Finding Ethel: Part 3, What I Didn't Know

But Maybe She Wheel: Finding Ethel

Untitled4It seems like most of my adult life has been a series of learning that I know.. well, really absolutely nothing. What? You mean insurance won’t take my word that I wasn’t truly speeding? I didn’t know that. You have to actually pay the tuition not covered by a loan? I didn’t know that. Sometimes you’ll owe taxes at the end of the year and you won’t get a refund check? I wish I didn’t know that.


When I became a paraplegic, suddenly the whole world was a minefield of hidden I-don’t-know situations. Is pain right there okay? I don’t know. Is there a way for me to go rock climbing? I don’t know. (Spoiler- there most definitely is and it’s awesome). Is there an easier way for me to carry all these medical supplies every day? I don’t know. Is it always going to be this hard? I just don’t know.


When we tooled around Europe, the list of what we didn’t know became much, much longer. No one believes in 24 hour gas stations? I didn’t know. Landlords don’t have copies of your key when you lock yourself out? I didn’t know that. You’ll get fined for running the lawn mower on a holiday? Well, now I know that. Our last group dinner we had with our friends in Germany, we compiled a list of these things that we didn’t know and quickly, painfully learned about living in Europe.

  • Real men drink red wine. Unless you’re in Scotland, where wine means whiskey.
  • Toilets only have 1/3 of the water in their bowl than the toilets in the states, so every public toilet has a shared toilet bowl scrubber. Peeing suddenly becomes pretty intimate.
  • To flush these toilets, you play a game of “Where’s My Handle?” to find the button, lever or automatic sensor whose location changes depending on country. German toilets do not have handles, but some in Portugal do. France loves the automatic sensors and Denmark hides the button in remarkable locations. Always humorous, there must be a European engineer somewhere making sport of Americans sweating over a toilet trying to find a way to flush.
  • In some countries, people are passionate about everything from love to coffee and will tell you with loud voices and (passionate) hand gestures. In others, it’s customary to be stoic and reserved even when Germany wins the World Cup. People of Europe are as varied as Americans; a Southern gentleman is a different breed than rugged Jersey boy and as such a Frenchman is not a Scandinavian.
  • No meal is complete without conversation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner require conversing as much as they require the meal.
  • Being good-looking and young can either get you into a lot of cool places or really get you into a lot of trouble.
  • The universal response to “Yes, I’m an American” will be “Oh ya, I love New York!”
  • Most men of the southern countries have body odor. We don’t know why. It’s still great.
  • Credit card and debit cards are useless pieces of plastic unless they have a microchip.
  • In the states we say “really? ” as an affirmation, meaning “wow, what you’re saying is really interesting to me”. That positive intent is lost in translation in many countries of Europe, for “really?” is taken as “I don’t believe you. You must be lying so give me three more examples until I believe you”
  • No one really knows there are states in between New York, California, Texas and Florida
  • Most US appliances and lightbulbs will not work here and vice versa.
  • There does exist European versions of rednecks, hicks, suburban moms, city kids, punk, hippies and every other stereotype. People are still people everywhere you go.
  • No one is here to cater to your needs.
  • Western pop hits play on every radio and Justin Beiber is just as hated in Europe as he is in America.
  • You have to eat slowly. It’s embarrassing to be the last ones to sit down and the first ones to go because you don’t know how to enjoy a meal. But the food is so delicious it’s. so. Hard. To. Eat. One. Bite. At a. time.
  • The further south you go, the better the food and the smaller the coffee cups.
  • The no such thing as personal space. You simply make friends wherever you go. No matter what they smell like.
  • Water is NOT free. You pay for a glass and you specify if you want it “with or without gas” (carbonated). Free water is a thing of the past.
  • “EG” in an elevator means first floor. The first floor in Europe is our second floor in America. Ground floor is the first floor.
  • Public bathrooms are NOT free. Most stores will not have a public bathroom and for many malls and public transportation, you pay a Euro or two to enter and use their toilets.
  • People value healthy lifestyles in ways I wish we could adopt in the states. Sundays are days for walking trails in the woods, biking, or simply being outside with family or friends. Smaller portions of food are served and GMO’s are outlawed in most countries. Binge drinking is not a common practice, even for the enthusiastic drinkers of the UK, so teenagers grow up learning how to drink responsibly from watching their parents.
  • To fit in you need a pair of skinny jeans. And girls should wear them too.
Nyhaven, Copenhagen
Nyhaven, Copenhagen

