th or 6th dog, I thought, “Wow, they must really be old.” And now here I am. Where did those last 33 years go? BTW, Dora and I came home from The Seeing Eye 1 year ago today. Funny, we had exactly the same weather, freezing cold and piles of snow. She learned in Morristown, NJ, how to guide me in snow and ice, but now, she’s a real expert.

Each dog I’ve had provided me with individual and specific memories. Mindy was the most serious one. I had to teach her how to play in the backyard. She liked to collect shoes. She never tore them up, just hid them behind the chair in the living room. Sherry was my chewer. There’s a little spot in my carpet at the foot of the stairs, which I cover up with a throw rug. But each time the rug gets scooted over, I see that little hole that Sherry left for me. Pippen was my happiest girl. She is a cuddler, and she hated walking in the rain. If we would step outside the front door, and we discovered it was raining outside, she would turn around and face the front door, as if to say, “I’m not going. Take your own self for a walk.” Cisco was a magestic looking golden retriever, tall and lanky. Because of his size, you might think he would drag me down the street, but in fact, I had to drag him. His singular joy was to run figure 8’s in the back yard. And now Dora, my little charger, will keep me young forever, or for as long as we both shall live.

Another Prompt

On Tuesday evening, 6 of us from TTN, The Transitions Network, gathered at a dining room table to talk about what we had written recently. We are the Writers Peer Group within TTN. One woman is compiling a book of stories from people suffering with mental illness in order to “stop the stygma.” Another has joined a memoire-writing group at her church. Another shared her sadness in downsizing her belongings in preparation for a move. She had already written about it on FaceBook, but she read it to us. One wrote her “bucket list” in poem form, and one had been writing letters she’d been meaning to do for some time. After we shared what we’d been up to over the past month, writing-wise, we ended the meeting with writing from a prompt. The question this night was, “What would history say about our times that we are living in now?” I dashed off a few lines, imagining what a SOCIOLOGIST MIGHT SAY, because it’s something I’ve been giving some thought to. The response from the other women was astounding. They all agreed that it is so unlike my writing and they insisted that I should post it here. So here it is, in unedited form.

In the early 21st century, the people on Earth fell in love with their technology. Their gadgets changed their social behavior. Their use of language became obsolete. They returned to using pictures and symbols instead of words. They thought they were improving communication, but in truth, they lost the ability to communicate. They used their technology, not to improve the world, but to destroy the world. They began with destroying the individual lives of people they didn’t even know, and then it accelerated to destroying nations. After the destruction of civilization as they knew it, the dominant computer created a world of robots. It wasn’t what God had intended, and so God became obsolete as well. And that was not good.

My Day with a Musher

“Glacier Gee!” the musher called to the lead dog, a compact Alaskan Husky at the head of the lead line on my dog sled. Yes, finally, I got to stand on the runners of a dog sled, behind a team of yelping, jumping, excited dogs, poised to lean into their harnesses and take me for a thrilling ride. It’s been on my bucket list for years, and I had hoped to fulfill that dream on my birthday, earlier this month, but I was very sick with a cold, and the weather was terrible for traveling. It looked like I was going to have to put my dream ride off for another year. But then, at Ski for Light, held in Colorado this year,

