There Goes My Heart

For the past 19 months, Jitter (our 5th service dog-in-training with Canine Companions for Independence, or CCI) was our pup. She went everywhere with us – movies, airplanes, the grocery store, you name it. She especially went everywhere with me; when I didn’t bring her with me, it felt empty and strange, like missing a phantom limb.

This afternoon, Nick returned Jitter to CCI to begin (what we hope will be) six months of Advanced Training, ultimately culminating in her becoming a service dog of some sort (fingers crossed). This is the part that sucks.
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Back in 2011 when it was time to turn in our second CCI pup, Langston, I made that adventure solo (well, my dad joined me for the actual turn-in, which was extremely comforting). Returning the dogs is always awful, but doing it on my own was particularly difficult; this time, I asked Nick to please be the one to return Jitter (I like to share). He generously obliged. I’m sure it was also particularly difficult, despite my dad’s attendance once again. And now, after 19 months, we’ll have to get used to the strangeness not having the incredible Jittsy-Bitsy by our sides.

As I’ve mentioned before, Jitter’s mama was our third CCI pup, Jambi, who was recruited from the service dog ranks to become a breeder. Since doing so, Jambi has had four litters (with a fifth on the way). Her first litter graduated this summer and fall – and, to our amazement and wonder, every single one of her pups (barring a fella that was released for medical issues) was placed with someone in need. It seems that Jambi – who was, herself, a tremendous pup-in-training – breeds some very special dogs.
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Mama Jambi with Jitter’s litter. 

Jitter is no exception. Typically, it takes us a while to truly warm up to our pups. Sure, they’re cute and all… but they also have really sharp teeth. And accidents. And they make meals out of refrigerator magnets and socks. So, our relationship with our puppies is usually quite businesslike until they stop chewing through table legs. Even when we finally fall in love, one of us is generally more smitten with a given pup than the rest of us (see: Fenwick). That’s just how it works.

Within a few weeks of Ms. Bitsy Boots’s arrival, we had all – the four of us – fallen head over heels for her. Yeah, she was super smart and learned her commands in an instant. She was a terrific size – small for a Lab but still solid. She had the most gorgeous, soulful brown eyes.
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But it was Jitter’s personality that drew us, and everyone who met her, in. She was the absolutely perfect combination of goofy but intelligent, playful but serious, sweet but mischievous, energetic but completely unflappable. To wit: last week, as I was talking with folks at the Y about Jitter’s return to CCI, they reached down to pet her – and commented that her single tail wag was the most excitement they’d seen her show. Two days later, I told our wonderful housecleaner/petsitter that it would be her last opportunity to visit with Jitter. She, in turn, told me how much she’d miss her – because of her exuberance and silliness.

She was, in a word, the very best. (Okay, that’s three words, whatever.) It wasn’t just us, either. When we took Jitter to Minnesota last summer, Nick’s sister, Nelle, pulled us aside to tell us that, if Jitter was released from the program, she’d like to consider Jitter for their family’s first dog. Nick’s mom, Karen, had visited us earlier in the summer and had already met our pup. As we we hung out with her and Nick’s stepdad in the Twin Cities, Karen remarked that she was grateful Grandpa Ray could meet Jittsy – because they’d love to adopt her if she were to flunk out. Before we left, Nick’s other sister, Emily, informed us that she’d talked with her husband… and they’d decided they were ready to have a second dog – Jitter, to be more specific.
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Thankfully, should Jitter wind up not making it through to graduation, we won’t have to risk starting World War III with Nick’s mother and siblings – because we decided long ago that she’d stolen our hearts and we would bring her home if given the chance. Even more thankfully, we have a feeling that we won’t have the opportunity to get Jitter back in our lives; surely a dog so smart, so dang purdy, and with such a fabulously versatile personality is meant to be helping people, don’t you think?

Last night, I posted on Facebook that even though this is our fifth go-round, it doesn’t get any easier. At the time, that was true. I cried my way through yesterday and felt nauseated all evening long anticipating Jitter’s departure. CCI is kind enough to provide a live-stream of its matriculations and graduations, so I watched from home as Nick and our girl crossed the stage and received her diploma and a handshake. I kept watching as the current graduating class – the folks who’d been paired up with the dogs – officially took the leashes and began their new lives together.

