A week ago marked the 10 year anniversary of losing my mother.
These past ten years of grief have shaped how I see relationships. I’ve fallen in love, made the lasting friendships that’ll stay with me, became a wife, a sister and an aunt. But in the first six years after she was gone, I also endured the worst experiences I know I’ll ever live to have. There wouldn’t be any waking up from experiences harder than assault, a traffic accident, a spinal cord injury, waking up to a paralyzed body. What I missed most in those moments was the ability to call my mom, have her take me into her arms and make it all better.
I’ve learned I grief much more than just not having my mom in my life; I also grief not having A mom in my life. Because when you lose a mother, you lose so much more than having that person. You also lose the security that a mother gives her child, the comfort that there is someone wiser and always available to help. When a daughter loses a mother, she loses the relationship between mothers and daughters AND she loses the security a mother provides her daughter. My mother surrounded, protected and loved, sometimes judgmentally or intrusively, but with well-meaning and adoring intentions. I miss the person my mother was, but sometimes more than anything I miss knowing my mom would be there any time I needed her. And how I’ve needed her.
I needed our mother-daughter relationship when I fell in love with a soldier and made the choice to be an Army wife. I needed the security my mother would’ve brought when I couldn’t pull pants over my paralyzed legs. I needed her smile when I embarked on mentoring other disabled people on traveling, a passion I inherited from her. I needed her wisdom in medicine to help me manage the chronic nerve pain. I needed her pride when I walked across the stage at my college graduation. I needed her for every milestone in my life and for the lives of my siblings and now her grandchildren. What losing her meant that she’ll never be there to see the adult she helped shape me to become. And I’ll never get to turn around and thank her.
In the Hindu religion, time is thought of differently. Hindu’s believe time is not linear like most of the Western world believes, where days and months march forward minute after minute. In Hinduism, time is cyclical and revolves through the four phases, or yugas, of Sat (or Krta), Treta, Dvapara and Kali that repeat themselves endlessly. Think the only period of awkward insecurity is when you’re a teenager? What if we revolved around a period of awkwardness in the circular time when we’re 15 and then revolved through time to again move through that phase at 24, 43, and 68 years old? What if I moved back through the childishly sweet phase of falling head over heels in love with Dusty when I’m 31 and 59 like I did when I was 17?
If time is circular, then I will continue to move through phases where I have a mom and where I don’t. Her death is a permanent fact of my life, but that never meant my life would be absent of her presence. As I revolve around and around the circular timeline of my life, I’ll move through periods where her presence is so acute it’s as if she’s alive and then phases where her absence is like a widening void. It’s comforting to think that when I feel her presence, it may be because I’m revolving through a past time as a teenager or child when she was alive.
In the linear timeline of my life, my mother is gone and abruptly removed. But in the circular way of thinking, I both have a mother in one phase of a revolution and then do not in another phase. For fans of the Big Bang Theory, this is what I’d call my Schrödinger mother. In circular time, her presence will still be there at each milestone. Her absence will be felt but her presence will still be alive. I can have the relationship, but still have lost the realistic security. I can still look up and thank her.
I am an overly fortunate person in that I’ve had multiple women step in and provide that missing security of a mother. Army wives all over the world have taken my husband and myself in to provide comfort and help during our crises, actions that I will not soon forget. Her fellow nurses were there when I fell in love and married my soldier, hosting bridal showers and hastily tying the back of my wedding gown so I could dance. The wives of Army chaplains were there when I awoke paralyzed, patiently explaining that everything would be okay while they fed and comforted Dusty. They were also there to smile with pride when I graduated college two years later. I have incredible, strong, and passionate women who have surrounded me and won’t be quick to let go.
The cycles of grief have moved through me over the past 10 years and have subsided to echoing ripples in my day to day. She’ll always be painfully missed in my accomplishments, adventures and pitfalls and that’s when the waves will splash over my head. But I know now that she can be both present and absent, gone and alive, in the circular spinning of my life. I’ll be glad the next time I move through the phase where I can feel her presence again.
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“Are you sure you have anything? Do you have any cash?”
I roughly pulled my classic backpacking-through-Europe knapsack on my back, the various bulges and attachments left it looking awkward on me. We were on the platform at the Hauptanhof train station near our apartment downtown. I grabbed my small travel wallet I kept inside my jacket and looked. No cash, just a credit card and ID.
