Posts Tagged 'dog'

Retreat! Click, treat, repeat.

Due to my disabilities I’ve only gone away three times in the last fifteen years, and never in the last seven. I was doing “staycations” long before the media coined the term. I love going on vacations and retreats, even when I never leave home.

Others — friends or writers (often one-and-the-same) — join me to talk, eat, write, watch movies, and read our work aloud at my home. Inevitably, connecting to others I care about leads me to connecting more deeply to myself, which in turn strengthens my connection to my writing. Since writing, for me, grows out of self-connection, when I am adrift from who I am, I cannot write well. In fact, I usually cannot write at all.

In the past three years, I haven’t had a writing retreat. I’ve been too sick, among other reasons. However, Betsy and I have had wonderful vacations; she takes time off from work, and we do what mood, weather, and disability allow. Even though I’m always at home, and Betsy often is, and our vacation activities might seem mundane to others — playing cards, watching movies, talking — there’s something different about setting aside a chunk of time and marking it as special. Time together is intended, however ordinary the activity, to be a source of connection with each other.

We also devote some individual time to personal projects. Last year, Betsy focused on gardening. I dedicated myself to taking Gadget for daily walks at the pond.

In 2008 and 2009, picking blackberries was one of our most enjoyable activities.

Sharon picks berries.

A berry nice summer staycation.

Gadget loved berries and picked them, too. One of his all-time favorite treats was blueberries, which he picked off the bush with gusto. However, he was fond of raspberries and blackberries, too, and would brave the thorny brambles to get at the fruit. Last year at this time, Gadget was in remission from lymphoma; he looked and acted particularly robust and happy. He joined us in the berry picking (though nothing he picked ever made it into a pie).

Gadget searches for raspberries

Gadget searches for end-of-the-season raspberries.

When Betsy or I found a particularly bountiful spot, Gadget would wade in, knocking off the ripest berries with his big frame, and indiscriminately devouring large clusters, both black and green. I couldn’t begrudge him the berries — neither those ready to eat nor those that would have been good to pick in a few days’ time. Who couldn’t laugh and rejoice in his being with us, so very Gadget — out for all he could grab from life? I also deeply enjoyed the three of us being able to take part in this activity together as a family.

Gadget eats ground blackberries

These ground-vine blackberries are so much easier to get one's muzzle around!

This week I’m enjoying a retreat of a different kind. Betsy is away, visiting family. Before she left, she planted two organic blueberry bushes, in honor of Gadget (and because we like blueberries). It felt like just the right time to plant something beautiful and practical that will be with us forever, we hope — just like Gadget and our memories of him. Also, appropriately, Barnum helped to dig the holes for the bushes, and then partly dug one of the bushes back up.

Along with Betsy’s absence, I’ve had less time with my PCAs around due to illness and car trouble. As a result, a lot of the time, it’s just Barnum and me. I’m really enjoying it.

I’ve written about how hard his first couple of months were for me. I floundered with the newness of puppy raising. My grief over missing Gadget was so overwhelming, I didn’t even see it; it simply engulfed me. I felt guilty, ashamed, confused, and scared because of my puppy-raising ineptitude — what I perceived as failing Barnum and setting us up to wash out as a service-dog team. I also allowed myself to get jangled by the discouraging and patronizing voices of other dog trainers I met online.

A lot has changed, thank dog!

First of all, after Barnum turned four month’s old, when much of the stress of babyhood wore off, I fell in love with him. This isn’t to say I didn’t love him before; I did. But I wasn’t in love with him. There’s a big difference.

Secondly, as we started to have little training victories, and Barnum developed an attention span and the ability to go longer periods without peeing (in the house), we were able to communicate better. This, too, helped me relax and appreciate him more.

Most recently, I have seriously dedicated myself to working Sue Ailsby’s training levels, which have given me step-by-step directions for ways to explain things to Barnum. I’ve discovered a lot of the bumps in the road we had hit in previous months were due me not knowing how to translate what I wanted to teach to a puppy. I was more used to explaining how to build a behavior in an adult dog. As a result, I was asking for mental leaps I wasn’t even aware were there. This created anxiety for Barnum and frustration (and feelings of inadequacy) for me.

It just keeps getting better: This week, not only do Barnum and I have a quiet, peaceful house to work in for extended periods, I am also functioning better physically than I have in three years!  Suddenly, Barnum and I are particiating in our own unplanned bonding, training, and play retreat!

Gadget rolls in clover

First, a festive roll in the clover. . . .

High-Speed Chase

Then, a rowdy game of "tag."

Barnum in pool, 6 mos old

Finally, a refreshing dip to cool off. (Every time I was about to take a picture, Barnum would turn tail!)

