I was raised in a family of as many four-legged family members as there were two-legged. My siblings and I wrestled and tumbled inside and out with our adopted brothers and sisters, all of us coming away muddy, scratched, clawed and smiling. My mother was a Labor & Delivery nurse, nightshift by choice, who fiercely cared for each and every one of her patients. Sometimes, however, when a 14 year old mother was brought in or when a beautiful baby boy was born dead, she couldn’t help but carry that pain with her. So to cope, she would stop by the animal shelter on her way home or go by a friend’s barn that she talked with and we’d wake up with a new brother kitten or sister dog sleeping in the bathroom. My mom would get the newest member of the zoo vaccinated, house trained, named and loved. Sometimes she found permanent homes for them. More often than not, though, the rest of us siblings couldn’t wait to welcome this one into our permanent home.
And the zoo continued to grow. When my little brother and I would go explore the creek that ran in front of our house in the summers, we had a tail of at least four cats following along. I couldn’t do my homework unless I had my guinea pig out of her cage and on my desk. My sister slept with a wall covered in cages of hamsters, learning quickly what would happen between girl and boy hamsters.
We all tormented our rooster, teaming up on the hens with one cat approaching from the right and a human brother creeping around the barn on the left. I would yell and the three of us would run at the flock, yowling and taunting the rooster to get him to fly. Eventually the rooster began to fight back and became a terrifying enemy. If we were spotted, he would puff up to his full height and charge at us with his wings outstretched and screeching. We’d run away yelling, retreating to the safety of the top of the trampoline across the yard where he couldn’t peck at our ankles. We deserved it.
Through these animals I first saw the finality of death, was shocked by the aggressiveness of mating, understood how trust is reflected in the eyes of a face and was given unbiased, unrelenting, unconditional love. These animals comforted me during my mom’s sickness and stayed by her side and my own when she died. They knew our grief and gave warmth.
My husband and I were nomadic people for the next few years after my mom’s death during the time that we were dating and eventually married, making the term “home” a fluid reference of wherever we happened to be when we were together. Dusty had been gone in training with the military and I had been back at school when we reunited and moved together to South Carolina. We hadn’t been in any position to have animals join our family thus far. When I woke up a few months after moving to South Carolina as a paraplegic, my heart craved for a familiar comfort that I just couldn’t seem to find in anything else.
One year passed after the accident and I got a text from Dusty that every military family member dreads. At the time of the text he was in Airborne school and could only send a quick message in between skydiving jumps.
“Baby, it’s all going to be okay but I got word that I’ll be downrange in 45 days.”
I was in summer classes and turned to my friends. First off, I hadn’t ever heard the word “downrange” but knew enough that any news like this from the military isn’t good news. So, like any good college student would do, my friends and I wiki-ed “downrange” to find out what it meant. When we both Urban Dictionary and Google told us it meant deployed, they took me out to frozen yogurt after class knowing that chocolate sprinkles on Frozen Berry would make it better.
I’d been separated from Dusty at many points of our relationship when I received this text. We’d lived apart for 3 months, 8 months, three weeks here or there, a month in the field or weekends apart. But not when I was a new paraplegic and he was my caregiver. He’d only been gone on overnights in the field after my accident and all the possibilities of what medical disaster could befall me while he was gone scared both of us. At this moment, his sister was staying with me to help while he was in Airborne school.
It wasn’t the medical care I had to provide for myself or the cooking and cleaning or any of the physical labor of living that had me worried. My anxiety shot through the roof becoming a paraplegic. Being eyelevel with headlights of oncoming cars made me too nervous to roll on the sidewalks. As a small, paralyzed female, I felt defenseless in my chair and was nervous being at the house at night alone. I lost all my courage when I was first paralyzed and felt so broken and powerless. I was a panicked mess most of the time; how could I go for months without the rock in my life, Dusty?
Later that week, I got an email from one of the spouses of a solider in Dusty’s unit. It was a plea, desperate for someone to take their dog. They were just about to have a new baby and felt that they couldn’t care for her anymore. I saw face after face of all the rescue animals that I called family members growing up flash through my mind when I finished reading the email. I could be the home this dog needed.
Maybelle was a beautiful boxer and a love muffin when we brought her home. And true to the military’s word, not two weeks after Maybelle became ours did Dusty leave. But I wasn’t alone. Maybelle was there wagging her tail every morning when I woke up and couldn’t be happier to give me kisses when I came home. I found my own strength in hearing my voice give her commands. I saw my hands as strong when I was holding onto her leash. I found that I was once again capable when I saw her trusting eyes look into my own. She loved me and saw me as someone she could depend on, she could trust. I wanted nothing more than to continue to prove to her, to myself, that I could be that person.