“Here,” Dusty pulled a few 20 Euro notes from his wallet and handed them to me before rechecking the ties on my knapsack for the umpteenth time. “I feel like I should go with you, are you sure you’ll be okay on your own?” His eyebrows came together on his face as he looked at me.
“I promise I’ll be okay. George is meeting me there day after tomorrow and it’ll be great. Have fun at Dave’s wedding and please don’t worry about me.” I rubbed his arm up and down and pulled him in for a kiss. The train turned a corner on the distant track and we watched it approach the platform. I gave him one last long hug, trying to linger in his arms but not wanting to give away my hesitation about my confidence in traveling to Rome alone. The air hissed as the train slowed and the mechanical whirr announced the doors opening. I climbed aboard and as the train began building speed, I watched him shrink as the platform disappeared from view.
I’m just being dramatic, I thought to myself. There was nothing to be afraid of traveling by myself to Rome from our home in Stuttgart, Germany. No, I didn’t know Italian but I was pretty conversation in Spanish. And, well, no I didn’t know anything about the transportation in Rome or how to get around from site to site but I could figure it out, right? My younger brother was meeting me in Rome two days after I’d arrive for a weekend of brother-sister bonding in one of the most important sites of the development of Western civilization. Both of us history buffs, we were sure this would be a great weekend. Right?
I should point out here that I’m a paraplegic. A new one too, I’ve only been injured for a few years and I’m absolutely terrible at all things wheelchair. I fall out of my chair constantly, usually because I hit bumps or ran into something that could have been avoided if I had been paying attention. I would eat whatever I wanted and drank a minimal amount of water, both of which did nightmares to my already partially paralyzed digestion track. I tried hard to keep my chronically cold legs and feet warm and covered, but ended up with skin issues on both anyway. I was trying to be a good paraplegic and take care of myself, but for the most part I caused a lot of problems for myself simply out of ignorance.
I got to the airport and was lifted and pushed onto my flight. Disembarking from my flight, I was helped by two large Italian men who oozed a sweet perfume of their aftershave and flirted unashamedly with me like I had been warned Italian men will do. “Si, si,” I’d laugh back with them, “Grazie!”. They blew me kisses as I loaded into a cab and took off for my hostel.
We drove through streets with crumbling, beautiful stone buildings lit up in the black night with modern lights. I could hear the people on the squares we passed yelling and laughing, not caring how loud they were this late into the night. As we drove on past city streets and squares lit golden by the street lights, streams of fast Italian and loud laughter flew through the taxi. I was in a bubble of travel bliss.
Until we arrived at the hostel. Or more appropriately, the crammed apartment in an old, stone building on a street with no streetlights that someone turned into a hostel. I came inside and was greeted by the musty smell of old socks and disinfectant, although by the look of the peeling paint on the tiny entryway hallway I couldn’t believe disinfectant was frequently used. “buonasera,” a tired twenty something behind the counter of the entryway hallway welcomed me. He rattled off in Italian until I apologized and asked “In inglese per favore”. “May I, ah, help you withah anythinah?” He said again in English. He showed me to my “room”, which I had requested be a private. It wasn’t. Turning the corner from the cramped entry hallway, I saw the bathroom sized kitchen to the left and two doorways to the right. My private room had already been occupied, when I showed up to my reservation an hour later than I said I’d be there they had given it away. Instead, he opened the door to a dark bedroom of 3 bunk beds pushed up against the wall and a mess of luggage in the middle, hitting me with the source of the dirty sock smell I noticed earlier. “Dis is youra key,” he pressed a key into my palm. I looked at the beds on the bottom of the three bunk beds. They were all occupied. “I can’t get to the top bunk,” I whispered to him, but he just shrugged and gestered to the sleeping forms of the occupants. “Dere is nothin I, ah, can do” He shrugged again and left the room. I dropped my knapsack and determinely pulled out my toiletry kit, resolute to make myself at least a little more comfortable washing off the dirt of a long, traveling day. The connected cramped bathroom had mold stains crawling up from the tile and the communal toilet brush was stained yellow. I gagged a little trying to get ready for bed but I was determined to emulate the laid-back, adaptable traveler in my favorite books and movies. What’s a little dirt to me? I can do this.