It was then, through my tears (always with the tears on graduation day), that I remembered our 4th CCI pup, Fenwick’s, graduation last summer. Like, I remembered it – how it felt sitting in those seats with Fen at our feet for the first time in six months, waiting for Gabe‘s name to be called so we could hand over the leash. I felt the anxiety… but also the hope. The pride. The relief. And, most predominantly, the joy of having him become Gabe’s forever partner – and the joy of having played even a small role in that.
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Watching the live-stream, as I felt that happiness and hope wash over me, I was somewhat astonished to discover my sadness over returning Jitter had lessened. Not entirely, of course – when you give a perfect dog your heart for 19 months and send her away, it’s next to impossible for it not to affect you. But when we returned Fenwick, none of our previous pups (or their offspring) had graduated yet. Now that we’ve seen Jambi’s puppies change lives… and now that we’ve seen Fenwick with Gabe… it feels different. More peaceful. Maybe even a little easier.

It has to help that, this time around, Jitter’s departure is not leaving us puppy-less. Seven weeks ago, we welcomed our 6th CCI pup, Arlington, into the fold. He’s still in that climb-into-the-dishwasher, inhale-everything-that’s-not-nailed-down phase, but good grief… is he ever cute. He also needs to be, you know, fed and walked and trained, so he provides a very welcome distraction. And, in another couple of months, he’ll be ready to accompany us to the movies, too (just in time for The Last Jedi – holla!).
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I’m still sad as heck that my little shadow isn’t here anymore, and we’ll be counting down the days till her monthly updates… but I’m going to try to share my heart with Arlington, too.

Go get ’em, Boots! You’ve so totally got this. Can’t wait to see what comes next.
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Why I Brought You To Susan B. Anthony’s Grave

My dearest girlies,

I know you weren’t thrilled to go with me to the cemetery on Tuesday. You were hungry (we really should’ve stopped at Tim Horton’s before rather than after; sorry about that). You were frustrated that you were missing certain classes at school. You were annoyed by the long wait.
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In any case, I know this wasn’t how you wanted to be spending the morning, and I really appreciate you tagging along. I know you don’t understand the historical significance of being able to vote. I’m not sure that I really understand, to be honest. Even though I know it isn’t a right for everyone in the world and that I should be grateful, there are times when – admittedly – I forget. So I understand why going to that gravestone wasn’t high on your list.

But someday, I think it will mean more to you.
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We brought all the girls for this historic day… including Jitter

As you grow older and travel, meet more people, and learn new things, you’ll come to live the lessons you only heard about in school. You’ll see how people of color are treated differently than people who are white; heck, given that you are biracial, you’ll probably experience it personally. You’ll see how gay folks are mistreated and disrespected – even though, to you, doing so makes absolutely no sense. You’ll see differently-abled persons mocked and vilified and entire regions maligned even though our faith teaches us acceptance and love for all. You’ll see, while we have more than enough, exactly how hungry and disadvantaged people can be; inequities and injustices of the world will blow your mind and break your heart.

I know that you do not – cannot possibly – fully understand these yet, which is why your dad and I are doing our best to help give you even the smallest bit of perspective. It is why we volunteer at homeless  sheltersmarch in the Pride parade, assist women and children in need, openly discuss race in our home, attended the rally in our little town after the white supremacist flyers were delivered to neighbors’ driveways, and why we put a sign in our yard says, “Our Differences Make Us Strong”.

I didn’t have any understanding of these things, of the world beyond my own, until I was much older. I think I turned out pretty well (shout out to Grama and Papa!), but I’m hoping to give you a different start – a chance to see the problems beyond our cul-de-sac… but also how we’re all connected and how, by reaching out, working hard, being kind and generous, remembering that we belong to one another, and being willing to truly listen to those who disagree, we can make a change. Our differences really do make us stronger.

Maybe you’ll look back on all this stuff and groan with annoyance (okay, who’re we kidding, this is so totally happening). But I also hope that maybe you look back on it with, if not nostalgia or fondness, at least an indulgent understanding of why it meant so much to me, and what I hoped to accomplish.
As for why I took you with me to vote and then had us stand in line to see Susan B. Anthony’s gravestone on election day?

