Birth, Death, and Dreams

I’m having the dreams again.

The death dreams. They started the morning Gadget died and lasted every night for a week. Then they went away for six weeks, until right before the puppies were born. This timing seems backwards — the punishing sadness of death right when I’m so elated over new life — but what I’m learning about grief is that often feelings that seem to be the opposite of what they “should” be are actually flip sides of the same coin.

As I mentioned last week, I’m planning to raise and train a successor to Gadget. I’ve had my eye on a very special litter of pups that was to be born New Year’s Day.

5 newborn pups lying in a pile

Will one of these tiny newborns become my next service dog?

But the litter arrived two days early. Maybe there’s a puppy as eager to meet me as I am to meet him? I got an email from the breeder December 30 that seven bouncing baby bouvs had arrived — five boys (picture above) and two girls. I’d been eagerly anticipating this litter since before I knew Gadget would not be here to help me raise the pup. When I heard the puppies had indeed arrived — and early! — I was goofy with excitement. I’m already stockpiling adorable supplies.

newborn puppy's head held in hand

Could this be the one?

Puppy Love, Puppy Loss

The song, “Puppy Love,” has such a happy title, but it’s actually a lament. I tasted that — lay down to sleep that night, anticipating puppy pictures, and was jerked awake three hours later to a “Gadget death dream.” The dream was about this blog.

In the dream, I was working on After Gadget, but Gadget was still alive — and dying. I’d received angry comments to a recent post. Apparently, I’d wronged someone’s aunt (it was a dream, after all). It felt vitally important that I make things right in this mythical blog. Meanwhile, Gadget was in his decline; he should have been my priority, and I felt tortured that I was neglecting him. I was struggling to simultaneously cure the blog problem and take care of Gadget’s every need.

I woke up with that awful, shaky feeling, looked for Gadget at the foot of my bed, and remembered that, of course, he wasn’t there.

Immediately after Gadget died, every night, for a week, I dreamed that Gadget was dying and needed me terribly, and also that he was dead — both felt equally true. Every morning, I jerked awake to check his breathing, his heart rate, make sure he hadn’t vomited, give him his next dose of pills. Yet, I woke up heavy with the sadness of his death — chest tight and eyes itching with tears.

Here’s where the flip sides of the coin comes in. While these two ideas seem contradictory — “Gadget’s dead,” and “I need to help Gadget now” — in fact, I think my grief-addled brain equates them. The overriding feelings in the dreams are equal parts heartache and urgency. Instead of, “He’s dead, therefore he’s beyond my help,” I land on, “He’s dead, therefore I must act now to bring him back.” The knowledge of his death actually heightens the emergency. If I can only act fast enough, do exactly the right thing, I can erase his death.

A Lifestyle of Rescue

Gadget was a rescue in the usual sense — a dog who’d been thrown away, essentially for being a dog — but I didn’t just rescue him by adopting him. I continued to rescue him from health problems from the moment he arrived with chronic diarrhea and skin problems, to stopping his heartworm medication when I realized it caused him seizures, to diagnosing his thyroid condition myself when the vets missed it. I spent eight years working to keep him healthy. Then, he got lymphoma, and I spent six months completely obsessed with beating his cancer — with saving him once and for all.

I look back at photos from our first year together.

Black and white photo, sun highlighting Sharon and Gadget's eye contact

When Gadget was not yet two . . . and I was nowhere near 40!

We both looked so much younger and healthier than in the pictures from recent photos, even when he was in remission. I wasn’t even aware that struggling against Gadget’s health problems was as much a part of my lifestyle as trying to adjust to my own illnesses. Now, not only have I lost my best friend, assistant, and around-the-clock companion, I’ve suddenly and extravagantly failed at what I’d devoted myself to for almost a decade: keeping Gadget, and our partnership, alive.

My rational mind knows I did everything I could; but what I think I know and what I actually feel have very little to do with each other. For example, I know that death is permanent. I don’t even believe in an afterlife. Yet I keep looking for Gadget. On the rare occasions I break down and sob, what I ask myself, over and over, is “Where is he?” I am literally and figuratively still looking for him, only most of the time, my (rational) mind pretends otherwise. Most of the time I don’t cry because I don’t truly believe he’s gone.

My heart — or, if you prefer, subconscious — is more honest. My dreams demand that I give Gadget what my deepest self awaits: a miracle.