I got back to the bedroom and threw my knapsack on my bunk, trying not to teeter too badly on all the sandals and shoes of the other occupants covering the floors. I knew enough to know that in a crowded hostel, it’s better to sleep with your belongings like a pillow than trust the lockers, no matter how strong your lock. Luckily the bunk bed had railings on the side and if I reached up just high enough, I could grab the ledge of the railing with one hand. I had pulled out an old bike lock that Dusty insisted I bring and, saying a quick prayer of thanks for my insightful husband, I locked my expensive and invaluable wheelchair to the corner leg of the bunk bed. Then I swung my hands up and pulled myself over the railing into bed.
I had set my alarms for early the next morning so I could get a head start of seeing some of the sights of Rome, but I awoke to a loud, rapid Chinese conversation. Two of my dorm occupants were sitting on the bed and floor and comparing pictures on their phones but laughing and yelling five decibels louder than necessary. I felt something itch me on my arm and I looked down as I reached to scratch it.
There was a line of three dark bugs crawling up my arm.
For anyone who hates all things insects as much as I do, don’t be ashamed to involuntarily shiver with disgust like I did. I’m not a prude in the sense that I need five star cleanliness from a public facility, but having bugs crawl on you as you sleep does cross on of my lines.
One half hour and a heated argument with the twenty something clerk about a refund later, I was back on the streets in my chair with my knapsack awkwardly hanging off my back. I had no other plans of where to stay, having made that reservation for the entirety of the trip, no idea where I could find Wifi and no way to contact either George or Dusty. I had my phone but didn’t have an Italian SIM. That meant that I could use my German SIM card and call who I needed to call on my German phone and access the Internet, but it would be expensive eat up my prepay reserve very quickly. I needed to find a Vodafone refill station and quickly or else I wouldn’t have anywhere to stay tonight and George wasn’t arriving until tomorrow.
I wandered the streets of the northern downtown neighborhood of modern Rome, trying to keep my knapsack from falling off and pushing myself up over countless cobblestones, curbs and other nightmare terrain for anyone on four wheels. But I needed to get online to find another hostel, so I tried café after café to see if anyone had WiFi. No one did, but I downed enough expresso to keep me going. Every time I passed a hotel, I tried entering to see if they had a room. I say “try” because most buildings would have entryways higher than the street and sidewalk, so there was always a step to enter. This is common throughout Europe and a huge pain in the ass when you’re in a wheelchair, alone, with a heavy backpack. Every time I did a wheelie to propel myself up or down a step, I was sure the weight of my knapsack would toss me over. “Avete camere?(Do you have any rooms?)”, I’d ask the clerks at each counter, becoming more and more desperate for a room as the day wore on. By lunchtime, I sat in a café exhausted and ready to accept whatever I’d have to pay to use my phone. I wanted so badly to hear Dusty tell me that this was just part of the adventure of traveling, but he’d left the same day I did to be in a wedding for a friend back in the United States. He didn’t have a phone that would work in the states and there wasn’t a way for him to help, anyway. I’d just worry him and the last thing I wanted was for this misadventure to escalate any more than it already had.
I quickly hunted for another hostel available in the city that George and I could stay for the next four nights and jotted down the address of my top choice. I pulled up a map of Rome from a quick google search and saved the picture to my phone, giving me access to subway stations and road names just as a picture even if I ran out of service. And sure enough, as soon as I ended the call with the owners of the bed & breakfast I’d found, a chipper voice alerted me that I had no money left over to make another call.
I took a quick glance at the map and found my way to the nearest subway stop. There are only a few lines in the subway system of Rome and it seemed straight forward enough to find my way. I stopped at the steps leading down to the subway stop below and looked all around the intersection to find an elevator. No luck.
“Is there a lift?” I asked a passerby before they descended the stairs. He shook his head no and rapidly gestured below before hurrying down the steps. Alright, then. I’ll try the next station.
