The last few days on the farm were filled with happy tears and warm hugs of hope and goodbyes. To be honest, I was intimidated by the amount of special attention and love I saw people had for Ethel. She is undoubtedly special to the Service Dog Project community, a beloved star and favorite. Her spot shaped like a heart on her shoulder draws attention and then her blue eyes will melt your heart. Her face looks up at a person with hope for love, or more likely for a cookie, and then she returns the attention with leaning her body against you with trust. Her calm, aged soul sets her apart from other dogs; she’ll play and romp, but only when she knows she’s off duty and I’m still alright. She’s easy to love on and she makes it even easier to fall in love.
When we left the farm I felt the warm presence of the entire SDP community, both in person and online, wishing us well on this journey. One of the greatest gifts we received from this community was not the numerous treats and fluffies, although we LOVED those, but was this ever-ready trust. I was trusted to love and take care of this incredible dog, this life-changing animal, from the start. I was trusted from the first week that I was going to love Ethel with the same passion that her community loved her. I was trusted to be worthy of Ethel’s training and help. So during the last few days on the farm filled with well-wishing goodbyes, I was intimidated that maybe I could never prove how much being trusted meant to me. How much it empowered me to believe that I am a capable human, not a broken one, because someone else believes that I can take care of and love Ethel on my own.
We drove off on Friday for our road trip to Missouri with our small car stocked with bags of food, vests and leashes, gifts and treats for Ethel. She laid in the backseat on a dog bed with layers and layers of fluffies, a queen of the car. Dusty and I are no stranger to road trips and feel so comfortable as a couple on the road that we’ll go for a drive sometimes if we really need to talk. Our first real date lasted a week driving to New York City to see the New Year’s Eve ball drop. We drove from Massachusetts to Salt Lake City, Utah for Dusty’s first assignment. We took our car all over Europe. Being a paraplegic in the car can be complicated with managing back pain and weight shifts to avoid any skin issues on the bum from sitting in the same position too long. But it also has it’s perks; because I use catheters, I can hide under a towel in the front seat and pee into catheter bag without needing us to pull over for a rest stop. I’ve successfully peed on the autobahn in Germany going 115 mph and can proudly say that I have peed on the highways of every country in western Europe.
Nine hours of driving south of where we were in Germany is the coast of the Mediterranean. One long weekend we decided to drive down to that coast to the beautiful Cinque Terre, Italy with a buddy from Dusty’s unit. Cinque Terre is a UNESCO sight on the Mediterranean coast of northern Italy and is considered one of the most beautiful historic sites in the world. The five cities that make up the Cinque Terre area are “walking cities” where cars are disallowed within the city limits and visitors can hike in between the cities and walk along the cafes and beaches. You are allowed to drive north of the cities and there are roads to drive to the edge of the city limits as well. Hiking in between the cities was not appealing to me to try, so we drove. And since Dusty was driving, we did some exploratory adventuring on some of the steeper roads, which I recorded here. The roads were on the sides of cliffs over the Mediterranean or steep vertical farms the brave Italians grew. I could reach my hand out and touch the sides of the cliffs next to our car as we drove, overhanging wild grape vines reaching in to climb through the window. When we came to an overlook, Dusty and our friend would jump out to peer over the edge or climb on the roof of the car for the best view. My apologies to any Tuscan Italian that disagreed with our adventuring methods, but I was so grateful to be able to see some of the incredible sights of this area that would’ve been otherwise inaccessible.
So when we got Ethel loaded up in the car, we were excited to share this part of our life and our love of road trips with her. But as soon as we hit the highway, as I excitedly pulled out all her toys for her to play with, she flopped over and promptly fell asleep. So much for making memories on the road.
We had trained to tell Ethel to “go potty” whenever we needed her to and this proved invaluable on the trip. But as soon as we got into Pennsylvania, as I crocheted in the front seat and Dusty jammed out to Dispatch, temperatures dropped below fingers-turning-blue freezing. We pulled over for an Ethel potty break, but Ethel was so comfortable and warm perched on her queen bed she fought us getting out. Imagine a 130lb dog digging her front paws in the dog bed while Dusty stands at the door in the freezing cold trying to tug on the leash and then me in the front seat, turned around to pull on her harness and using all the commands and training I knew to coax her out. Ethel just wasn’t having any of this cold business. When we finally got her out of the car, Dusty walked her around on the extended leash as I told her to “Go Potty, Ethel!” from inside. It was so cold, but Ethel let us know quickly if she needed to go by either squatting or dropping down to the ground and refusing to move any further. We booked it through the cold, trying to make it south to any promise of sunshine. By the second day, we had made it to our halfway point of Indiana. Time to see friends and for Ethel to meet The Family.