With this breathing space for both of us, and the Training Levels’ step-by-step directions, I find that my enjoyment and skill as a dog trainer is coming back to me! When Barnum is confused, or a skill isn’t being shaped just how I’d like, I’m able to think it through and say to myself — sometimes in the split-second necessary to change tacks in mid-training stream — “Ohhh, I need to back up and do it this way!” And lo and behold, it works! It’s just about the best feeling in the world.

I don’t know which is better: Barnum’s total happiness and obvious gratitude for me finally being able to communicate to him what I want, or my tremendously improved self-confidence and attitude about training.

Like most dogs, Barnum is not big on hiding his emotions. This is part of dogs’ wonderfulness. Thus, Barnum is quite willing to let me know whether he is pleased with what’s happening in his world at any given time. When he is not pleased, he will tell me — emphatically. However, when he is happy, he wags his whole body. For example, ever since I switched him to raw food, after finishing a meal, he comes over to me, grinning and wagging like mad.

“Thank you, thank you!” His body language gushes. “That was awesome!”

Now the same thing happens at the end of a training session. We are both concentrating very hard, but there’s also the rush of learning, teaching, communicating. Often, at the end of a particularly sharp session, Barnum runs to me and nearly knocks me over to enthusiastically lick my face. He never used to do this after training; it’s new, since our little “training retreat” week.

Some might call it anthropomorphizing, but I know what I’m seeing: not just happiness, but gratitude. After several confusing months, where sometimes we were communicating well, and sometimes we were both frustrated, we have achieved a solid communication and trust in ourselves and each other.

“Thank you, thank you!” He kisses me, wags, and grins, after a clicker session. “Now I get it! I get it! I wish you had just said so before!”

Kisses!

I love you, Mom!

There are all sorts of paradoxes here: That we made big leaps in progress when the pressure was off. That working with very definitive goals within a rigid structure — and even knowing that I will be testing myself on them — forces me to focus, which helps me relax. As with writing, the more connected I am to my task (teaching a skill), the more I connect to others involved (Barnum), and the more I’m connected to myself.

That just going hog-wild with clicking/treating (being super generous in clicking even the smallest hint of the behavior I want or doing rapid-fire or jackpots of treats) almost always gets us to a more advanced form of the behavior than being stingy with the rewards is a typical paradox of clicker, too. (And sometimes, lately, has gotten us farther and faster than I expected.)

I’ve also been trying to incorporate additional types of games into our play, especially “mind games” that help Barnum problem solve. I use them as breaks in between training sessions, or as rewards for progress, or I combine them with a training exercise. For example, to teach loose-leash walking, you put a “distraction” — something the dog really wants — at the end of your destination, and then you proceed toward it. If the leash gets tight, you go backwards. I used the muffin tin game, shown in the captioned video below by Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs, as Barnum’s distraction/destination. He really wanted to get to that muffin tin!

Click here for a transcript of the video.

With “time off” and the Training Levels as my guide, all I’ve had to do is put my head down and work on what’s right in front of me. With much of the guesswork removed, I am actually more able to “think on my feet” and be completely in the moment. All this means is that I’m attuned to Barnum’s needs, which is the name of the game, not just in training sessions, but in the rest of our lives. It’s about connection.

Interlude: My One Hour a Week

Once a week, for an hour, I can breathe. I am by myself, and I can do whatever I want. Wednesdays from 6:00 to 7:00, Betsy takes Barnum to puppy kindergarten.

I have started several blogs in the last three weeks during this one-hour window, but I’m never able to finish them. I’ve been falling back on my usual mode for coping (and thus, writing) in recent blogs — humor. Mostly sarcasm, irony, self-deprecation.

Now, my attempt at my fastest blog ever! How is it actually going? My scattered thoughts. . . .

I do love Barnum. I love him very much. I can’t imagine a world without him. Especially when he’s sleepy and cuddly, and I look into his eyes, I love him in a way I’ve never loved anyone, because he’s a baby, my baby.

Or sometimes, especially lately, when we’re training, and he — out of the blue — “gets it” about what we’re doing and gets excited and does The Thing I Want Him to Do. That’s the high of training your own SD — that’s the drug of clicker training. Right now, it’s only just beginning, and only occasional. But there are moments: I hung bells on the door so he can learn to jingle them to tell me he needs to go out. He’s now quite good at hand targeting, so we’ve done two or three sessions of him targeting my hand as I moved it closer and closer to he bells, and twice he suddenly grabbed the bells! Jackpot! Even better than that was after we finished a session, and I took him out, he came back in and grabbed the bells all of his own accord! We were delighted with ourselves. I took him back out, even though I knew he didn’t have to pee.

He stresses the heck out of me. I often ask my PCAs when they arrive, “Would you like a puppy? He’s really cute. And free.”

I barely get any sleep. My sleep schedule is all messed up because when he has to go out, he has to go out. I try to sleep when he does, nap when he does, but there’s the rest of my life I usually need to squeeze into those little windows.