Overall though, it has been our attitudes and Dusty’s mechanical mind that have carried us from researching every medical need to having a really clutch wheelchair decked out with military hooks and doodads to carry everything I need. I’ve scuba-dived off the Greek coast, rock climbed Canadian cliffs, hiked Spanish volcanos and kayaked with Atlantic dolphins thanks to having the “we’ll figure it out attitude”. We intend on carrying on that attitude permanently but this newest addition to our lives of me having a service dog is proving to be different in the best sort of sense. There’s nothing for me to “figure out” or push myself against, no roadblock or challenge. Unlike every other change Dusty and I have had in our life together, Ethel only helps. She gives, more than I knew a dog could. The I-don’t-know’s of having a service Dane don’t require the same resiliency or strength of will that every previous situation has called. The things I don’t know this time around are usually goofy things about Great Danes or perks that come with having a service dog. This time, these I-don’t-knows are easy.

There are, however, quite a few of these things about Great Danes that I just didn’t know. The most prominent one being their, um, distinct smell. Ethel is beautiful, patient, regal…. and gassy like no one’s business. Both her trainers Kati and Megan warned me of this little trait early on and I assured them I’ve been living with and around Army boys for a good while now, nothing would surprise me. And while she really can stink up a car like I’ve never seen (or smelled), it’s absolutely the most adorable thing. We’ll hear a loud ripping and look over at her, laughing, while she looks around startled at whatever made that noise. I’ll be in the study working and I’ll hear an unmistakable “pffffttt” from her bed,

“Ethel! Ewwph, that’s smelly!”

“Arrumm phumppphh,” she’ll say back to me. Then her nose will perk up, sniffing, and she’ll grumble away as she gets out of her bed to lay on the other side of the room to get away from the terrible smell. That she caused.

“Try some Gas-X”, Megan once suggested as we once covered our noses in the guest house at the farm where I trained. But I can’t. I actually don’t mind, it’s another endearing part of what makes my girl so, well, Ethel.IMG_20150526_183426


Ethel was accompanying me on a speech therapy appointment last week and was sprawled out in boredom on her mat in the office where I was doing exercises. I was sitting across from a speech therapist and concentrating on the exercises she was asking for my brain injury rehabilitation.

“Give me three definitions of the word court in sixty seconds”

“Court. To court someone is similar to dating someone but with intention of marrying. Then there’s the judicial court where sentences on lawbreakers are passed..”


My face turned red. “Andthelastisthekindofcourtyouplaysportson” I finished quickly. I looked down at Ethel, still sprawled out, and wanted to laugh but I had never met this therapist before and she had already proven to be a very strict, no nonsense type of person. She acted like she hadn’t heard anything in response to Ethel’s contribution to my answer.

But before she could ask me the next question, I started to smell it wafting up from below the table. Ethel’s unmistakable mark. I had to bite the inside of my cheek to keep myself from cracking up.

“Ahem. Now tell me everything you can think of that is blue in sixty seconds.”

“Blue. Um, blueberries. The sky. Bodies of water…” I saw my therapist give her nose the slightest of wrinkles and I knew the smell had hit her too. “.. Donald Duck’s shirt. Sometimes Christmas lights….” She got up from her seat and moved to the doorway where she, without a word, opened the closed door to give the cramped office some ventilation.

I finished that exercise and soon I was released, where in the hallway I buried my face in Ethel’s neck to bust out laughing. Later that day I was finishing up at the Rehab Institute where I get all my medical treatment and had just been handed a copy of my appointments for the following week. I knew I was going to be scheduled for speech therapy again but I started laughing when I saw I was not going to be seeing that therapist again. Maybe she didn’t find my girl’s uniqueness as adorable as I most certainly do.Snapchat--7909754257345803981

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Scuba Diving with God

Agios Nikolaos, Crete
Agios Nikolaos, Crete

As a paraplegic, the Christian poem “Footprints” no longer has the real connection with me that it once did. I remember how sand felt on the bottom of my feet and crunching my toes into the pebbly surf, but trying to materialize the sensation now has a painful twinge of reality that I won’t do that again that I don’t favor recollecting. My days of making footprints in the sand are no longer and I have peace with that. But I don’t want to try to pretend that I’m making metaphorical footprints anymore. Why can’t I make metaphorical rolling wheel prints with God instead?