You moaned with annoyance but I did it anyway. ‘Cause here’s the thing: I have no doubt that you will experience difficulties, setbacks, and roadblocks simply because you are women. You will, as every woman I have known, be harassed, demeaned, or – at the absolute minimum – significantly underestimated simply because you are female.

When that happens, I want you to be able to look back at moments like Tuesday. I want you to remember how you asked if you could wear a pantsuit in honor of Hillary Clinton, our nation’s first major party woman candidate for President, and were so keen to don the blazers I found at Goodwill (it seems pantsuits are difficult to come by for the 12-and-under set). I want you to remember how eagerly you got out of bed today, so excited over the mere thought of a woman having the ability to become President.

I want you to remember how it felt when we exchanged smiles with the other women in their pantsuits at the polling place, members of a not-so-secret club. I want you to remember the woman who ran by every one of us in the more than hour-long line at Mount Hope Cemetery, hand aloft, gleefully calling out, “High fives, everyone, high fives!” and how we all laughed and held our hands toward her. I want you to remember the beautiful fall day, the red leaves of the trees, and the feeling of electricity in the air. (I know you’ll remember the name Mary Smyles Butts on one of the tombstones; I’ll admit, it made me chuckle, too.) 

I want you to remember how we allowed the woman using the walker to bypass us, even though we had all waited in line, too, because her companion asked if we could let them through. And we did, every last one of us: because that is what we women do for one another – lift each other up, support, cheer. I want you to remember the woman ahead of us who stood for 60-plus minutes with the full bouquet of white flowers… But when she arrived at Susan’s headstone, she had only three blooms remaining – because she had given away the rest to those standing around her, including you and me.

I want you to remember how we practically skipped back down the cobblestone pathway, saying aloud in hushed tones, “Do you really think she can do it??” (For the record: remember, also, that we do not want Secretary Clinton to become President solely because she is a woman; we had many other reasons. But the woman thing is exciting as hell.) That it is  even a possibility for a woman to come this far is because of the efforts of women like Susan B. Anthony and we owe her an enormous debt of gratitude for our hope and optimism.

(Given how we make it a point in our family to discuss difficult things, this seems like a good time to point out that Ms. Anthony, while absolutely doing transformative things for women’s rights, was not, herself, supportive of people of color. This is complicated and messy, as all history is. We will keep discussing it. I still felt it important to visit.)

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The simple answer is I brought you to the cemetery on Tuesday so you could pay respects to the women who came before you. I brought you so that you can have a better understanding of our past – which, I hope, will give you a better understanding of our future.

More immediately, I brought you so that you would believe. Not necessarily in a Hillary Clinton presidency, but in yourself as women. I brought you on Tuesday so that, when you doubt yourself because you’re a girl, when you’re told that you can’t because of your chromosomes, when you’re disrespected for being female – maybe even by our President-elect – you will remember the line of people stretching for ages, sharing high-fives and flowers and letting those who were struggling cut ahead, to honor a woman who risked everything simply so we could have a say – a say! You will remember a world beyond your own, and that we are all connected.

Although Hillary did not end up becoming our President, that she made it this far, that this actually happened, is absolutely, astonishingly wonderful. Because if a woman was able to come this close to President of United States, then you, my dears, can truly do whatever you set your hearts on. And that is something worth celebrating and waiting in line for, regardless of the election result. (Take note: we’ll definitely be making this pilgrimage again; you can start groaning now.)

Yes, Hillary lost. I’m devastated and, quite frankly, terrified for our country (but that’s another post). I’m heartbroken that you, my courageous, loving, kind, intelligent, wise daughters still do not live in a world where a woman has become President. But we’ve seen it on election day and every day: women are brave. Women are strong. Women help one another. Susan and Hillary didn’t give up and neither will we. If not this year, another. We’ll fight together to make it so.

I brought you to the cemetery so you will remember that it only takes one woman to change the world. Her name is Susan. Her name is Hillary.

And her name is yours, too.

Love, Mama

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