And so the days that Dusty was gone turned into weeks and those turned into months. He was either unreachable on missions or back at a place he could call, but through all of it I had Maybelle and I was fine. She licked my face while I cried when I was afraid for him and she made me laugh when she would frolic in the sunshine. I took up training with her and we had “school” together once a week and we’d practice all week together for the next lesson. I made friends at school and she loved to lounge on their couches or they’d take her for runs. We made a good team together and from her, I began to see myself as whole.
In South Carolina, as well as many other states, pitbulls and boxers are commonly trained for fighting against each other as a revolting sport and form of gambling. This disgusting occurrence is part of what’s created the false stereotypes against these breeds who, when trained with love and positivity, are some of the more mild and gentle dog breeds. Heartbreakingly, Maybelle had been trained to be aggressive and I worked Dusty’s entire deployment on rehabilitating her and training myself on how to combat her drive to protect me. But when Dusty returned and we were relocated to New York, her aggressive behavior worsened and worsened. The day came when my smaller frame no longer was able to contain her and she got away from me. She needed more help than I could give her.
It was grey and cloudy on the day we gave her to her new family. They were a sweet couple who knew how to handle her aggression and were dedicated to continue the training and loving. Not a military family, they had just bought their first house together. She wanted kids and he wanted to wait, so Maybelle became their baby. As relieved as I was for her when I saw the pictures they would send, I hated myself for failing. The confidence and courage I had found wasn’t real, I told myself. If I couldn’t fix Maybelle, then I really was powerless. I really must be broken.
We weren’t in New York very long before Dusty called me one day with another piece of news. Once again, he was in training (this time in Louisiana) and we were apart. I was alone and anxious. It was April Fool’s Day and he sounded thrilled at the other end of the phone.
“I got some kind of interesting news today, baby.”
“If you’re going to tell me you ate more Louisiana crawdads, I don’t want to hear it.”
“No, I uh, got a phone call. You ‘member that email I told you about, about that unit that wanted me? Well, they sent for me. We’re going to Germany.”
It took some convincing for me to believe him, thinking he was trying to get revenge for all the times I would prank call him on April Fool’s Day to tell him I was pregnant. But this wasn’t a prank, we were really moving to Europe.
And move we did. Yet although we had our little uptown apartment on the main strasse of our German village, it never truly felt like we lived in Germany. Our weekdays were spent with me scouring the web for maps and itineraries and Dusty stuffing one rucksack for us both for a weekend. And by Thursday night or Friday morning, we were boarding trains or airplanes off to yet another country. We lived In Germany for 18 months but each one of those months we left Deutschland and saw Europe. We spent Valentine’s Day on the Lock Bridge of Paris, drank whiskey during the Highland Games in Scotland, rented a car and camped through the fjords of Norway and more. We saw all we could of Europe one weekend at a time.
And each of these adventures brought a new accessibility challenge for me. Historic cities are in no way easy to navigate on wheels and it forced me to meet each hardship on my own. Traveling is a sure way to know your own limits and those limits became glaringly obvious. But for us to get back to our apartment at the end of the weekend meant that I had to figure out a way to be comfortable with the steps, cobblestones, staring eyes, hills, unpaved roads and seemingly constant back pain.
And the growth I achieved made every painful, glorious minute of this sort of aggressive traveling worth it. Slowly I began to lift my head and meet the eyes of someone staring with a look that said, “Yes, I’m here. And your problem is?”. Dusty found a third wheel to attach to my chair in the front (FreeWheel) to make going over cobblestones, sand or snow easier and I began to navigate myself confidently. I stopped apologizing to people in a café when their bags were all over the floor and in my way. I took trips on my own, traveling by myself to Rome and Crete to meet my younger brother. Between napping on the trains and planes and buses and cars, I grew a thicker skin and a clearer eye so that I could see the vast pool of my own inner strength and the unbounding courage I had once hidden. I had come into myself, grew into accepting my disability as part of my identity but not a limitation strong enough to keep me from enjoying what it means to live. Yet, still, I felt the familiar ache of something forgotten in my mind but part of the makeup of a soul.
In Germany the Great Dane is called the “Deutsch Dogge” and was once their national dog. I met a few friends for coffee on the military post in Germany and one of them had the sweetest male Dane I’d ever known. I sipped my cappuccino and casually expressed how wonderful it would be to have someone of that size to hold onto and to love. She answered, “Well, why not? There are so many Danes who need homes!” I told her it wasn’t feasible for me to try to have a Dane as a paraplegic, I wasn’t capable of a feat like that. She said,
“That can’t be true. You could absolutely care for a Dane. You know they have Great Dane service dogs, right?”
And that’s how I learned about the incredible world of the Service Dog Project