See Right through Me

This makes “the blog dream” so transparent. Here, in my little internet domain, I have control. I decide the topics, the layout and photos, and choose each word. Where it mattered, I was powerless; I tried as hard as humanly possible to prevent this blog from coming into existence. I never wanted there to be an “After Gadget,” or not for a very long time. Gadget and my relationship had always been about creating safety, independence, and freedom for both of us, but in the end, I couldn’t give him the control over his destiny that he’d faithfully provided me his whole adult life.

My mind keeps falling for its own tricks, and old habits of trying to save Gadget die hard: As soon as I started blogging about the dreams, they stopped, because my conscious mind has taken over the work of my dreams. Day after day, I’ve written, revised, and edited this post. I type lying down when I’m too sick to sit up; I use the thesaurus constantly because my injured brain is too tired to find language on its own. I keep trying to get it right, pouring my energy into Gadget again. If only it can be perfect enough — then what?

The Difference

In canine cancer, there are just a few grains of fact scattered on a shore of unknowns. When Gadget was diagnosed, I had to cram years and years of research into weeks. I had to rely on unfathomable drugs, unproven supplements, controversial herbs, and vets who could never live up to my expectations of omnipotence and omniscience.

On the other hand, writing is my home. It is my center, my wheelhouse, and my sword. In fact, it’s really the only part of my life for which Gadget was not essential. (To give him his due, he provided fabulous fodder for several humor columns, but he was by no means my only subject.) Through writing, I personally convinced my federal representative to cosponsor a bill relating to Lyme disease, one of my disabilities. Through writing, I’ve escaped an inert body again and again to live a hundred characters’ lives. Through writing, I’ve earned respect and paychecks; I’ve knocked down doors not open to my corporeal body.

When I used to write, before Gadget’s cancer and my Lyme, Gadget sometimes curled up under my desk or rested his head on my knee. But we maintained separate worlds, followed our own minds.

The rest of the time, we maintained a constant connection. Even when off duty, running free at the pond, Gadget would turn and check on me. Was I still there? What did I want? Where were we going? He was always looking back at me.

Close-up of Gadget's face, looking back at the camera

The Gadget "Look"

Now that I’ve devoted this blog to him, will he appear, looking back over his shoulder, across the kitchen or the yard, along the street or between the trees?

A small part of me wishes it were so. But I know it’s no longer his job to seek me. It’s my job to eventually, somehow, stop looking for him; to show the world what he taught me; and hopefully, to find myself again.

This blog represents my baby steps. In every picture or video I sort through, in every sentence I craft, I recognize his focus and intelligence, his beauty, sense of humor, and quiet dignity. This work wrings the tears from me, because to think deeply about Gadget and what he meant is to feel deeply my love and loss for him. I can’t stay frozen in my denial when I write.

What’s been clear to me for many years is that Gadget made me a much better person than I would otherwise have been. Not just in my treatment of him or other dogs, but toward myself and other people. And although he was not necessary to my writing, I’m discovering he helped me here, too, in a sneaky way. He bred patience, thoughtfulness, and focus, all of which I need to communicate his own character. Further, to write well, it helps if you can bring integrity, courage, and kindness into your process. If this blog works at all, it is in large part because Gadget helped me internalize these traits.

Where does the puppy come in?

There’s no doubt that Gadget made me a much better dog trainer, as well as a more caring and empathetic canine caretaker and partner. I have a treasure trove of experience — what I did right and what I have vowed I will do differently next time — that will be invaluable when I raise the new puppy.

Gadget jumping over a pole across two kitchen chairs

I invented makeshift indoor agility for cold, snowy days.

When the puppies were born, the timer on “next time” began ticking, closing in on “now.” Gadget imparted a mountain of practical knowledge, of techniques, “how-to”s, and tricks.

But he also taught me in less quantifiable ways, because he tested me. Gadget was not an easy young rescue. He required patience, creativity, ingenuity, patience, intelligence, patience, courage, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. I know for sure I will need to call on every ounce of this learning — especially that hard-won patience! — to raise a puppy into a service dog while I am severely ill.

Birth, Death, and Dreams

Some believe that all the characters in a dream represent a part of the dreamer. That would mean that not only am I the person struggling to make this blog work  — this enterprise built on what was lost. I’m also the one who desperately needs my help, and the one who is gone forever.

The Sharon partnered with Gadget is gone forever. A piece of me died when my partner breathed his last. Indeed, Gadget’s absence sometimes feels so painful, I can barely catch my breath. I’ve learned how literally accurate the term “heartache” is. It’s not a metaphor at all.