Barnum is teething. This means he is chewing on everything all the time even more than he used to, which I didn’t think was possible. On the other hand, he is finally getting more gentle with mouthing, which is trainer language for “biting everyone whose flesh, clothing, and hair he can reach.” Sometimes it really hurts. Sometimes it upsets people, and I feel bad for inviting them (or requiring them) to visit or work in an environment where little needle-like teeth might come at them before I can intervene.

He started out a bit fearful, then became very confident, and now seems to be going through a timid phase again. I am trying not to stress about it. However, the uber-socialization we did with people has paid off: even when he’s afraid of everything else new around him, he wants to follow any people he sees, because he is convinced they will love him up and shower him with treats.

Most of the time I’m too busy and exhausted to consciously miss Gadget, but during the rare moments I let myself open — when all the Managing, Coping, Handling, etc., is not needed, and when I am not working to prove how Together and Witty I am — I just cry. I cry and cry and say, “I miss Gadget. I want him back. I want him back.”

Gadget’s grave is kind of a mess. We put stones on it to mark it, but they got moved, and the dirt got rearranged by a snow plow in winter. I know some of the people who loved Gadget are distressed that I haven’t done anything to fix it. To repack the dirt, move the stones, plant flowers. My very kind neighbor, who is a hospice worker, actually brought daffodil bulbs when Gadget died, and we planned to plant them on his grave, but I can’t deal with it. I can’t look at it when I go out. It’s still just easier to think that he’s “gone,” than that his body is decomposing in my yard.

I finally responded to an email from a reader of this blog who lost her service-dog-in-training. Just reading about her feelings and telling her how normal it all is made me cry. It’s impossible not to identify and put myself in her place and feel her pain.

I’m a coward. Someone I met online whose dog also had cancer lost the battle recently. Over many months, I felt like I really got to know her and her dog, and I haven’t been emailing her because I feel so awful about it, I don’t know what to say. He just seemed like a truly wonderful dog. I hated it when people went on and on to me about how horrible Gadget’s death was and catastrophized it, as if I truly could not live without him, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else. In her case, this was not her service dog, so she won’t get that kind of treatment from others. But still. How can I be writing a blog about service dog grief and not know what to say?

I also haven’t gone back to my angels list because not only am I too exhausted and busy to deal with email, I’m afraid my stress and grouchiness and all-consuming attention on Barnum is not appropriate to the group, but neither would be my gushing and happiness over him. And it’s so painful, as more people join, to know more people have lost their heart dogs, that it throws me back into my feelings about Gadget, and I can’t afford to use that energy.

Twice a week, Betsy takes Barnum for the night so I can catch up on sleep. I generally sleep twelve hours on those nights. I think it’s hard for people to understand just how much Barnum consumes my life, not just because he is a puppy, and all puppies are a lot of work. It’s because . . .

– He is an extra high-energy, drivey puppy. He was the most active in his litter — of a working breed.

– He is only moderately food motivated. He is much more interested in being with me without food than being in his crate with a marrow bone or a Kong. Honestly, I didn’t know such dogs existed before!

– I am laying the groundwork for him to be my service dog. That means major socialization to everything and everyone in the world, tons of training, and carefully avoiding not discouraging him from doing things that might later be useful, but that are usually trained out of puppies. (Grabbing clothes is an example. One day I will want him to pull on my sleeves, so I don’t want to scold him for that now. Likewise with sniffing things, as he will be doing scent work.)

– I live with multiple illnesses and disabilities, which means that things like getting my teeth brushed, going to the bathroom, eating and getting meals, all take planning and assistance from other people. It also means that a good portion of my days are spent with “maintenance” that healthy people don’t have to deal with. This includes doing infusions of IV medication twice a day, taking huge quantities of oral supplements and drugs many times a day, getting intramuscular shots, etc., etc.

When you combine these things, it’s complicated. For example, puppies love to play with strings, cords, ropes, dangling things. Guess what that describes? The tubing on my oxygen tank. The cord on my infusion pump. The line from my PICC line in my arm to my pump. Who wants to explain to the ER doc that a puppy chewed into the tubing that leads into the line into my heart? Not me!

This means that when I do my infusions either someone else needs to be with him, OR he needs to be asleep, OR he needs to be in his crate. It’s not always so easy to synch up his sleeping schedules with my medication schedules and my PCAs’ working schedules!

Okay, I had to interrupt this a couple paragraphs above because Betsy got home, and I had to get Barnum into the crate in the living room with enough Really Really Tasty chew toys to keep him occupied until Betsy gets back from her errand so I can don mask, gloves, air filter, and oxygen, and change clothes, so we can bathe Barnum, because he smells from chemical fumes he picked up at class. Then I’ll have to wipe myself down. All of which will be exhausting and cause me to have more pain and exhaustion tomorrow. See how my mood has already gotten worse?