The end of the poem (!Spoiler Alert!) is the beautiful realization that the footprints in the sand are instead God’s footprints and not your own, for He is carrying you in your struggles. This does still strike a chord with me, but not the same chord that it did before. For me to feel the sea, I usually require being carried. Some wonderful beaches, like in Barcelona, have wooden boardwalks on the beach that lead straight into the water or you can rent an amphibian chair that rolls over sand and floats in water. But otherwise, I’m being carried. To visualize being carried by God through my struggles now only resonates my own insecurities about my weaknesses, not giving me the feeling of security and relief that visualizing God carrying me once did. I feel weak when I read the poem, not from thankfulness of God’s love, but from reminders that it isn’t going to possible for me to be anything but carried.


I was praying in Starbucks, waiting for my phone to charge off the mooched wall outlet, when I remembered when I had felt the same resonating thankfulness for God’s glory as I once had when reading “Footprints”. I had traveled alone to Crete from Germany to meet my brother for a week of sibling connection. Crete was one of the hardest, most inaccessible places I had been in Europe and it was a rough week. The Greek people were apologetic for the lack of any accessibility on their island, but it was no fault of theirs. I left behind my expectation for a wheelchair-friendly world behind in the first summer of my accident and I have learned (painfully) to enjoy the world despite its’ inaccessibility.

In Crete I was carried down steep steps to the beach and my brother, a champ, made every effort to allow me to participate in any fun I wanted. Alongside the beach was a surf shack, operated by a Grecian-French young hippie with a beautiful spirit and an Abercrombie and Fitch smile.


This Scuba Steve passed by me while I sat on my chair lounger being far too preoccupied with taking too many Instagram shots.


“You like to s-vim?”, Scuba Steve asked. I had just been snorkeling, my suit and hair still wet.


“I love it! The water’s so clear, I’ve been able to see all these little fish.” I answered enthusiastically.


“Oh yes, da fishes are very nice. I have friend wif no legs,” he said, getting right to the point. ” He does da scuba wif me very nice. He does not need da legs to do da scuba. You can do da scuba too. You know, da scuba is very nice for da body.”


I didn’t need any more convincing. If it’s not already obvious from other posts, I tend to be a risk taker. Not on purpose, I just have a tendency to follow my heart over my head and it serves to give my poor husband heart palpitations from saving me from danger time and time again.


But this wasn’t so dangerous. He was , in fact, a licensed scuba instructor and had indeed “done da scuba” with amputees before. While spinal cord injuries are VERY VERY DIFFERENT from an amputation, there is a similar method for scuba diving.


My brother helped me pull on a wetsuit (with legs for paraplegics can get VERY cold in the water VERY fast. Eating before also helps to keep the body warm longer) and when we waded into the shallows, I was harnessed into my oxygen and mask. My tank sat snugly on my back and we practiced all the hand signals while getting used to the breathing apparatus. The plan of action was simple; while the group dove and swam, Scuba Steve would hold onto my vest to pull me and I would pull and kick to help propel me forward. With just holding onto me, he would still need me to do as much as I could swimming for us to move.


(Note: there are other methods for adaptive scuba diving. This is a very primitive method, but without fans or motors, this was the only possible maneuver)


We dove and I fell into another world. A silent, mesmerizing world where all anyone can do is observe, wonder, simply pass on by. We are simply guests in the underwater universe, watching communities, families, predator and prey interact and live undisturbed by the worries that plague the world above them. Underwater Crete doesn’t have the color of the Great Barrier Reef or the danger of piranhas, but still the word “beautiful” doesn’t encapsulate the scene like the word “tall” doesn’t describe the Matterhorn mountain of the Alps. How fortunate are we to be living in a world that contains another dimension of reality just beneath the water’s surface, free for us to roam and wonder.


If I hadn’t been so paranoid about forcibly inhaling and exhaling into my mask, the scene would’ve taken my breath away. I gave my little brother a thumbs up sign and then quickly waved my hands “no” since thumbs up means “go up” and replaced it with the “ok” sign. The only other diver in our group was experienced and started to drift further away from us, which was fine with Scuba Steve. He floated above me, one hand pulling me from the collar of my suit and the other doing lazy strokes to move us forward. He pointed out different fish and crustaceans to both of us, scratching his finger along the rock to disturb the sand in order to draw in the fish closer. I learned about myself that I like to touch everything I can and Scuba Steve learned that if he didn’t jerk me back every few minutes, my wandering hand was going to find the Fire Worms and crab claws.


