Because of Diamond

Our Canine Companions for Independence journey began in October of 2009 when we joined the CCI family as we welcomed Diamond, an 8 week-old black Lab puppy.
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Gah…. little Annie was only 2 years old…

Given that this was our first foray into the world of service dogs, the learning curve was steep. Once Dizey became housebroken, we began leaving her alone in the kitchen… and then were horrified when she would chew through chair legs. She also learned the art of counter-surfing (including a cake to celebrate a friend’s newborn) – a habit that, according to her forever family, proved impossible to break (our bad!). Being consistent in our training – no jumping on anyone, even if they love dogs; no random climbing on the furniture, no matter how snuggleable the dogs look; no pulling on the leash, despite how much longer walks might take to get it right – was tough. But we learned. And Diamond taught us.

Bringing a pup-in-training with us everywhere we went was also an entirely new experience. We soon discovered the best times to visit the grocery store (lest a pup get its paws run over by the cart), how to fasten a CCI cape/vest in blinding Rochester snow, just how many paper towels and plastic bags to have on hand at any given time, which things might spook a dog (automatic doors, floor grates, and mannequins, I’m looking at you), and that, no matter how many times you’ve offered the pup a chance to hurry, there are no guarantees that a visit will remain accident-free.
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These were taken for the girls’ valentines; their cards said, “Puppy Love”

We also learned that there are no “quick stops” when you’ve got a cape-wearing dog with you. This is simultaneously one the most wearisome and most awesome parts of raising a service pup: everyone, and I do mean everyone, wants to tell you their dog story, and especially their dead dog story. A simple trip to grab milk and toilet paper could turn into a 20-minute sojourn when Diamond came along, as we were stopped so people could scratch her head (only with permission, thanks very much), tell us about their black Lab back home, how their best friend’s cousin’s uncle’s boss’s wife once dreamed about getting a black Lab, or about good ol’ Rascal or Butch or Princess who was the light of their life but crossed over the rainbow bridge last week or last month or six years ago. It’s almost compulsory, this desire to share dog stories with us because of the cape-wearing pup at our side.

And, for us, those stories have become almost sacred. Dogs are special. Sharing them is special.

So was Diamond. She came with us to Kiawah and Minnesota, doing a stellar job on the airplane both times. (Our trip to Minnesota did, however, provide us with our favorite dog disaster story of all time: when Diamond left Easter egg-filled diarrhea all over the moving sidewalk at the MSP Airport…) She went with the girls into their classrooms. She joined them in the snow and the water, posed for photos in costume, and never, ever complained.
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After returning Diamond in May of 2011, we knew we wanted to raise another service dog pup. By the time Langston arrived in September, we felt more confident and were excited to put what Diamond had taught us into practice.

We’d been told that CCI could release dogs from Advanced Training at any time; only so many are cut out for a life of service. Nevertheless, we were surprised in October, 4.5 months into Advanced Training, to receive a call that Dizey was being released. (Long story short, she was occasionally, but unpredictably, aggressive with other dogs.)
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We adored Diamond. We would gladly have taken her back.
But because we adored her, we knew she couldn’t live with us. She deserved a home without other dogs to make her nervous. So we put the word out – and, very happily, Diamond became the forever pet of local friends who loved her dearly (even though she never outgrew counter-surfing). Her nickname was D-Money. She graced their Christmas cards. They brought her on countless adventures. And when she became mysteriously ill, they never gave up on trying to find out what was wrong, to help her, to make her comfortable.

Very sadly, despite their Herculean efforts, Diamond passed away three days ago. She was only eight-and-a-half years old.

It’s a strange feeling, losing someone who held great importance during a particular period of your life. Not quite missing; Diamond hadn’t felt like “our” dog for many, many years; Ella and Annie barely remember her. Not quite heartbreak; we loved her then, and remember her fondly, but it’s been a long time and our hearts have made room for 5 other CCI pups since then. There’s a buffer of respect and deference, too; Diamond was our puppy, but she was her forever family’s beloved pet.

Her passing is nevertheless a somber, poignant milestone, and Diamond will forever occupy a unique and significant place in our hearts. She introduced us to CCI – their specific commands, training methods, and approaches. She also introduced us to the world of service dogs and puppy raising, which has become one of our most central and important missions.
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Gabe and Fenwick

Because of Diamond, there was Langston – who, though he flunked out, has become our very best boy. Because of Diamond, there was Jambi, a pup-turned-breeder whose pups have directly changed the lives of dozens of people in need. Because of Diamond, there was Fenwick, whose placement with Gabe has forever made him happier. And because of Diamond, there was Jitter (now in her 5th month of Advanced Training) and Arlington (who has become a gigantic, genius goofball)… and who knows how many other pups yet to come.
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Jitter navigating the LIRR during Advanced Training; photo courtesy of her handler
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Arlington taking in ‘Black Panther.