A few blocks away was the next stop on the subway map. Again, only steps with no lift. My phone was able to do a GPS walking guide for me to follow to the B&B but it tried to lead me to subway stops the entire way, with none of them providing lifts for me to be able to take the subway. An hour of rolling later, I was pushing the buzzer on the doorway of the unassuming B&B and praying that the lack of a sign on the door was not an indication of its’ credibility. A small, round Italian man with a booming voice and gut-jiggling laugh opened the door for me and helped me to the ancient, open wire elevator to their apartment on the second floor. Looking back, what I’ve just described is the plot for any serial killer, mystery novel but at the time I was too exhausted to panic. Thankfully, he was a nice man with a wonderful wife and clean B&B and I’m still alive today.
I met George the next morning through a series of waiting around for his train, him walking right past me and us exchanging frantic “WHERE ARE YOU” emails whenever we found WiFi. But once together, we began running around Rome emulating the exact tourist behaviors that we despise on principle. But who can’t do a 360 degree turn around the Colosseum and wonder about the gladiators and lions locked away below? Who can’t take a selfie at the Pantheon or try a melodramatic filter of the theatric Roman Forum or Palatine Hill?
By the end of the second day, I was thoroughly overwhelmed by the magnitude of historical significance around each corner of Rome. My entire Western education, nuances and culture is indebted to the people who walked on these same roads where I’m rolling. The significance of this relationship drove me to take every picture of every turn that I could, wanting to capture every second to immortalize that feeling.
As expected, these same ancient Roman roads were a complete headache and source of endless frustration. I had not acquired the durable wheelchair attachment FreeWheel yet and was left trying to wheelie myself over every lopsided cobblestone and up every step to enter buildings. George pushed and pulled me through each attraction, but I had to bounce and jolt on every sidewalk. When we approached the Colosseum, we could see the line rounding from the site all the way down the street. It was a hot day, sunny in the bright way that only Italian sun brings and it wasn’t going to be pleasant waiting in a line for hours. I hadn’t bought us a ticket in advance, allowing us to skip the line, but we bypassed the line and approached the front desk anyway. I’d learned at other attraction in Europe and the US that sometimes there’s a special handicapped entrance if the main entrance has steps. When we approached the desk to ask if this was the case for the Colosseum, a guard at the gate at the front of the line motioned to us and lifted the cord on the entrance.
“We don’t have tickets yet,” I apologized to him as we approached. He shook his head, went to the desk and spoke with the attendant and returned with two white passes in his hand. “For you,” he gestured to my wheelchair, “and you (motioning to George)nessuna carica (no charge) “. Score!
We entered the Colosseo and as we went around the circular perimeter above the remains of the ancient spectator seating, I rubbed my hands against the rough yellow stone columns. I looked down at the remains of the amphitheater stage below, the cells for the animals and gladiators under the floor of the pit now visible. I thought about the gladiators emerging from one of the crumbling entrances and was dumbfounded that something so raw and violent was such popular entertainment. I learned spectators in the lowest seating could get splattered with hot blood and I responded by taking a selfie. Like any tourist would do.
We ran around the rest of Rome, eating delicious Italian at the little local restaurants recommended by our fantastic B&B owner. I was careful to watch how many expressos I drank as there was little access to bathrooms of any sort, let alone accessible ones. Early in our move to Europe two months prior, I had given up trying to ever find a bathroom large enough for me and my wheelchair and instead got accustomed to pivot transfers from my chair into the bathroom stall. Such was the situation throughout Rome.
When Sunday came, I woke and put on the special earrings I had brought for the occasion. The reason my brother and I had chosen this specific weekend to go to Rome was not happenstance. There was to be an induction of a statue of the Virgin Mary from Portugal into the possession of the Vatican. This statue of Our Lady of Fatima would be presented and celebrated during the weekly Sunday Mass, which would be given by Pope Francis himself.
My mother died a Catholic woman, having completed confirmation just a few years prior to her death. Her passion in her faith was celebrating the Virgin Mary, leading my mom to pray continuously for the Holy Mother to watch over all of us. As a mother and as a Labor & Delivery nurse, my mother had an immensely strong kinship with Mary that I’ll never forget. She had always wanted to go to Mass at the Vatican; I wanted to go in her place, on the same weekend that her Mary would be there.