As to the others in the dreams? The one who needs me and the one embarking on the daunting new venture? The puppy, of course, is the first, and I am the latter in relation to the puppy.

Babies are ultimately needy. I will have to help the pup with its every need in the first few months, and, to a lesser extent, for the rest of its life.

There’s also no denying this puppy is already saving me, has been saving me since before Gadget died, when I knew a puppy would arrive this winter, regardless. That knowledge gave me something to look toward when all felt lost. The puppy is my hope for joy and laughter, a sense of purpose, and my eventual re-emergence into greater independence and freedom.

In other words, the puppy is the blog. This entirely new, separate creature who will not be Gadget, but whose care, love, and training will be so heavily influenced by all Gadget taught me.

Much like with blogging, I’m following a unique path. I haven’t mastered the art of frequent, pithy, focused little posts that seems to be the quintessential blog. I’m still laboring. And as a first-time puppy raiser with so much riding on it, I’m going to efforts just to prepare for the pup’s first few days in my home that most people find unfathomable (and a little bonkers).

I’m OK with that. Some thought I was nuts to adopt Gadget. They thought him wild, uncontrollable, totally unsuited to being trained by a young disabled woman as her service dog. But I knew otherwise. I saw his potential and knew he was a dream.

He still is.

Peace,

Sharon and the Muse of Gadget

We welcome your comments.

Coming up in future blogs: Gadget’s service work videos, more puppy pics, the puppy-preparation steps that leave jaws hanging, musings on the benefits to numbness, the race to find a suitable outdoor powerchair before the puppy arrives and needs to pee, admissions of guilt, the implications of doorbells, and more.

So, it’s probably no surprise, because that last week was so consuming, that even after he died — perhaps especially because he had died —

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13 Responses to “Birth, Death, and Dreams”


  1. 1 greg January 6, 2010 at 7:28 am

    I’m so sorry for your loss, I hope your puppy makes it through training and meets all of your needs. Goodluck!

  2. 2 Amy January 6, 2010 at 8:02 am

    Sharon this was so beautifully written. You are truely an amazing person. I had no idea that Gadget had so many health issues. You were his savior; as possibly anyone but you would not have given Gadget the time of day, patience, understanding, nurturing, confidence and love that you did.

    Remember that Gadget will be with you in a sense when training the puppy in the sense of memories. Gadget will live on, in you.

  3. 3 Karyn and Thane January 6, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Ahh Sharon- this really brings back that journey as I transitioned from the passing of my vaccinosis boy Chimette, worked through my grief of his parting, and welcomed Thane into my life.
    Its for sure a roller coaster time.
    When I learned of thane coming, it was like i was snapped back into life with Met- all the med times I was on high alert for. When I went to move, I began looking for where he was so I would not wheel on him- it was like I was back in life with Met- but how could that be? Met was gone.
    When Thane entered my life he had some health issues associated with stress fro mthe trip and being vaccinated. It was almost like dehja Vu to me. It was hard to relax and believe he would be OK- and when giardia hit – I had to keep reminding myself that a healthy dog can overcome this.
    Why do I mention these things- because after having a dog with one issue after another like we both did, its easy to worry that *here we go again* may be occurring. I was fortunate to have a great breeder who truly understood where I was coming from and helped me work through those health related insecurities.
    But oh the fun ahead as you begin to mold this new creature into a model service dog. I was floored when Thane came and I realized how much I had actually taught Met. There were times I was not so sure I could really do this again- I mean after all, I was a lot more disabled here with round two of owner training my assistance dog. All doubts have washed away. We are still a work in progress. I wish for you a wonderful journey- much like mine has been – with much happy moments of laughter as you work on training and bonding with this puppy.
    There will be times when you just wish he were not here, but in his place could be Gadget- very normal and little by little those feelings will subside.
    You gave me a good chuckle about the process with training Gadget- all the patience especially. I felt like I was reading about Met.
    Hmmmm giggle
    Keep sharing your journey and reach out to us when its difficult- as you said this blogg is about your process.
    Hugs to you my friend

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler January 7, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Thank you so much, Greg. I hope so, too! I’ll be doing a blog in the near future on (cue spooky music), The Fear of Washout. (Duhn, dun, duhhhhhhhn!) I appreciate your comment — I can use any good luck that comes my way!
    -Sharon

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler January 7, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Karyn,
    I just had to comment on that bit about turning to look before you reverse. I have had that so much, too. It’s such habit to turn and look behind me to make sure I’m not gonna bonk a big, furry gray guy behind me. For the first two weeks, I did it all the time. Now I just do it occasionally, like entering a room and automatically looking for him.
    After having two SDs with significant health issues for most of their lives with me, I am really hoping that having chosen a breeder who is known as the biggest stickler for health testing (in this breed) in the US will make the difference!
    -Sharon

  6. 6 Lolly January 9, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    Sharon:

    I appreciate your willingness to share your feelings and experiences.

