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How Far Can Family Be Extended?

For the past two days I’ve talked about people who I’ve adopted into my family after becoming an adult. This post is about those whom we love to distraction and sometimes to bankruptcy, the ones who worm their way into our hearts with soulful eyes and a generous heart.

I’ve been privileged to be partnered with two such individuals in my life. I lost the last partner in 1997 to cancer and simply couldn’t face the possibility of living through that again afterwards.

When I lost the majority of my sight in 1979, I refused to crawl into the nearest closet to vegetate for the next 60 years. I chose to fight for a life in the world on whatever terms were necessary. I was fortunate to have a caring family who would put up with having me around during this period and support me until I could support myself.

After Vocational Rehabilitation, I went straight to Leader Dogs for the Blind to get a partner; my first such pairing. I won’t go into the details of selection, training, etc. It would take a book to do that.

I will tell you that—at least at that school—the trainers pair human with canine by the dog’s standards, not the human’s. I was chosen as a partner for a specific dog because of how what specific needs the dog had. How’s that for learning humility?

The system works, though. The trainers had just spent months learning every nuance about their animals. The people were unknown quantities, factors that could disrupt everything.

I was selected for Penny, a shiny copper-colored Golden Retriever, who was probably as smart or smart than most people I’ve known. She was bred for the program and two years old. I fell in love at first “sight” when was introduced to me.

As all the dogs did at one time or another, she tested me to see if I would allow her to break training. She ran me ragged testing my stamina. She made me the best I could be with her as a partner.

With Penny by my side, I attended university the next Fall term. I did have to take her back to the school before during Spring break that first year because my vet thought she had hip dysplasia which would cause her so much pain, she’d been unusable as a dog guide.

Blessings flowed when the school’s vet discovered, not dysplasia, but a severe withdrawal from antihistamine injections she’d been taking for severe allergies to grass and fleas. I spent the break there getting her back into shape, re-affirming her training, and thanking God each hour that she hadn’t been sentenced to euthanasia.

Penny could read my mind, I know. She recognized danger from a block away, kept me from injury more times than I could count, and acted as everything from best friend and comforter to confessor. She’d become my other half in more ways than acting as my eyes.

One of the most unique qualities was comforting those around me who had need, even when I didn’t. A friend who was terrified of dogs and was forced to by in her company each week became desensitized and had his phobia lifted so that he could leave the fear behind. A friend who was assaulted one night and came to us for safety found her lap filled with eighty pounds of retriever as a warm body to hang onto.

When my mother lay dying of cancer in her hospital bed in the living room, Penny lay beneath the side rail so that she would know if I needed to tend to Mom’s restlessness or pain, in case I dozed off while sitting on the couch. Penny had a special bond with my mother from the day I’d brought her home. The only time she left Mom’s side was for potty breaks and dinner. She grieved as much as I did when my mother died.

A few months later, she escorted me to work each day, got me through my work day and back home. My job took me all over the country. There was training in Dallas where the heat nearly fried us both. There were trips to the West Coast and back east for weddings, and more.

I had a busier, more adventurous life after Penny came into my life than before. I learned, worked, lived. And when the day came when she was dying of cancer, too, I had to make the torturous decision that every animal lover dreads most.

Not long afterwards, I was forced to replace her with another such partner, another second half. For all that I came to love and appreciated Jesse, who was a terrific replacement; there would only ever be one Penny. She would always hold a special place in my heart and in my family.

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