We arrived at the gates of the Holy City early Sunday morning and a crowd was already surrounding the perimeter. The Vatican is walled city that closes to the public before Mass on Sunday to quell the thousands of people who attend. We joined the fray, George pushing as I tried to squeeze us to the front. When we stopped, there were a dozen nuns in grey habits around us talking to themselves in Spanish. George and I are both proficient in Spanish and we tried talking to one nun, a woman with bright eyes who looked about our age. “() (When do we enter?”, I asked her. “() (At seven),” she answered, giving us a funny look. “Wait, do you speak English?” she asked. “Yes! We’re Americans,” I answered. “Me too! I’m from California,” she laughed. “Where is your convent?” I asked, gesturing to the other nuns dressed similarly around her, although her headpiece was different than the rest. “In Spain,” she answered. “God led me to join after I visited the convent studying abroad in college”.
We talked for a few minutes and she got the attention of her sisters to help us get to the front, a pair of Italian grandmothers on our right offering to help as well by pushing on my wheels. She told us there was a special section for people with disabilities, but she didn’t know how I could get to it so she helped us get to the guards at the gate. The guards of Vatican City are the elite Pontifical Swiss Guard, males from Switzerland who have trained for years, had to pass a multitude of aptitude and skill evaluations, have to remain unmarried, be under the age of 30 and at least 5ft 8.5in tall.*
Upon approaching the gate, Italian grandmothers in the crowd helping George and our nun friend push me through the throng, one of the guards spotted me and opened the entrance for George and I to pass. We waved goodbye to our friends and followed our brightly colored red, orange and blue uniform escort through the Piazza di San Pietro to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
A row of two chairs had been arranged facing the podium and altar arranged on the top steps of Basilica di San Pietro. Rows of chairs sat perpendicular to us on the top steps as well, facing the podium from the site. I turned to see the sun begin to rise above the walls surrounding the city and a ray shone on the red granite obelisk behind us. People began milling through the entrances to the city and pushed to the front of the barricades I saw had been arranged to create pathways through the crowd. The Pontifical guards herded the people to the right barricade and I saw there were kneeling benches forming countless rows to the back of St. Peter’s Square. George and I nodded and greeted the other people sitting with us at the front, which consisted of persons with Down Syndrome and their families, amputees and a developmental young man with his brother. George and I watched the nearly empty Piazza behind us become a moving mass of bodies. The seats on the stage of the steps in front of us were filled as monks in white, black, red and other colors of robes filed in. Finally one monk with robes of ceremonial finery approached the podium and announced the start of Sunday Mass.
I’m not Catholic and although I attended a few Masses with my mom, I didn’t remember any of the formalities, customs or ceremony of a traditional mass. A melodic song of Latin hummed through the crowd and when the brother declared each verse, the sound pulsed in our chests. The crowd behind us fell on their knees in unison as the pitch rose and fell in song and chant from the altar. The sun was high over the Piazza now and the heat blanketed us in a sticky film with our shirts starting to glue to our backs. The smell of thousands of people sweating started to waft. The guards, however, did not seem to be bothered by the heat or the crowd but continued to pace the walkways between the barricades in their long sleeve, long pants uniform.
Suddenly, there was a break in the Latin and everyone was looking at something at the far end of the Piazza. I couldn’t make out what was moving towards us, but as it came closer I saw that it was the statue of the Virgin Mary that was getting inducted today. “There she is!” I whispered to George and gripped his hand. He nodded and we watched the parade of four monks carrying a life-size golden statue of the Holy Mother adorned in colorful flowers for the ceremony. Her face was visible for the few seconds she was near us before they began to climb the steps of the Basilica towards the Pope. Her face radiated of something that could only be what true harmony looks like. She was dressed in a simple peace, the kind where you know for certain what you were put on life to do and the utter fulfillment of doing it. I was speechless for a second; the Virgin Mary had never meant anything more than one lasting connection I had with my mom after she died. But, as they walked her to Pope Francis, her peaceful face gave me the gift of knowing exactly how serenity looks.
The Pope blessed the statue and then began his homily, thankfully repeating his words in English as well.
“It is the astonishment of realizing that God, to become man, had chosen her, a simple maid of Nazareth. Not someone who lived in a palace amid power and riches, or one who had done extraordinary things, but simply someone who was open to God and put her trust in him, even without understanding everything,” Pope Francis continued in his soft, strong voice. This is why my Mom loved the Holy Mother; she was the example of an idea Mom drilled into my head time and time again. I could hear her voice saying “who you have been does not indicate who you can be. You can be anything you want and God has something He wants you to be more than anything”.