    I’m currently working with my fifth Seeing Eye Dog, Brook. A friend and fellow guide dog handler,shared this blog with me

    Your experience with Gadget reminds me of my experience 12 years ago with Bandit, my third Seeing Eye Dog. He had health issues from the day we met in class at The Seeing Eye. We worked for two years using a raw diet, western medicine, herbs and homeopathics to get them under control.

    Just wehn I thought we had free sailing, an unwelcome cascade of health issues piled into our lives. We managed to clear them up, and then the next year, I noticed his concentration flagging. He was one of the most focused guides I’ve had.

    Thinking it might be behavioral, I called the school. They planned to send an instructor out to assess the situation. At the same time, I called our vet.

    It turned out to be a type of Hepititis. That meant he couldn’t work, and would need care around the clock.

    After bringing him home from the University of Minnesota Small Animal Hospital, I treated him for a week under the prescribed protocol. I watched him struggle to be his vibrent happy self for a week. Then I realized it wasn’t fair to him. He would be up for 15 minutes, and would spend the next four hours recovering, only to start the cycle again.

    I faced the challenge of finding a home where he could receive the kind of care he needed. That meant someone who was able to be home with him, and who would take on the cost of his medical care.

    Given all of these factors, I made the painful decision to euthanise him. We had only been together four years, and he died five weeks after his sixth birthday.

    Bandit was the first “heart dog,” for me.

    After Bandit, I thought I’d never find that connection again with another guide dog, no matter how special they might be.

    I was wrong.

    Now there is Brook!

    It’s a “hand in glove,” match. She’s taught me so much!

    You wrote that there isn’t much written about the loss of a service dog. I agree. that’s why I created GuideBrook Productions (GBP). It’s specifically for guide dog handlers, but its purpose is two fold. First, to provide information for guide dog handlers on life transitions with their dogs. This includes; retirement, and adoption after retirement, imminent death, or euthanasia. Second, it’s to help guide dog handlers learn more about how dogs think, learn and behave. I have gathered articles about aging in dogs, emotions of dogs, planning ahead, the human grieving process and giving back on the site. It’s http://www.guidebrookproductions.com.

    When I’m able, I put on workshops for guide dog handlers about how dogs think, learn and behave.

    Currently, I have a sibbling who has ALS. His process is moving swiftly, so my time is focused on helping him as much as I can.

    I appreciate too, your focus on writing about your experiences with your service dogs. There isn’t a lot of good writing out there on this topic.

    I wish you luck with the new puppy! Even amunst the sadness and loss, one can’t help but feel joy when a warm, riggling bundle of energy comes into your life.

    One tip–give yourself enough time between dogs. Grieving Gadget fully will help you accept the new pup fairly.

    One last thing I’ve learned is that being around dogs (not my own) over a concentrated period of time, helps me heal faster from a loss of a previous dog. It’s actually a chemical reaction that happens in my body because of the chemical oxytocin that speeds the healing process. Here’s a post about oxytocin. http://www.theotherendoftheleash.com/oxytocin-the-wonder-drug/

    Good luck. I’ll keep checking in on your progress.

