Last Friday was one of the best days of our lives. We’d dreamed about it for years – literally, since 2009, when we brought home our first service dog puppy for Canine Companions for Independence. Our first two pups had been released from Advanced Training (flunked out, basically). Our third was accepted as a breeder – a success, but not quite the heartwarming, This Animal Has Become A Service Dog And Will Now Change Someone’s Life moment that we’d imagined.
Then came Fenwick.
After six months of Advanced Training, he’d learned all the skills he could master and, after nearly two weeks of intensive Team Training, he’d been matched with someone in need. He was, indeed, to Become A Service Dog And Change Someone’s Life. Seven years later, we were finally attending the first CCI graduation of a puppy we’d raised.
It was almost more than I could handle.
I thought I understood why this was such a big deal. I assumed that Fenwick’s long-awaited placement would be the “reward,” that after a seventeen months with him – obedience classes, vet visits, bringing him everywhere with us, loving him with everything in us – we would finally see our hard work “pay off,” and that would feel great.
Turns out, assumptions really do make an ass out of you and me.
Ten days prior to graduation, we learned that Fenwick had been matched – but we didn’t know with whom. That news was, in and of itself, tremendous. He’d done it. OUR BOY HAD DONE IT!! Whoever he was placed with was surely perfect for him; it was all good.
Three days prior to graduation, however, when we learned that Fen’s perfect partner was a twelve year-old boy… Somehow, that made things seem even more tremendous. A boy – a child – would grow up with a buddy by his side. A child‘s life was going to be different because of Fenwick. That joyous news nearly did me in.
Again, I thought I understood why I was so deeply moved. Children tug at our heartstrings. Children are supposed to be carefree. They’re supposed to play, laugh, run, grow, and dream. They’re not “supposed” to have to deal with the hardships that adults face, whether they be financial difficulties, illnesses, physical limitations, losses, or heartbreaks. When we hear that a child is going through a challenging time, our Not Fair genes kick into high gear and our empathy goes into overdrive.
I assumed that was why I was so moved by Fen being matched up with a young child. But that was only part of it.
On Friday morning, we arrived at the CCI Northeast regional center right at 9:00, which was the earliest we were allowed to meet up with Fenwick. We hadn’t really worried that he’d have forgotten us since February, but seeing him wiggle around with glee at the sight of us and physically knock us over with his exuberance felt pretty great nevertheless. After an hour of hugs, belly rubs, a walk, and making him show off a few of his recently-acquired skills (he totally gave us some side eye when we made him “get” my cell phone off the ground), it was time to bring him to the reception room where the graduate teams were waiting.
No way around it: I was nervous. Would it be awkward, this meeting of two families who loved the same dog? What if we didn’t have anything in common? How could we convey that we were genuinely thrilled that Fenwick was being placed with them, but we still wanted to hug him one more time? Could we explain how delightful we thought it would be to keep in touch, without it seeming stalker creepy?
And most important: What if they didn’t like us?
After a few deep breaths, we entered the room and found G and his mom almost immediately. There were introductions and polite greetings until G’s mom and I got to one another. Rather than accepting my handshake, she held her arms out for a hug. I was so relieved and grateful, I thought I might sink right into the floor; and then, as our arms encircled one another, she whispered, “I can’t thank you enough for doing this.”
The tears that had already escaped a few times that morning let fully loose; I pretty much didn’t stop crying for the next five hours.
All of our concerns and anxiousness disappeared the moment we began talking with G and his mother (her sister was with them as well, and equally lovely). They were nice! They were funny! Our kids are six months apart in age! They like books and Star Wars! Best of all, it was readily apparent that Fenwick and G were crazy about one another, and that this was exactly what Fen was born to do: be with G. We never felt awkward or uncomfortable; they could not have been more gracious about the “we love the same dog” thing.
The 90 minute brunch absolutely flew by as we exchanged life stories, Fenwick stories, ate scrambled eggs and cake, traded mementos and gifts, looked at Fenwick photos and videos, and generally took one another in. It was a bit mind-bogglingly awesome to think that what connected us was a yellow furball asleep at our feet.
Things were going just about as well as I could have hoped when G’s mom explained how she’d sought out CCI in the first place: because she knew that G needed help, and a service dog was a way to obtain that help. As was said during the graduation ceremony, Fenwick provided G with “the bridge between ‘I can’t” and “I can” (and is) “the friend (he) can always rely on.”
All at once, what had been light and happy became substantially heavier and more meaningful. Fenwick’s placement with G opened up avenues and possibilities in G’s life that, two weeks prior, had only been hopes and wishes. Within the span of mere days, and embodied in one furry being, G’s entire life had changed. While I had considered all of this before in some capacity – it’s why we started with CCI in the first place – seeing it right in front of me was more affecting than I can describe.
While this is true for every graduate, from eight years old to eighty, and is why what CCI does is so incredible, hearing G’s mom describe how the life of her son was changing drove everything home. Yes, my heartstrings had been tugged because G is a kid and kids aren’t “supposed” to have to go through the hard stuff, but now I saw things through G’s mom’s perspective. She had been searching for answers to help make things better for, easier for, open possibilities for her child – and BAM! all at once, those wishes came true… in a four-legged pup. As a mother, I cannot imagine anything more significant or worthwhile.
With comprehension finally dawning, I felt like the Grinch with his suddenly three-sizes-larger heart; no joke, my heart literally felt bigger, spreading a warmth throughout my chest that lasted all day.
When we’d learned that Fenwick and G were to be matched, I’d gleefully announced their pairing on Facebook. A wonderful friend of mine commented on the post that it was a “full circle moment… Such a great example of the love you showed him!” I had never considered it in that way but before instantly latched onto the idea. For all of those months, through those vet visits and grocery store trips and Target candle aisle mishaps, through nights snuggling close and days romping about, we were loving on Fenwick with everything we had. That love was stored up inside of him – and maybe even made him just a wee bit more awesome (I mean, we’re pretty cool) – and now he was able give that love back to G.
One last hug for Fenwick at graduation before we turned over the leash…
I’ve written before about how raising CCI pups changes lives… most significantly, our own. I’ve also written about how it’s pretty much awful saying goodbye and turning the pups in for Advanced Training. Through it all, I’d assumed that, if one of the pups made it and became a service dog, it would have been worth it.
The more the girls, Nick, and I talked, the more we understood that the joy of Graduation Day – and all it means – so far eclipses the sadness of Turn In day, there’s no comparison. Fenwick becoming a service dogs wasn’t the reward (although, don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the most incredible things that’s ever happened in my life).
Raising him was, in and of itself, the reward.
Fenwick has taught us – and our girls – more about what it means to love, to give fully, to believe, to hope, and to dream than most people ever will. We couldn’t teach Annie and Ella those lessons on our own if we spent our lives trying; raising CCI pups does it for us. Saying that it was an honor to have raised Fenwick, and then to have seen him pass that love and those hopes and dreams along to G is an understatement; our Grinch-grown hearts are so full with pure joy, they are nearly bursting.
I’d worried that saying goodbye to Fenwick for the final time would be tough. Turns out, it wasn’t at all; he’s doing what he’s meant to do and we’re so thrilled him and G, sending them off was happy and hopeful.
Plus, we had our own CCI furball waiting for us at home… With another year to pour love into her, just imagine the possibilities…
This face definitely makes things worth it. Dirty… but worth it.