On the other hand, he is absolutely adorable, AND he rang the bell after just two practice clicks with me. I just need a break. I just need time to mourn, which maybe I will get the next time Barnum is asleep, if I’m not also trying to sleep at that time.

Thanks so much for your comments. Keep them coming.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

P.S. I wanted to post some adorable photos of Barnum, but I don’t have the time to upload and caption them, so that will have to wait.

Pushing Buttons: My Love/Hate Relationship with My Doorbell

For most people, the relationship between their doorbell and their dog is this: Someone rings the doorbell, their dog barks and runs to the door.

I didn’t have a doorbell before Gadget died. People either knocked or just came on in. I don’t know if he would have barked at it.

We got the doorbell because Gadget died.

Gadget’s death has meant a severe decline in my ability to communicate with others in my household. I miss this help every day, several times a day. Very soon after he died, I was beside myself with grief and frustration over my increased isolation and decreased ability to communicate.

This is how Gadget helped me communicate with people in my home: When I needed one of my personal care assistants (PCAs), Gadget opened my bedroom door and flagged them down. If he didn’t show up with them, at least now my door was open and they’d be more likely to hear me ring my bell again, or I could hear if they were washing dishes or had the fan on and that was drowning out my attempts to ring for them.

On occasion, if I was in the bathroom alone with the door shut for privacy, and I didn’t have my bell with me, I’d call Gadget. He’d open the door. I’d send him back out for a PCA, then call him back again. My PCA would realize we were trying to get her attention.

What’s been harder is not being able to communicate with my human partner, who is in a sound-buffered room on the second floor, when she’s home. When I wanted to tell her something, I’d write a note, stick it in Gadget’s collar and tell him, “Find Betsy!” It didn’t matter if I could voice or not because Gadget knew both signed and spoken commands. He would gallop upstairs, open Betsy’s door, and run to her (sometimes run into her).

He demonstrates this skill in the video below.

Click here for a captioned version of the video.

Click here for a text description and transcript of the video.

If he came back to me without the note, I knew he’d delivered the message. If he came back with the note, I knew Betsy was asleep or outside or otherwise beyond reach. If I needed him to wake her up, I’d tell him to go back, and he’d bark and paw at the door or nudge her or generally make himself a nuisance till she responded.

Gadget lays his paw across Betsy's arm

Gadget makes sure he has Betsy’s undivided attention

Sometimes Betsy would write a reply for him to deliver to me. He loved that, particularly.

When I lost Gadget, I suddenly lost part of my relationship with Betsy, too. Betsy came up with the great idea of using a doorbell to bridge this gap. When she showed it to me, I cried with gratitude.

I love the doorbell.

Here’s how it works: It’s a wireless doorbell with two separate parts. The button is taped to my over-bed table, and the chime can be plugged in anywhere there’s an electric outlet. Usually, it lives in the kitchen. I push the button, and my PCAs hear the chimes ring throughout most of the house. My PCAs were thrilled with how much louder and easier to hear it was than what we’d been trying before (the puny “beep” of the “horn” on my powerchair or a bell I rang by hand).

I was so relieved that it was working. Yet, I also worried that people would think I didn’t need another service dog because now I had this doorbell that worked so well. It felt almost disloyal to Gadget. I told my friends I felt guilty that I was replacing Gadget with technology.

My friends said, “You’re not replacing him. You loved Gadget. He was so special. That can never be replaced with a doorbell,” but it felt like they were talking about the loss of love, the heart-dog loss. I wasn’t just talking about that. I was talking about that and the Gadget who was my arms and legs and voice. I didn’t know how to explain the wholeness of Gadget as my partner, and the essentialness of that partnership beyond finding a solution for any one task — my longing not to make do in life any more than was strictly necessary.

Still, here was this wonderful doorbell, and initially, I was so happy with it. I let go of my fears of how others would interpret my “replacement” of Gadget.

The doorbell has its limitations.

Sometimes I press it, and I can’t hear it ring. Sometimes, nobody comes right away. Then I don’t know — are they in the bathroom? Outside? Did I not press the button hard enough? Should I press it again, or will that cause annoyance?

Also, if Betsy is upstairs asleep, the chime in the kitchen won’t wake her. The doorbell is also a totally one-sided and “one note” form of communication. All it can convey is, “I’m trying to get someone’s attention.” Generally, that’s the most important point, but I can’t indicate whom I’m trying to reach or tell them, “Before you come to my room, can you please grab such-and-such?” Or, “The phone’s for you. You didn’t hear it ring because I was on the other line, and I picked up call waiting.” Or, “Help! I need you now!” Or, “You don’t have to come now, just when you get around to it.”