    Lolly and Brook

  7. 7 Sharon Wachsler January 16, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Lolly,
    SUCH a great, long comment full of interesting information! You are a real resource. It’s taken me a while to respond because I went and check out the links you put up, etc. I also told a friend who’s a guide-dog partner to read your comments. She was very interested.
    I’m so glad word is spreading among guide-dog handlers. I really love to network and share information and stories, etc., with other assistance-dog teams. One of the skills I trained Gadget in — and I hope to do some others with the future dog — was an intelligent disobedience skill, and the guide dog movement is so far ahead on that. I try to learn whatever I can, wherever I can.
    Your experience with Bandit sounds really heartbreaking. I now know a few people who have said their heart dog was also the one that needed the most, was the most challenging, either medically or behaviorally. I wonder if there’s a connection there?
    It is, indeed, the hardest decision to have to make to euthanize your partner and/or heart dog. I’ve written in the past about my conflicting feelings on how the decisions are sometimes made to euthanize dogs when it is not as clear-cut as it was for Bandit or Gadget. As a disability rights activist who opposes what is sometimes simply murder or euthanasia masquerading as assisted suicide of people with disabilities (who are not terminally ill), I see the parallels. When it was clear Gadget had no good times left, no joy, I did call the vet, but I hoped like hell Gadget would die before he arrived. It’s such a hard thing to do.
    I’m so glad Brook is such a wonderful partner for you! It does give me hope and inspires me, when I talk to people who have lost a canine assistant, especially if it was their heart dog, to know that it is possible to come back from that and have a strong, loving team again.
    I’m very sorry to hear about your brother with ALS.
    I did go to your site, but I didn’t find the articles, etc. I guess you use those in your workshops and trainings, not publishing them for public consumption.
    The oxytocin article was fascinating! I’d never heard of that occurring trans-species. I’d only ever heard about it in relation to pregnancy or infants and breast feeding, etc. I wish I could spend time with other dogs, but between not being able to get outside (yet) and my hypersensitivity to flea/tick products and dog allergy, it makes it difficult. However, with your urging, I am going to try to spend some time with some friends’ dogs who do not use Frontline, etc., once I get my new chair and can get out of the house. I could do with some “love juice” flowing through my veins, ha ha ha.
    I hope you will come back and post again.
    Best to you and Brook!
    -Sharon

  8. 8 Book Girl January 16, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Such a beautiful and heartbreaking post. A wonderful tribute to the love and partnership between you and Gadget.

  9. 9 Lolly January 21, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    HI Sharon,

    I’m sorry you weren’t able to find the articles. They are in a nested list within the “Life Transitions,” section of the web site. Here are some links from my site to some articles you might find useful. If you can’t click on the links, copy and paste them into your browser.

    About Euthanasia
    http://www.guidebrookproductions.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=58&Itemid=64

    The human grieving process
    http://www.guidebrookproductions.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=54&Itemid=60

    Lolly

  10. 10 Sharon Wachsler January 21, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    Lolly, I just read them. I love the one by Katherine Schneider (Hi Kathy!), whom I met online when Gadget was dying. I related to so strongly to so many things, like sometimes knowing things were wrong with Gadget before the vet had any physical evidence to explain it (because we are so closely attuned to our dogs through our working relationship and being together around the clock), and trying to decide when it’s best for the dog to stop working, and the kinds of questions and support that are helpful versus the ones that make you cringe. Then there are other aspects that are very different between a guide dog partner with a program dog and my situation of a partner-trained service dog. The issues of going to the school, of finding a retirement placement, etc., are quite different. It would be fascinating to get together a group of people with a variety of types of assistance dogs and both program-trained, partner-trained, and/or private-trained, and see where the commonalities are and where the experiences diverge in the issue of grief and mourning an assistance dog.
    I’ll probly blog about this at some point, but my experiences of losing Jersey, my first SD, and Gadget, my second, were so, so different. Jersey was 13, retired (as my pet), and Gadget was already working when Jersey died suddenly of an unknown illness. Gadget worked almost until the very end — only at the tasks he enjoyed and which did not physically tax him — because that’s what made him happiest. He died at 9 years old and after a protracted illness, and with no successor in place.
    I’m thinking there’s a future blog in an interview with or between the two of you, with your combined guide-dog grief knowledge and experience, I think that would be wonderful.
    Gonna have a new blog up in a day or two!
    -Sharon

  11. 11 Kat January 22, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Sharon, do you know why these year-old posts have been showing up in Google Reader like they’re brand new? I’ve been very confused wondering what happened to Barnum until I saw they’re all from 2010!

  12. 12 Sharon Wachsler January 22, 2011 at 2:43 am

    Oh no! Ack! Thank you for telling me. I didn’t know it was doing that!
    I have been trying to make improvements to the site, including fixing the categories. For the first six or eight months I was blogging, I didn’t know how to do categories, so they were all “uncategorized.”
    I was going back and just ticking off the relevant categories for them. It never occurred to me it would republish them, because it’s never done that when I’ve made edits before. I’m very sorry!
    Thank you for telling me.
    Well, I am done with the updates, so at least that will stop now….

  13. 13 Kat January 22, 2011 at 3:04 am

    Well that’s good news, and I think I’ve sorted out my confusion, lol. For a while there I was thinking you were getting another puppy besides Barnum!


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