My hands clasped under my chin as I bowed my head and listened. My heart was slowly sinking down to my stomach and I could feel it’s weight pull my chest down. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come here. This hurt, a lot, to hear about Mary, a woman I knew so intimately as part of my mom. In a way, it was my mom that was getting welcomed into the Vatican today. Where she had always wanted to see, always wanted to belong, was where she would be from now on. I was confusingly angry at Pope Francis, a man I admire so much, so talking about Mary as if he had a relationship with her as strong as my own. I rocked back and forth and continued listening.
“May she help us to be open to God’s surprises, to be faithful to him each and every day, and to praise and thank him, for he is our strength. Amen.”
But then I couldn’t let his words sink in any more, for Mass soon ended and Pope Francis was leaving his ceremonial seat for a white vehicle parked by the side of the steps. The PopeMobile! I had seen pictures of this car and had heard that Pope Francis had asked for the bulletproof glass that protected the Pope as he rode to be removed. As the car began to slowly make its way on the walkways through the barricades, I saw why the bulletproof glass had previously been installed. The Pope rode through the thousands,, touching hands and kissing the foreheads of babies that the Swiss guards or CIA-like men in black suits lifted to him. His hand reached out to pat heads and he wove around the crowd to reach every block of people waiting to see him. It was nearly 45 minutes before he reached the front and began to come through the handicapped section.
He seemed taller standing in his white vehicle than he looked projected on the big TV’s they have situated all around the Piazza. Men with cameras and men with black suits strode in front and around the PopeMobile while the Swiss guards marched in two pairs of two at the head and bringing up the rear. His robe was the same stark white as the car and he smiled modestly, as if he didn’t understand everyone’s excitement to see him. The PopeMobile suddenly stopped and a black suited man helped Pope Francis down to the street.
A young boy a few people down from me in our section was crookedly lying in his wheelchair, a family of several generations of women surrounding him. The boy’s body was twisted and he wasn’t able to turn his head fully forward to see the Pope striding towards him. I couldn’t hear his prayer, but Pope Francis laid both hands on the boy and lowered his head praying. He then reached down to pull the boy forward from his wheelchair into a hug. The women were crying and fussed mercilessly over the boy when Pope Francis broke their hug. He then stood to face all of us and made the sign of the cross before lifting his hands and blessing every handicapped person in our section. He returned to his PopeMobile and continued on, leaving behind a breathless group of people who had just been fed an enormous amount of hope.
But once he was gone, a new realization hit me. “Shoot, George, I gotta pee,” I whispered to my brother sitting beside me. He looked around for a bathroom and we spotted the long, winding line in the distance. He stood and bent over to push me towards the line, trying not to block anyone’s view. When we arrived at the bathroom, which seemed like a cave into the walls with two private bathrooms inside, the line was indeed long and followed along the inside perimeter of the stone walls of the city. But one of the guards spotted us at the door of the bathroom and gestured to follow him. He went into a small cave and then gestured to us to follow, where he then led us to a private, accessible bathroom. Thank you, God.
Now I have a brief caveat to add here; I can’t poop like an able bodied person anymore. Parts of my digestive track are paralyzed now so I don’t have the ability to tell my body “hey, it’s time to poop” the same way I can’t tell my body “wiggle those toes already, darn it!”. So sometimes accidents happen and I’ve learned to stop crying, clean up and move on already from it. It’s not that big of a deal. Unless you had an accident when you were getting blessed by the Pope. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to sob and I wanted to give up and I wanted purge myself of the flood of emotions that had engulfed me over the past hour. I cleaned up (thanks to a handy emergency kit I keep on me) and joined George outside.
Mass had ended and the thousands were now all trying to exit the city through it’s numerous, but narrow gates. We squeezed into the crowd and I gripped George’s hand to keep us together, although I did lose sight of him from the in between the mass of bodies a few time. Now that I’m roughly eyelevel with a person’s belly button, I have a hard time in crowds and getting pushed by dozens of hands connected to too many moving bodies. We finally came out onto the street and I took a few deep breaths, but the dam of emotion in me had risen too high. I missed her, more than anything, I missed my mom and I wanted to call her, send her a text with a picture of her son and daughter at her Vatican. Tell her about the Virgin Mary parading through today. Ask her what Latin hymns meant. Hug her on the steps of St. Peter’s.