I also can’t reach the button to ring for assistance if I’m not in bed. If I’m on the commode — just a yard away — or in the bathroom or even in my powerchair right next to the bed, it’s beyond me. If I’m stuck on the toilet, and my voice isn’t working, I can’t call the doorbell to me, no matter how appealing I make myself. I cannot entice it with cheese or liver or belly rubs.

The doorbell is better than the nothing I had after Gadget’s death, but it is still just technology, and technology is always limited. It can’t adapt. Gadget and I trained so that he would look for Betsy whether she was upstairs or downstairs. He could look for her or listen for her. He could use his nose and sniff her out if he didn’t see or hear her. He could get creative: One time, when she didn’t unlock her door for him after I’d sent him up with a message, he got frustrated and barked. I didn’t teach him to bark when she didn’t let him in; he escalated his behavior because what he had been trying wasn’t successful. His new strategy worked! Betsy came out and said, “Don’t tell him to bark for me because I’m making calls for work.” I said that I hadn’t, that he’d done it on his own, but I did reward him for it. I didn’t know when I might need her urgently and he’d need to use persistence.

My PCAs learned how to interpret Gadget’s behavior and generally guessed correctly why or whether I was sending him to them. We were all part of a team; I was captain, and Gadget played center.

I hate the doorbell.

A chime, at best, is neutral. It’s an alert.

At worst, it’s irritating. It can feel like nagging. I’m starting to sense a slight undertone of annoyance in the household when I ring frequently.

It’s nobody’s fault. People enjoy being summoned by a dog. They feel sought out and special, and they get to be part of the reward. “Does Sharon want me? Good boy!”

A doorbell doesn’t wag its tail. It doesn’t get excited at the prospect of a treat and go galumphing past the person it has summoned to get to me first. It doesn’t feel satisfied at a job well done. It’s just a piece of hard plastic that I’m grateful for and resent.

It would have been impossible to resent Gadget. Even at my most exhausted, frustrated, sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, overworked, and done-in over his being sick, I loved him. Even when he was young and difficult and drove me to tears, and I’d say things like, “That’s it! I’m making dog burgers tonight!” I loved him. I loved him far beyond my ability to express it in a blog.

The intercom.

Betsy and I are both dissatisfied with the limitations of our intra-house communication. Thus, Betsy ordered an intercom for my birthday. She told me ahead of time that it was coming; I was losing it over our communication breakdown, and she knew it would be a while before it arrived because it was on backorder. I was so grateful that she recognized my frustration and aloneness that I burst into tears and hugged her. It finally came today. I opened the shipping box and just made goo-goo eyes at it. I can’t wait until she installs it. It’s taking all my willpower not to nag her about it incessantly.

I’ve learned my lesson, though. I’m preparing myself for this new technology’s limitations: The intercom might be “smelly” (offgassing new plastic fumes), so that I won’t be able to use it until it has aired out for several months. Even then, at times when I can’t produce intelligible speech, the intercom won’t be as helpful as we’d wish. Finally, like the doorbell, if I am not next to it, I won’t be able to activate it.

In short, I will be grateful for it when it works and frustrated by its limitations.

Despite all this, it will be a big step up from the doorbell. But it will always be miles and miles away from replacing Gadget, my partner.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

As always, we welcome your comments.

P.S. Another “About” page is up, about how multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) affects me and my service dog partnerships. Click here to read the MCS page.

Eyeteeth

Eye – tooth

1. Dentistry: A canine tooth of the upper jaw

Idioms: 2. a. cut one’s eyeteeth, to gain experience; become worldly-wise.
b. cut one’s eyeteeth on, to be initiated or gain one’s first experience in.

3. give one’s eyeteeth, to give up something one considers very precious

Close-up of Gadget's head, looking tired, on couch

Gadget tired, but precious, near the end

Leaving the Den

I have an eye doctor appointment tomorrow, and I don’t know how I will get through it. I guess if you cry at the ophthalmologist’s, you can blame it on the eye drops, right?

This will be my first time going anywhere since Gadget’s death.

Dental Crowns and Dental Clowns

The last time I went more than a few feet from my home was two months ago — for a dental cleaning. It felt really weird going anywhere without Gadget, and especially that dentist’s office because it was the dog-friendliest place I ever went.

Actually, that’s an understatement. The office staff had perfect assistance-dog etiquette. They admired Gadget and talked to me about him, but never petted him or talked to him. They had a Yorkie who was usually in the waiting room, but when they saw me enter with a service dog, they would whisk away their fiercely yapping guardian so that she would not interfere with my dog’s concentration.

They helped me train two service dogs in how to behave in confined, medical situations. First was Jersey, who mastered the down-stay as only a true Bouvier “floor potato” could, and spoiled me for life in my expectations in that regard. She was the queen of the flawless down-stay (AKA “nap”).