Because of Diamond, we found one of our purposes in life. We cannot possibly express our gratitude to her, not only for being a fantastic puppy, but for introducing us to the world of service dogs. Diamond brought us into the CCI family, and nothing has been the same. Thank God.

Or, in this case, thank dog.

Godspeed, Dizey. You were a great pup, a terrific pet to your forever family, and you can bet that next time Arlington and I are stopped by someone in the grocery store, I’ll be sharing your story with them.
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When I Grow Up

Although I’ve been going to the lake since I was an infant – with Nick joining me for the past 20+ years and the girls spending virtually half of their summers there – last Sunday we did something for the very first time: we spent the day and night there, all by ourselves. No extended family. No friends. No Phoofsy.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been… anticipating? dreading?… the anniversary of her unexpected passing a year ago this past weekend until I found myself reliving each day last year. Today was when we gave Gram the last-ever lake book… A year ago today, we played The Lake Game and she challenged Ella so she wouldn’t lose a chip… This was the day we spent the night in the hospital… And so on, right up to the phone call from the nurse telling me that, shockingly, Phoofsy was gone.
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Phoofsy giving Ella the business while playing The Lake Game last Memorial Day.

I’ve gotten in the habit of checking the On This Day function on Facebook as part of my daily morning media roundup. I love the memories (especially posts where the girls said something particularly amusing), but that week leading up to the day we lost Phoofsy was really hard. My status updates were so… normal… giving no hint that my world was about come crashing down. How was it possible? How did we not know?

Then, finally, came the post where I shared that Phoofsy was gone – a memory that probably should have been miserable and unsettling. Instead, reading through friends’ comments (most had never even met my grandma), I was consoled and made whole. Comment upon comment expressed sadness not only for our family’s loss, but their own personal sadness that Phoofsy was gone – because she had such an influence on them, simply through my photos and stories.

“I’m heartbroken.”
“I loved it every time you posted a story about her!”
“She seemed like the most incredible lady!”
“The time you posted the picture of her on the scooter made my horrible day so much better.”
“I feel like I knew her.”
“Thank you for sharing her with us.”
“I was in love with Phoofsy from here.”

A good half dozen people said: “I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up.”

Who could blame them? A strong, smart, independent lady who was always game for anything, was an amazingly good sport, had a fierce sense of humor, and kept an active Facebook account at the age of almost-95? Yes, please! I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, too.

She wasn’t perfect, of course. I mean, no one is, and Phoofsy definitely had her flaws… But she was crazy about me and Nick and Ella and Annie and told us so whenever she got the chance. That’s a pretty awesome thing, to be loved and to know it.

Often, when we told the girls we were headed over to Phoofsy’s apartment, they would groan and drag their feet (usually literally). “Do we HAVE to?” And every time I would tell them that yes, we have to. Not out of obligation, but because that’s what you do when you love someone: you show up. You’re there for dinner and to take them to the store when they can’t drive themselves. You check on them when they’re sick, bringing soup and crackers. You accompany them to events you’d never otherwise attend, simply because they asked. You call to say “hi” when you’re out of town. You show up.

(Okay, usually I just said, “Yes, we have to. Because she’s my grandma and your great-grandma and nothing gives her greater joy than seeing you. She probably won’t be around much longer, so we need to spend time with her while we can.”)

I’m so freakin’ glad I dragged them over.
And you know what? They’re glad now, too. Funny how that works.

Three days before Phoofsy died, I got a call at midnight saying she’d been taken to the hospital. As I hung up the phone, I groused to Nick. “Damn it. Grandma’s in the hospital again. But the doctors just told her they think this is nothing; I don’t even know why she’s bothering to go in.”

Nick asked if I wanted to go.
My first reply? “No. I don’t want to go. It’s midnight, for God’s sake, and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do anyway and I’m sure she’ll be released soon but if she’s not I can check in on her in the morning.”

Nick was quiet. We let my words just hang there for a moment.

“Shit. I need to go, don’t I?”
“Yeah. I think you do. Or I can… but one of us needs to go.”

Thirty seconds later, I was reaching for my shoes.