I choked on sobs as I stopped in the middle of a pedestrian street, giving up on trying to roll over the persevering cobblestones. I cried hard, trying to fill each tear with as much grief and pain as I could so it would leave my body. George leaned over from behind me and wrapped his arm across my shoulders to push me to the seclusion of a little café. But then we just stopped there, his grip tight on me and giving me his silent acceptance of my breakdown. Melodic Italian flowed around us as people yelled out greetings to each other, laughed at the mundane and flirted. But for me, in that moment, I was back in Indiana and watching her disappear from my life all over again.
There were a few things about owning a Great Dane that came as quite a shock to me over the weeks at the farm. For one, I was very surprised by just how large Ethel’s poops were. It’s not that I’d never spent time with big dogs before. In light of the newest additions to the Service Dog Project from the Netherlands, I’d like to share my experience of when I truly knew what “big” meant for dogs.
We left Germany last Thanksgiving to share the holiday with some of Dusty’s treasured friends from college. They were also stationed in Europe and were currently residing in Italy, working with education and outdoor recreation for soldiers and their families. We joined them in the northern reaches of Italy, where they were helping to host a group of soldiers having a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps.
I drove through the most hairpin turns I’d ever experienced as we navigated the Alps to reach our friends, my GPS route looking more like a crazy straw than a route. If GPS’s could laugh, I swear mine was. Due to the horrendous nature of Germany traffic (our town Stuttgart was called Stou-gart, in German stou= traffic jam), we always left for our road trips at 2 or 3 a.m. and were well on our way before most of the back-ups could happen. At the time, we thought this strategy was genius. Instead of leaving at 6p.m. on Friday night like everyone else to only sit in traffic for four hours, we had dinner with friends and frighteningly amounts of coffee to leave in the early morning. Again, genius. Or so we thought until we began driving in the dawn light through the ice and snow on the tiny, windy roads of the Alps.
By God’s grace and my terrified determination to go 20km below the speed limit, we made it alive to Cervino, Italy. I had never heard of Cervino, but I knew the town by the more familiar and infamous name of Matterhorn Mountain. This mountain lies on a range directly on the country lines of Italy and Switzerland. On the Italian side, the mountain and town are called Cervino. On the Swiss side, it is Matterhorn Mountain and its’ town of Zermatt that can only be accessed in the winter by train. The group our friends were helping to host was to take soldiers and their families up to this incredible mountain from the Italian side and have a Thanksgiving weekend of skiing in both Italy and Switzerland.
Both the Cervino and Matterhorn regions of the same mountain have very distinct and defined traditions concerning drink, clothes, language, music and dance. In Italy, we learned about the local drink coppa dell’ amicizia, the cup of friendship, a shared wooden bowl called the grolla with spouts to pass along the table so that everyone can partake in the coffee liquor that is set aflame when served.
The Italians we stayed with were warm and welcoming, even trying to serve a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner to us. But both the Italian and the Switzerland side have a shared, revered tradition of loving and using the esteemed service dog the St. Bernard.
These beautiful, long haired bear cub-like dogs freely roamed the ski lodges up on the mountains. I didn’t ski that weekend, but Dusty took videos and photos for me of the ski lodge St. Bernard’s that still protect the explorers of the mountain today. (See pictures and videos of that weekend Here!) The architecture of this area, including the ski lodges placed strategically along ski routes down the mountain, include white stone ground floors of houses and then dark, wooden planks crisscrossed the last half above the white stone. Entrances were usually not accessible, each doorway was elevated in preparation for the inevitable snow and contained a few steps to enter. But in the doorways of many were these beautiful, big fluffy bear dogs watching the people pass by. In one house, however, was the dog known throughout the town as being the largest, gentlest creature in the region. He was a St. Bernard as well and without knowing his weight, I’d guess he was at least three times as large as I was. I had not been to the Service Dog Project Crazy Acres yet, so I didn’t know that it could truly get better, but at that moment I learned how a big hearted, big dog could make my own heart sing.