Jersey folded inside a futon with just her head peeking over the top

Jersey could even nap inside a folded-up bed

Then came Gadget, who, our first couple visits, got up every five minutes to snuffle my hand or treat pouch, wander into the hallway, complain of boredom, walk to the other side of the chair (and get his leash tangled around the equipment), stare at me accusatorily for putting him through this idle purgatory, or just to lie down in a more comfortable spot, which was always either the hallway or where Beverly, the dental hygienist, needed to stand to clean my teeth.

Beverly loved my dogs. Even when Gadget was popping up every few minutes to interrupt her job, Beverly would smile, laugh, say how cute he was. I would get him back in position, tell him to stay, wait a nanosecond, toss him a treat, wait thirty seconds, toss him another treat, wait a minute, two minutes, five minutes, treat, treat, treat. Lather, rinse, repeat.

At the end of every appointment, Beverly would say — whether it was perfect Jersey or antsy Gadget — “She/he was so good.

And I’d roll my eyes and thank her, thinking that considering that Gadget had turned a 20-minute teeth cleaning into a forty-five minute training session, “We have a very different idea of what ‘good’ is!”

Looking back, I wish I’d cut him as much slack as Beverly did.

Later, when Gadget was fully trained and exhibiting excellent decorum, Beverly would say how far we’d come, what a great job I did training him, what a smart, wonderful, cute service dog he was. Of course, I agreed!

It was such a gift to have a “real world” training ground where dogs who are still learning — in other words, real dogs — were welcome. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive each direction, and they don’t take my Medicare or Medicaid, but I’ll never go anywhere else.

Long in the Tooth

This last time at the dentist — two months ago — was a world away from cleanings with Beverely. For one, I didn’t see Beverly except to pass her in the hall and say hi.

When I’d called to make my appointment, I’d explained that, for three years, not only had I been too ill to come in, but I had also not had stellar oral hygiene at home. I wanted to prepare them for the full scenario, which was that most days, a PCA (personal care assistant) would brush my teeth once, but twice in a day was exceedingly rare, and sometimes I went days without getting my teeth brushed. I was certain (as was one of my PCAs, who kept pointing out “a dark area” on one of my teeth until I told her, nicely, to shut up about it), that I had at least one, or probably several, cavities. Further, my teeth were covered in dark yellow and brown stains from the antibiotics I was on. Lastly, I said I couldn’t enter the small hygienist cubicle because I was now a full-time powerchair user.

The receptionist said she’d make me an appointment with the dentist himself (in his spacious office), and if I had cavities, he would try to fill at least one that visit. During my lengthy explanation of my dental negligence, I slipped in that I’d also been too busy to come in for a cleaning because I’d been taking care of Gadget, who had terminal cancer.

Although I didn’t ask her to, I hoped the receptionist would pick up on this clue and spread the word, because, whether he was still alive or not by the date of my appointment, I knew he wouldn’t be coming with me. For the past decade, everyone who worked there was used to seeing me walk in with a big, bear-like dog carrying a colorful pack. Now, for the first time, I would be accompanied by my mother, not Gadget. I would wheel through that doorway, dogless.

When I arrived, I knew immediately that the receptionist had understood and passed on the information. Nobody asked where Gadget was or mentioned him at all. There was no Yorkie in sight, either. I was so grateful not to have to answer any questions.

I felt naked without Gadget, but I was too consumed with the struggles of the moment to dwell on it. I entered at 1:00, able to speak and to easily stand to transfer. By 1:15, the ordeal of getting x-rays had so exhausted me that I couldn’t speak a word and could scarcely move my hand to write on a notepad to communicate. Then there were several small chemical exposures that sent me into coughing and gagging fits, which exhausted me still further. I had to keep downing medication and supplements to keep from falling out of that chair.

One of the benefits of extreme pain or illness is when it’s bad enough, you don’t care about anything else. So, except for the occasional unthinking search for a fuzzy gray figure on the floor, I was too busy trying not to cry from pain and exhaustion to spare a thought for my beloved, dying dog, at home without me.

I also experienced an unanticipated sense of relief from being away for a few hours. I enjoyed a tiny timeout from Gadget’s illness. I knew Gadget was dying, but he was still feeling and acting pretty good, pretty normal. Nevertheless, I could see what was bearing down on us. The knowledge of this impending loss, too devastating to contemplate, hung over the house and all who entered it. I’d lived with that, to varying degrees, for six months. During Gadget’s last month, I made a frenzied, perpetual effort to keep him feeling as comfortable and happy as possible until his very last breath. My days and nights consisted of constant assessments, pillings, injections, gourmet feedings, special walks, and late-night calls to the vet. It was deeply meaningful and completely enervating.

It was a release to get away, for just a couple hours, from that marathon I knew would end in defeat. At the dentist, for the first time in six months, I only had to worry about and take care of myself.

Tooth and Nail

Unfortunately, it turned out that I should have worried about myself more, cared for myself at least as well as Gadget. I had worried about certain aspects of my health, but they turned out to be the wrong ones!

