This morning I paused at the foot of the stairs and looked for the mirror that hung there for 23 years. It wasn’t there, just a nail and a bare white wall.
We have taught Joseph to come directly to us, say good morning, and use the bathroom. He often does, but in his excitement Christmas morning he didn’t. Instead, we heard steps on the stairs, some bouncing against walls, and a crash. Stunned, I turned to my husband and said “That sounds like glass.”
Joseph is 21 years old. In a sense, I have seen a toddler cherish holidays for 18 years. I have also grieved a child who is taller than his father but will never grow up. I should probably be surprised that the mirror, which had a painted scene of sheep grazing on a village green above the glass, had survived as long as it had.
We bought that mirror the anniversary we anticipated buying our first house, a home that would see children and pets and laughter. We have one child, have loved nine pets together (two of whom now consider us live-in staff), and share a house cluttered with everything we have gotten Joseph over time. He may not think to use the bathroom when he needs it but his memory is near perfect. When I have occasionally discarded long-forgotten toys and restaurant give-aways, he has inevitably asked for the things that were thrown away or donated.
I did the right things that unmerry Christmas morning. I told him the mirror was a thing, not alive, and that I was glad neither he nor one of the dogs were cut. I forgave him and said the best way to move forward is to start over, to be careful, to be safe.
I needed time not to feel. But then today, a few days later, was so different. My human boys went away for the day, I felt unexpectedly good, and I decided to take my dog Bjorn, the puppy who became a show dog and then my service dog, to the mall. We had already been successful together at garden centers and outdoor areas. The plan if the mall was crowded or Bjorn was stressed was to drive to a stand-alone center or come home.
Bjorn’s plan was to perform precisely as he had been trained, walking beside my rollator (a walker with a seat) and waiting at the automatic doors until I told him to move through. As we went into the mall a little girl brushed by him, got a quick wet nose or kiss (I wasn’t sure) and went by giggling. Her mother came over and I tensed, trying to think of the explanation for a well-behaved but imperfect dog. Instead, she patted his head, touched my shoulder, and said “He is beautiful. He is your blessing.”
Then she smiled and hunted for her children. One of the reasons I love our mall is the diversity of people there, three or four languages in the air. The lady whose daughter had a brief moment with Bjorn was dressed in a way that suggested they belong to a community that generally looks down on dogs, so I appreciated all the more the grace in her moment with me. While I sat to gather myself, my dog sat on my feet and waited for instruction.
When I looked at him, really looked, I was profoundly thankful for my dog. Although I do not understand how he knows migraine headaches and low blood sugar spells are coming before I do, he alerts reliably in enough time I can be proactive. I am thankful he tries to push me upright when I teeter and sits as a shadow when I get confused or need to sit to get my balance.
After an old head injury, failed back surgery, and a concussion this summer, I can now get out in public sometimes when my husband isn’t available. My dog is my partner. He chose to be my partner. Training merely shaped what he instinctively does.
So I sat on a rollator in a busy mall with a dog with wagging tail and realized I am glad to be alive. Even now, writing on a snowy evening, I feel profound gratitude that for all the accidents and diseases and tragedies that have struck, my husband has stayed because he wanted to, my son’s face is luminous whenever he sees us, and we are a family in a warm, safe home.
It is silly to say things will always be fine. They won’t. I think it unrealistic to compare true tragedy, a perpetually disabled child, to taking a different turn in traveling or landing in a different country. Yet for all the imperfections of life, we know love.
Love is perfect. Love forgives. And on days when we have trouble finding any kindness or confidence in ourselves, we may find the miracle of seeing it in our family, our pets, even a harried mother at the mall. I didn’t feel grateful, but then I looked out at the world and found gratitude hidden away in my heart.
Love is the one thing you can give away freely, and yet find growing ever stronger within yourself. Love helps us heal, to find possibilities and beginnings amid the endings of disease, injury, and death. I didn’t turn my dog into a service companion. He loved me, knew me, and turned himself into my service companion. I simply arranged the training and the vest.
Elizabeth Coolidge-Stolz, MD/ (c) HealingWoman