And so it was the two weeks I spent with Ethel at the farm. Her presence, her personality and her big eyes carved a permanent spot in my heart as large as her own heart patch on her shoulder.
The final piece for me, however, was when I understood what it meant for me to regain my freedom and my independence from her help. Before Ethel, I was capable of being fairly independent of any caregiving. It may take me multiple trips to get all the groceries I need, but I could do it. I had learned the hard way about all the warning signs for medical concerns and had built a strong preventive care routine. But my independence was only possible when I had a calm, sound mind. My Achilles heel is anxiety, a crippling anxiety I’d struggled with before I became a paraplegic and that would overwhelm me whenever I was separated from my husband. The Army has given us plenty of months apart after I became a paraplegic and in these circumstances, it would exhaust me to have a handle on my anxiety long enough for me to care for myself. My battle turned into a metaphor of trying to hold three screaming, wriggling babies; my anxiety, my medical needs and whatever was demanded of me from life and school.
So the first weekend we were alone on the farm, Dusty and I wanted to do an experiment. I would go shopping, alone, with Ethel in the mall while Dusty would be somewhere in another store. He’d be close enough to come running if anything was needed but it would give me a chance to see what it was like handling her, and myself, without the extra set of eyes and hands. So Ethel and I said goodbye to Dusty at the entrance to the Danvers mall and she and I headed to Old Navy, the mission being to collect shirts and sweatshirts to be embroidered with the SDP logo to give to family. People watched us as we strolled to the store, but my eyes were on Ethel. I wouldn’t know if anyone said anything, I never stopped talking to Ethel. “Good pace,” I happily hummed to her. “Stay with me, sweet girl, good pace, good pace.” There were only a few times I needed to tell her to “Easy! (slow down)” or “Leave it! (stop sniffing around and pay attention!)” before we were at the store.
For anyone unfamiliar with Old Navy, there’s always a plastic dog mannequin standing at the entrance with his plastic, mannequin owners. Animals (and people) standing perfectly still, I learned, is a reason to be alarmed for a dog. It usually means the animal is about to or could attack making the dog alert and defensive. That’s why there’s an eccentrically dressed mannequin who greets you at the gate of the Service Dog Project farm and several mannequin animals placed throughout the grounds. When we entered Old Navy, the mannequin family of four with their small dog gave us a frozen wave and Ethel tried to steer me in the other direction towards the cash registers. “Nope, we’re going left!”, I directed.
And we started to browse, her patient steps going the pace I wanted and giving me the chance to happily dream of wearing all the clothes.
Other shoppers began to approach us or comment when they went past. An older lady walked towards us and I felt my grip on Ethel stiffen and my head drop. Before I knew whether or not she was approaching me or the stacks of clothes behind me, I was already resenting her presence. I was already bracing myself to hear some of the terrible things people have said to me in the past (“You can’t possibly go shopping by yourself. You need some help. Here, let me get that for you, I can’t believe there’s no one helping you.”) and I mentally shielded myself when she opened her mouth. “Well aren’t you just the most precious service dog I’ve ever seen! Well, my stars isn’t he big.” She smiled at me, chuckled and walked away.
I was confused. It was like she didn’t even notice I was in a wheelchair. People ALWAYS notice I’m in a wheelchair and they make sure I know I’m in a wheelchair while they’re at it. Maybe this was just a fluke. Maybe.
But it kept happening. All throughout the store, no one noticed me since their eyes were only on Ethel. She took all their attention and all the comments (“What a great horse you have there! Such a beautiful dog. Love your pony!”) were geared towards her. I was invisible. I was unnoticed. I was safe. Ethel was doing more than bracing for me so I could reach that cute sweater on the top rack, she was protecting me. She was acting as a social barrier for me so I could finally feel … just like anyone else shopping. Not someone different.
I was physically independent before pairing with Ethel. But only as long as my heart and mind felt safe. And in a world of constant fear, pain and struggle, feeling safe is a cherished moment that I previously only knew with my husband’s presence. Until now. Until I learned that safety is holding onto the dog that is giving me my life back. That safe can be spelled E-t-h-e-l.
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.