My fears had centered around a mouth full of cavities, brown teeth that could not be made white again, and gums that had gone to hell. However, my dentist discovered no cavities, and stains were vanquished with simple, old-fashioned scraping. Even my gums were fine. Not so the rest of me.

That day threw the rest of my body into severe relapse. Since then, I’ve barely been out of bed except for a daily trip to the bathroom and a weekly bath. My voice, which had been strong — here to stay, I thought — ran away and hid again. Pain and immobility pitched their tents in my muscles and bones.

It is only in the past week or so that I have started, haltingly, to recover. And now I have this damn eye doctor appointment.

In the Public Eye

The dentist’s office, at least, was moderately MCS-accessible, and the staff made every effort to get me in and out fast to reduce exposures and other wear-and-tear. There, I have a long-standing doctor-patient relationship. Even though, or perhaps, especially because, Gadget wasn’t with me, I felt everyone’s support and concern for him.

The ophthalmologist’s is a whole ‘nother bowl of kibble.

My first and only visit so far took place six months ago. Even though eye doctors’ offices are notoriously chemical- and fragrance-sodden, I couldn’t blow off this appointment. My Lyme disease specialist wanted me to start taking Plaquinil, an antiparasitic drug that is effective at fighting Lyme and one of my other coinfections. However, in rare cases, it causes blindness. The damage starts at the peripheries of sight and is irreversible. Before I started the medication, we needed to get a baseline reading of my field of vision, so that if changes occurred, they would be discovered, and I would stop the medication.

That trip to the eye doctor was the first time in two years that Gadget and I had been out in public, working together. I was nervous about how he would do, especially because I could barely voice, and what I could squeak out was muffled by my mask. Although Gadget was proficient with signed commands at home, we had hardly practiced them at all in public.

When I entered the building, I was hit with a suffocating wall of perfume. It was ghastly. The ophthalmologist’s office was worse. It was so bad that my PCA, who smokes, said the smell was making her sick. Nonetheless, I did my best to put up with it. Gadget and I went to the eyeglass counter so I could buy a pair of big, dark glasses that go over my regular glasses, because I have so much light sensitivity that, like Corey Hart, I wear my sunglasses at night. My friends say I look like the Unibomber when I wear them, but I love them. The optician beamed at Gadget the whole time.

Then we went back to the waiting room. Despite the fumes, my heart was soaring. Gadget was in remission from lymphoma. I was (I thought), finally recovering from the multiple tick-borne diseases that had first felled me in June 2007. I was so proud of Gadget and of myself for making it there, for looking so put together in public despite all my syndromes and infections and his cancer. We were in tune with each other, working together as a strong, beautiful team.

Red Eye

Then an older man sitting nearby started talking loudly about Gadget. “There’s a dog in here!” He pointed.

He stood up to come over and pet Gadget, but his wife pulled him back into his seat. Look, she said, didn’t he see? The badges said, “Please don’t pet me, I’m working.”

“What?” He boomed. “What? The poor dog’s not even allowed to be petted?”

I tried to tell him that Gadget got lots of affection at home, but between my speech problems and my mask, the man didn’t hear me. Or maybe he was ignoring me.

Regardless, he kept going about the poor dog: What kind of life is that? You don’t even pet your own dog? Etcetera.

“What a mean boss you are!” He finished.

I just sat there, in shock, thinking how everything I did, from sun up till sun down, was for Gadget: preparing home-cooked meals, providing him with a thoroughly researched pharmacopeia of supplements, taking him for chemo every week, getting him to the pond every day to run and swim, even when I had to max out my pain medication just to get out of bed.

“But,” I thought, “I can’t defend myself by telling him any of this. If he knew Gadget had cancer, he wouldn’t be impressed, he’d be even more appalled. He wouldn’t see how much Gadget was enjoying being out with me. He’d think, ‘This horrible crippled lady’s forcing her poor dog to work when he’s dying of cancer!'” None of which was true, especially the last part, because Gadget was in remission and very much living with cancer.

I felt too defeated to attempt another response, especially since a lump had formed in my throat as I tried not to start crying. Carol, my PCA, who loved Gadget like he was her own, intervened, even though she’s not a confrontational kind of person. I think she saw my eyes glistening.

“She takes excellent care of him,” she said firmly. “He gets a lot of love. He has a terrific life.”

In the silence, Carol put her hand on my arm. “I think he was trying to be funny,” she whispered in my ear.

Making Sheep’s Eyes

After the obnoxious guy left for his appointment, two youngish women who worked in the office stood across the room, admiring Gadget. They said how beautiful he was, and I nodded my agreement. They said how well he was behaving, and I smiled to myself.

The tension that “mean boss” man had created was dissipating.