Agios Nikolaos, Crete
Agios Nikolaos, Crete

The water’s tint changed from aquamarine to cobalt blue as we swam towards deeper water. It began to get colder and I could feel my energy starting to drain. There were too many fish to see how far we’d traveled clearly, but even if the view had been clear it’s often too difficult to gauge distance underwater accurately. Scuba Steve started to feel me begin to drag, I couldn’t keep up with my brother and Steve himself was having trouble pulling my quickly growing weight. He motioned to me that we were going to stop. The water of the Mediterranean is so clear that it made the bottom look 2 meters away when it fact it was closer to 7. We floated there, suspended in the water while my brother and the other diver swam further and further away. I couldn’t see the shore and I didn’t’ know how much further I could go. Then Scuba Steve untied a cord I hadn’t noticed that he had harnessed around his middle. He pulled me close and looped the cord around my waist, securing the belay hooks in front. He left a meter in between us and then secured the remaining cord around his own waist and tested the strength with a few yanks. Motioning to me that we were going to keep going, he put both hands on my shoulders and pushed me down below him. He took my hands and gently moved them through the water to my sides and rubbed his hands up and down my arms to warm me. And then moving the cord around my waist so that he could float above, he began to swim. The cord connecting us yanked on my waist and with my hands still by my side, I began to move forward without needing to help at all.


Scuba Steve towed me along for the rest of the cove, giving me the chance to see barracudas (my favorite), schools of fish so thick you couldn’t see through and my brother run away from an eel that turned out to be a very scared dogfish. I was able to keep diving because I was being carried through the water, allowing me to save what little energy I had left. Just when I thought I couldn’t go any further, Scuba Steve began to carry me the rest of the way.


Agios Nikolaos, Crete
Agios Nikolaos, Crete

This may not be the exact scenario of “Footprints”, but I like to think I know how it would feel if I ever got to go scuba diving with God himself.

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When an American celebrates Thanksgiving in Europe

Happy Thanksgiving from Europe

A Tribute to Jimmy Fallon

Thank you Europe, for teaching me there are so many different ways key cards can fail to turn on unfamiliar light switches.

Thank you Europe, for showing me such colorful styles of driving, swerving stopping and speeding on all your autobahns, side streets, coasts and bridges.

Thank you Europe, for making sure I’m always aware when I don’t have my Passport to fill out a form at the bank or pay for a travel ticket.
Thank you Europe, for teaching me how to say “backed up tummy” in six different languages.

Thank you Europe, for all your delicious, bitter, full, sweet and sometimes noxious ways to consume alcohol, where it’s for a festival, dinner, breakfast, after dinner, before heading out in the snow, coming in from the snow, going out to the beach, at the beach, meeting a new person, traveling in (x) city, coming from church, at a farm, at a lake, when it’s Monday, when it’s Friday…

Thank you Europe, for closing every grocery store, shop, gas station and restaurant to remind me it’s Sunday.

Thank you Europe, for phone services that go into international “roaming” mode when traveling just a few hours away.

Thank you Europe, for schedules that close businesses in the middle of the day, but only on certain days of the week and those days change week to week and sometimes just close for a week altogether.

Thank you Europe, for trains, buses and planes that allow me to meet all sorts of colorful characters who each have very interesting smells.

Thank you Europe, for the shared bathrooms in hostels to make sure standards stay flexible when it comes to cleanliness and personal space.

Thank you Europe, for all the interesting ways to cook and sometimes not cook sausage and potatoes.

Thank you Europe, for wine. Nothing more to be said.

Thank you Europe, for each country that boasts having the BEST chocolate, wine, beer, dancing, cheese, leather, nightlife, parks, meat dishes, shoes, pasta…

And now the real thanks

Thank you Europe, for showing me more sides of humanity that I could have known, that people respect, accept and welcome a girl in a wheelchair no matter the country, language or cultural differences. Thank you Europe, for showing me that love is the true universal language and is accepted everywhere. Thank you Europe, for the travel and learning that has allowed me to grow from a disabled girl learning how to live in an able bodied world to a disabled woman, proud and capable of conquering life no matter where.

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