www.sfl.org

dog-sled-riding was offered as an extra activity, (not part of the SFL event), but for the price of $35, we could stand behind the musher, on the rails, or sit in the basket of a dog sled, and ride for 10 minutes. 10 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but when you’re standing on the rails, clinging to the bar in front of you for fear of getting thrown off the sled, it’s enough. As we prepared to line up for the ride, I kept being asked if I wanted to sit or stand. I guess they ddoubted my ability, given my age. But I kept insisting that I have wanted to stand for years. I wanted the feel of the motion of the sled, to feel the strength and the pull of the dogs ahead of me. My musher’s name was Tim, and I told him I was totally blind, so I would appreciate any verbal description he had time to tell me. He warned me, as he did every participant, that once the brake was released, we would start off with a jerk, and we were to “hold on tight.” It was just as he said. One minute, we were standing calmly, but in anticipation, and the next, we were off with a jerk and gliding down the trail. I must admit that I squealed like a teenager on an amusement ride, but I quickly composed myself for the trip through the woods. Only it wasn’t exactly a smooth glide. The sled jerked from side to side, and when we took curbes, we leaned over, so it seemed that the sled would tip over, but it didn’t. Because our sled was a bit heavy, with me standing behind the musher, and another woman sitting in the basket, when we would go uphill, Tim would hop off and run with the dogs. I had read about this practice in books about the Iditarod. In fact, reading these books, and witnessing the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage one year at SFL, had whetted my appetite for experiencing a taste of it myself. As I clutched that bar in front of me for dear life, as we jerkily swayed from side to side, I got that taste I had been longing for, and it was awesome! It was one of the highlights of my week at SFL. What made this experience complete was the opportunity to pet some of these sweet and endearing dogs. I didn’t get to pet Glacier, but I did get to say hello to Rickie, Rosie, and Nancy, aftger they had made our run. . As a dog-lover, who missed her dear Dora, it was just what I needed to keep the Rocky Mountain SFL high.

Ski for Light – The Definition of Happiness

I had just completed the application for Ski for Light, 2015, to be held in Grandby Colorado.

www.sfl.org

My finger was resting on the submit button, just lightly, ready to press, but hesitating for one more minute to be absolutely sure. It was going to cost a lot of money. I wasn’t sure my back pain would allow me to ski. What if I would not be able to get up quickly when I fell? What if the altitude would make me sick? What if the airfare would be ridiculously high? What if I didn’t have the energy to ski anymore, since I had not been skiing in 3 years? Then I did it. I hit submit. I was commited.

Last week, as I glided alongside my guide on the perfectly groomed trails of Snow Mountain Ranch, under a brilliant sun in a perfectly blue sky, I was keenly aware that for the first time in years, I could think to myself, “I am happy.” In fact, I kept remarking to my guide, Betty, that I was so happy. It truly was a Rocky Mountain High. One night after dinner, our entertainment was provided by Jim Sailstrum, a well known folk singer in the area, and the song he sang that clutched my heart and brought tears to my eyes was Rocky Mountain High. That’s what Ski for Lightis all about.

My third SFL was in1989 in Bozman, Montana. One of the first time guides, Betty, was assigned to be my guide. We loved skiing together and found that we had a lot in common, and we chattered along gayly as we climbed hills and skied across the meadows. My confidence in Betty’s guiding ability was boosted by knowing that she was a PE teacher of children with disabilities. Over the past 26 years, we’ve kept in touch, seen each other at subsequent SFL weeks, and hiked together at the last several Hen Hikes. When they announced the guide matches at the first meal together last Sunday night, we stood in amazement that here we were, 26 years later, sking together again. Who knew? Who could ever predict that we would still be at it at our age, and loving it? I was so glad I pressed that submit button. Did my back hurt? Yes, but I pushed through the pain. Did I fall? Of course, but I amazed myself by being able to pop right back up. Did I run out of energy? I had enough to ski 50 kilometers in 6 days. Did I dance the night away like I used to? Sadly, I’m afraid those days are over.

I have other stories to tell about this year’s wonderful SFL, but I think you get the idea that I discovered that illusive state, happiness, which is still warming my soul.

Happy Anniversary, Dear Dora

Mary and Dora

Mary and Dora

One year ago today, I met a sweet lab/golden cross named Dora, at the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. I had arrived with the other students in my class the day before, and that Wednesday was what they called “Dog Day,” the day we would meet our partners for independence and dignity. She would be my Seeing Eye ® dog for the next 8 or 10 years.

The summer before, I had been paired with a magnificant male golden retriever, but he proved not to be a good match for me. He refused to walk at a brisk pace, and he ran me into things. He just didn’t want to work for me. So, I returned to The Seeing Eye for the February class to try again. That first morning, there was so much snow and ice that all we could do was walk down the long driveway at the school, as all the streets in Morristown were impassible. Bundled up with coat, hat, boots, and gloves, I took up the harness, and woe! I had to hang on for dear life to keep up with her. I kept thinking, “Be careful of what you ask for.” I wanted a more energetic dog, and boy, did they ever give me one. In fact, I worried that maybe I was too old to handle such a young and athletic dog. Her pull was way too hard for me, but I wanted this relationship to work so much, that I hung in there, and together, we learned what to expect from each other.