Yes, the two women agreed to each other and the room at large, service dogs are amazing — it’s remarkable what they do, and they have the best temperaments. In fact, one said, she couldn’t let her dog go near any other dogs because he was dog-aggressive. The one exception was her neighbor’s service dog (“she has MS,” she whispered). Her dog was just so well-behaved that she didn’t react at all to what her dog did.

“They train them so well,” she bubbled. “They’re such a blessing.

“Yes, it’s wonderful what they teach them to do,” the other agreed.

Then one finally addressed me directly. “How long have you had, uh, him? Her? Him?”

I nodded when they landed on the right pronoun and said, “Eight years,” which Carol interpreted for them.

Of course, they were impressed and enthusiastic. I think if I’d said one year or five years or five weeks, they’d have marveled at that, too.

Then they followed up with that tiresomely presumptuous question I’ve heard for a decade: “Where was he trained? Who gave him to you?”

I answered, and Carol repeated it for them: I’d trained him myself.

“Really? You trained him? All on your own? Well, that’s wonderful!”

“Isn’t that amazing?”

Etcetera.

Shut Eye

The actual doctor’s appointment was much less eventful than the waiting room had been. When I finally got seated at the “field of vision machine,” I settled Gadget underneath me. It turned out to be a sort of combination video-game/mantra machine. I was given a sort of button-on-a-joystick to hold, as if I were a contestant on Jeopardy! and pressed my face into the front of a big box, the field of vision machine. A mechanical contraption behind the screen at the back of the box, moved around, blinking different colored lights on different areas of the screen, playing irritating music that’s presumably soothing to people who don’t have sensory-overload issues. The object is to press the button every time you see a colored blip.

The whole time, a synthesized female voice repeated affirmations:

“You’re doing well.

“You’re doing fine.

“You’re almost through.”

“You’re doing well.

“You’re doing fine. . . .

More than testing my vision, the machine seemed to test my focus and reflexes when challenged by distracting and irritating stimuli. I did it three times: Once to get used to it, then once for each eye. It took 45 minutes, at least.

I was concerned, when we started, that after so long at home with me, Gadget would find all these strange sights, sounds, movements, and smells unnerving. How would he react to the music and beeping and stoned-but-encouraging woman emanating from the moving and blinking and plinking over his head? I shouldn’t have worried. He was mildly interested, then bored, then sleeping. Score! He had achieved a Jersey-like level of mellowness.

I was glad he was so relaxed, because the test stressed the heck out of me. My reflexes have never been good, and time and disability have not improved them. I gripped the button handle so hard that after each round, I had to wipe the sweat off of it and flex my sore fingers. Also, by halfway through the first “real” test, I’d started to figure out the light pattern the machine made. I started to anticipate where the light would be. Then I’d try to make sure I really saw it and was not just pressing the button because I knew where to look.

Finally, over two hours after my scheduled appointment time, I saw the doctor. He spent less than five minutes with me, and we were free to leave. All the way home I thought of snappy retorts for the guy who’d pushed me to the verge of tears. I knew it was foolish to dwell on it. He would never have understood my witty remarks anyway! I told myself to forget about it.

Here I am, six months later, remembering it in vivid detail and dreading going back there again, without Gadget. People say obnoxious things all the time that don’t get to me like this did. What got under my skin so bad was that everything I was doing in my life — all my time, money, energy, love, hope, fear, focus — every fiber, was trying to save Gadget, love him, help him, preserve him. There was nothing I wouldn’t have done for him, and some stranger was telling me I was mean to him.

Now Gadget is dead, and I think some totally nonsensical part of me feels like somehow that guy was right. Somehow, if I’d done something differently, I’d still have Gadget. That maybe I pushed us too much to fly too high — I was too proud of us for overcoming all that we overcame — so we had nowhere to go but plummeting to earth. I know know none of this is logical. But I know something in me believes it, because whenever my fingers tap out a sentence about that man in the waiting room, my chest and throat get tight, and I start to cry.

It’s T minus 12 hours, and I’ll be back there again, trying not to cry. Same powerchair, different PCA, no Gadget. However, I won’t sit in that stinky waiting area. I’m bringing a cell phone, so the receptionist can call me when it’s time for me to come in. It’s going to be cold in the van, but I’d rather be cold than sick. Even if it were 70 degrees outside instead of ten, my heart would feel cold in the van, without Gadget resting his chin on my thigh like he used to whenever we drove anywhere. The weight of his head was so warm and comforting, his wet beard staining every pair of pants that weren’t already stained.

Gadget with his head on Sharon's thigh in the van

I'll miss that warm, moist weight on my leg

It’s going to feel just as cold inside, too, without a warm, furry body curled around my feet while I press my face into the hard plastic machine and strain my eyes to see the blinking lights. The machine will reassure me, though: “You’re doing well. You’re doing fine. You’re almost through.”

I wish I could believe her.

-Sharon and the Muse of Gadget

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