The Family awaited us to arrive for lunch the first of the two days we took to rest on our trek to Dusty’s next assignment in Missouri. I asked Ethel to “get dressed” in her vest and leash as we parked at my sister-in-law’s house and I took some deep breaths before we went into the house. I am all about Cesar Millan’s theory of putting out “good energy” to your dog, being in a calm and assertive state when you give commands. So even though I was nervous about my ability to properly introduce Ethel to The Family without confusing her, I took some deep breaths and tried to put out my pack leader energy. We came in the house and Ethel stayed by my side as I received and gave hugs and then I put her in the “Down, Stay” position by the couch. I stayed close and enjoyed hearing about my sister-in-law’s job with some preschool kids who like to crunk and got my mother-in-law’s advice about where to buy avocados. After twenty minutes I took off Ethel’s vest and let her roam the room to sniff all the new people and furniture. I had prepared The Family with treats in hand and Ethel went from person to person, getting treats and letting them pet her. By the time The Family sat down for dinner, Ethel had chosen her favorite, my sister-in-law, and was content to lay down by me at the table. I may have over emphasized to The Family how Dusty and I give a lot of praise when Ethel goes potty, because when Ethel took a squat they cheered so loud she got so startled she sucked it back in and forgot what she was doing.
After dinner with The Family, we spent the night with two of our good friends from college with Dusty. One of these brothers and his fiancé came down to spend time with us and we all laid out in the hotel pool that night, just talking. Ethel had achieved total boredom with our shenanigans earlier at The Family dinner, then at the hotel and now finally at the warm hotel pool. Over beers, we talked about how, as relaxing as the break from the road was, Dusty and I starting to feel exhausted in our hearts from being unsettled. We had packed up and shipped everything in our apartment in the beginning of January and had been living out of the same suitcase ever since (this was the beginning of April). But it felt like we’d been roaming for much, much longer. I’ve moved 18 times since my mom died when I was 17. Our family home was sold and my father, brother and I hopped from one dirty apartment to the next until I left for college. The military has also given us the chance to live in three different regions of the United States and two different countries in 5 years. The longest time Dusty and I have had an address together as a couple was the 18 months we were in Germany. Needless to say, the only roots we’ve put down are metaphorical. But we do have roots; we’ve planted and grown and intertwined strong roots in each other.
The seeds of those roots were carried by post masters across the United States in long, cheesy letters we wrote each other while I was in high school. Colorful envelopes, penned LOL’s and smiley faces and the P.S. I can’t wait to see you soon!’s budded those seeds from the spouts of just talking to the stalks of dating. His letters found me checking the mail every day in the hot, muggy Indiana summer as I got ready to go to work at the hospital. My letters found him in disgusting frat-like houses while he worked with friends in Florida and then at college. Dusty spent a year working with a Christian missionary group in Clearwater, Florida and during that time, he wasn’t allowed to date per group rules. So, obviously, I sent each letter in pink envelopes decorated with hearts, lipstick kisses protected by clear tape and far too many x’s and o’s to his total embarrassment.
That summer I was 17, ready to be done with my upcoming senior year, angry and broken from grief and doubting that love could ever be unconditional. Love had to have limits, like everything else. “I will always love you… unless that gets tough do to… unless you want to do something I don’t like….unless I find something better.” I didn’t give Dusty even the chance to change my mind. Then, as the summer came to an end and my backpack was pulled out of hiding under a pile of clothes, one short letter from Dusty arrived.
“So my bros and I had a great jam session last night out in the living room. Rocking out to some Dispatch.. pulled out the harmonica… got into a little Dave Matthews. Good times. They don’t really agree with me transferring from here at U of E to the U of D next semester for the ROTC program. It means a lot that you support me. You mean a lot of to me. Do you think I could come up to you in Btown and I could tell you what you mean to me over dinner sometime?”
Oh boy. Very little suave game in these letters, but at least he tried. Reading this made my heart skip and my face break into a smile, but then the rock pitted in my stomach quickly pulled my hope down to the bottom. Opening my heart to someone, to anyone, would spill out the flood of hurt and grief I knew was in there. And before I could get all that pain to drain out, I believed that eventually Dusty would cause more hurt to pour in. I didn’t think I was strong enough to carry all this pain in my heart and try to add more. So I wrote Dusty back:
“Hi. To answer your question, no. Because of all this: 10 Reasons Why You Should Not Date Me”…
And I proceeded to spill out all my fears about him and all the ways I was broken. I explained in detail everything that was wrong with me and I painted a picture of myself as just this absolutely disgusting, horrible choice. I sent the letter and looked into if I could have cat in college, absolutely resigned that I would be single forever.
And then a few days later I got a call.
“So you’re saying I have a chance.”
And so we began.
Our life together is made up of friend’s couches, hospital beds, hotel rooms, borrowed beds and hostel bunks. We’ve wandered ever since these letters. But no matter if we’re in a period of time where we’ll miss having clothes hangers or a sink, not know where our mail is or want a bed that’s not on something with wheels, we never stop feeling at home when we’re together. Home is the place my husband has for me in his heart. And I hold his home in my own. And now, 7 years after these letters, a new home has opened up in both of our hearts. A home for four legs, blue eyes and a waggy tail. Welcome home, Ethel. Welcome home.