The first day we ventured into Morristown, the streetes were covered with ice, and the crosswalks were bordered with mountains of snow. The sidewalks had been cleared just wide enough for a dog and a person to carefully navigate. We hadn’t been out for 30 seconds, when I fell over a snowbank to my right. Dora had to learn to give me a little more clearance on the right. And she did. She learned to slow way down when we came to a patch of ice, and to find the narrow path somebody had carved out of the snowbanks at the corners. There were so many challenges in just walking down the street and remaing verticle that I don’t even remember being cold, except when it was park time, the time we took the dogs out to relieve. There was a blizzard one day during class, so we did not go out to practice at all that day, and each time it was park time, we had to wait for the snowplows to finish clearing the area, just minutes before we brought the dogs out. We must have gotten another foot of snow that day.

When I brought Dora home after our 17 days of training, there was snow on the ground here too. It would be weeks before the curbcuts and corners would not be clogged with snow. I worried that Dora would not recognize them as curbs, once the snow had melted, but she is a champ.

To celebrate our anniversary today, we walked to the coffe shop, about a 3—1/2 mile round trip, negotiating icy patches and piles of snow on the corners, just like exactly one year ago today. As I write this, Dora is happily chewing on her anniversary present, a huge nylabone. We have our routine for the day, which always includes a ball-playing session and a good walk. I think we’re both pretty lucky.

A birthday wish to Dan

You might have noticed a comment now and then on my blog from a person called Driver Dan. He is a real person, and he is a driver for The Red Cross. I am transported twice a week by The Red Cross to swim at a city pool, and often, my driver is Dan. I don’t know his real last name, but I do know that today is his birthday. His pen name is Daniel Boyd, and he has just published a murder mystery. So Dan, since I don’t know a more direct way to wish you a happy birthday, and because this is my blog, and I can say what I want on it, Happy Birthday, and many happy returns.

Cabin Fever

It’s another snow day for much of the country, but it’s too cold to go out and play in it. Moms and dads are breaking out new packs of crayons, teaching their kids new card games, making fudge, baking cookies, letting their kids watch way too much TV,and inventing games to keep the troops occupied. I remember those days, but now, instead of entertaining little kids, I’m having to find ways to entertain my guide dog, Dora. Yes, my dog is bored. I know. Dogs lie around the house all the time when their people are out working all day, That’s what dogs do. But guide dogs are used to havivng a job to do.

I don’t mind walking in winter weather. I walk every day, except when it is so frigid that you can get frostbite in 10 minutes. Dora and I have a daily routine of playing ball in the back yard and then going out for a walk each morning. Lately, we’ve just been doing the ball-playing part of the routine, and today, she had to wait until afternoon, because it didn’t get up above 0 until then. All morning, she moped around. She kept looking at me with those sorrowful eyes. I know, I can’t see her eyes, but I know they were sorrowful. She even climbed into my lap, which is not an easy feat, considering she is more than half my weight. It was time to get creative and find something for her to do.

After we had played with each of her many toys and exhausted their interest for her, I took her favorite 1 and told her to sit and wait in the kitchen. She wasn’t very good at this part, so I put her on tie-down, just for the minute it took me to go upstairs and hide that toy. Then I’d come back and release her and tell her to find the toy. She seemed to be quite proud of herself when she came back to me with it in her mouth. We repeated this game, with the variation of my hiding it in a different room each time. I don’t know whether she thought that was fun or she wondered why I kept taking her toy and putting it someplace goofy. But it took up about 10 minutes of a long and boring day.Tomorrow, we’ll try a version of hide and seek. I’m not sure how she’s going to do the part where she covers her eyes, and I run andhide, but we’ll work it out. Has this weather really reduced me to that?