Exactly three years have passed since my last tour as student on the San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Fifteen months of those three years were about grieving the loss of a beautiful golden retriever/Labrador cross named Tuscan. He was my sixth guide dog and as close to perfect as a guide dog can be. His manners were adorable – quiet and unobtrusive when instructed to lie still, never inappropriate barking or sniffing in public. His guide work was brilliant. I’d had him less than two weeks when traveling for the first time to a strange city, and he remembered exactly which room was ours in our hotel before I did. Out of harness, he was the most entertaining dog I’ve ever known – singing, I call it – making loud melodic growls and howls while shaking a bone or running to catch that crazy Gonut.
He was the first dog I’d taken on a cruise, and dazzled everyone from the stewards to the captain and my fellow passengers with his sweet face, pretty manners, and devotion to guiding me safely about the ship. But the day before the cruise, he began to limp and by the time the cruise had ended, the limp was significantly worse.
Six weeks, multiple treatments a variety of tests and consultations with my own vet in Cincinnati, orthopedic and neurology vet specialists in Columbus, and GDB’s own Dr. Jeff Williams and the verdict was cast: Tuscan’s limp was not going anywhere. The diagnosis was a probable tumor on the nerve sheath of his brachial plexus and there was no treatment. A 3-1/2 year-old guide dog had to retire.
Ironically, I’d had mobility issues myself in 2009, and my own miraculous hip replacement came just a week after Tuscan’s diagnosis. I wanted to walk, run, move fast and free to celebrate my newfound mobility health, and for me, that kind of independence comes only with a guide dog. I walked with others, got refresher training with my long white cane, and felt my heart break a little more each time I closed the door with Tuscan (sometimes spoiling that mannerly record with pitiful whines) on the other side.
Twice, I was scheduled to return for a new dog. Sure, the cancellations had something to do with my busy lifestyle of traveling, moving houses, and spending time 1000 miles away with my daughter during the birth of my first grandchild. But underlying the minutia of real-life busyness was grief. I had wrapped my heart around this amazing canine. Our bond had been cemented within the first few days of training together – not a common occurrence in the land of guide dog training – and I was having significant difficulty letting go. I wanted a guide dog. I wanted this guide dog. And it wasn’t going to happen.
Some blind people who learn to travel with guide dogs are lost without them. Honestly, that was not my situation. As the months rolled on and I traveled more and more frequently in my work and play around the country, I contemplated the positive side of not having a guide dog. At conferences and meetings, there was more free time. No need to take a cane out four or five times a day, feed twice a day, or go back to the room for bits of quiet time to de-stress. With a cane, fretting over whether a taxi or colleague’s car will comfortably accommodate all passengers plus a guide dog is not part of the equation. When I did become disoriented in new environments, there was never the misconception by a stranger that my cane ought to figure out the situation.
But I miss the speed, the ease, the grace of flying down a street with a gifted companion at my side. And I miss the companionship, the sense of never really walking alone.
Meanwhile, Tuscan is a happy, healthy dog with a significant disability. He, with his buoyant spirit, could serve as a role model for humans – running, with that atrophied right front paw hanging in the air – after a bone, a cong, or someone he loves. He has two human loved ones now, as my daughter has gradually assumed more of his care when I travel and formed a significant bond of her own.
The partnership formed between blind person and guide dog is more or less understood by the general population. What no one sees is the pain of letting go and the joy – and I know there will be joy – of building a new partnership. Accepting Tuscan’s disability has been more difficult for me somehow than the death of my previous guides who were with me for a much longer time and whose ends were clear and irrevocable. It has taken time, but I’m ready at last and eager to meet my new wagging soul mate and begin the adventure all over again.