I spent the rest of the night with my grandma, navigating several areas of the ER and finally settling her into a private room on another floor. In between being seen by medical professionals and being taken away for tests, we talked; we used her iPad; we browsed magazines and looked at old photos. The entire time, she kept insisting that I should go home – “But it’s so late! You’ll be so tired! This is silly!” – and I kept insisting that I would stay until I was sure she was settled.

At last, around breakfast time, I was convinced that it was okay to leave. Before I did, she reached over and squeezed my arm. “Thank you so much for staying. I love you a lot, you know.” I told her that I knew.

After Phoofsy died, the attending physician called me at home. Among other things, she told me that my grandma thought I was fantastic, and that it was the girls and me who helped keep her going all these years. I’d never met this doctor; her comments were based solely on whatever my grandma had told her about me.

So yes, Gram. I knew.

I am so grateful for the time we had here in Rochester with Phoofsy – for every stuffy dinner, every comment about how our house was too small, every grumble about how apples cost too much. Yeah, sometimes it wasn’t exactly convenient… but we – Nick, the girls, and I – got to be a part of such a tremendous story. We got to witness, firsthand, what it meant to grab life with both hands and hang on for the ride, to always be up for something new, to be a true friend. People would tell my grandma that it was lucky (for her) that we lived nearby; truly, we were the lucky ones.

I don’t think I understood how integral she was to our lake experience, though, until we found ourselves there without her last summer. Even when our extended family was in town, the house just felt… off. Incomplete. To quote my aunt, being there alone made Phoofsy’s absence all the more pronounced. No one yelling down to the kids to wear their lifejackets properly… No sound effects coming from her iPad as she played online bridge well into the night… No one sitting in her favorite blue chair. Just empty.

It hurt. A lot.
So we made a point of never staying at the house alone.
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Crazy sky, Memorial Day weekend 2016.

I missed it, though. A well-loved home should be… well, loved. It’s practically illegal to not have someone enjoying it – empty chair and all. And so, this spring, I made up my mind that we would try. We would go down more often; we would stay overnight. It might be lonely and strange, but we love it there, so we would try.

My cousin, Andrew, and his girlfriend had been visiting the lake in the week leading up to Memorial Day. I’d thought they were staying through until Monday, but they left at lunchtime on Sunday instead. At first, Nick and I considered inviting friends to join us; staying there alone seemed too sad, especially over Memorial Day, a holiday we always spent with Phoofsy.

But then I decided – out loud – that we would do it. Just the four of us. The house is here and we are here and it’s not the same, but we need to try to find a new normal. The moment I said it, I had this instant realization that this might be how my grandma felt about the lake after my grandfather died almost nine years ago.
But she kept going. She made new memories. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. I’m sure she dreaded going to the lake without him. But she did it. She hung on for the ride.
I decided to hold on, too.
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Going for a ride… with Jitter.

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We had a delightful Memorial Day weekend. We grilled. We went in the boat. We played The Lake Game for hours – literally – and laughed until our sides hurt. No, it wasn’t the same without her… but it felt good. Right. True. I even sat in Phoofsy’s beloved blue chair – and instead of feeling lonely, I felt comforted.

If I want to be Phoofsy when I grow up, now’s as good a time to start as any.

Throwback Thursday: The Gift

Photos have always been really important to me. It didn’t matter if I took them or someone else did, if they were technically “good” or quick, blurry snapshots – I’ve loved them. While I’m not terribly hoard-ish (yes, that’s a word; because I said so) in most areas of my life, I do hoard photos. I’ve got boxes of old pictures, some containing frame-worthy gems, others with envelope after envelope (from the stores that used to offer 1-Hr Photo Development! – remember those?!) of out-of-focus images, often in duplicate or even triplicate, of people and places whose names I can no longer recall.

Doesn’t matter. They’re photos and, like books or chocolate or Sauvignon Blanc, I simply cannot bear to part with them. This may seem odd or at least not terribly practical, given the amount of space that the physical photos take up in my basement and the digital photos take up on my hard drive(s)… but the pictures make me happy. All it takes is a few moments sifting through image after image to completely lift my spirits, make me gasp (in both good and bad ways), and make me smile. Which is also like books or chocolate or Sauvignon Blanc. I may be onto something.

GranMary came to visit a couple of weekends ago, and we had a really delightful time with her. As I’ve mentioned, little gives me more joy than seeing our family and friends just soak up my children, and GranMary’s visit provided plenty of opportunities for that. I loved the way that Annie and she giggled together on Friday night before Ella got home from swimming – a little time, just the two of them. I loved how I was awakened on Saturday morning by the girls’ raucous laughter from GranMary’s bed, after the girls had crawled in with glee. I loved how she and Ella cuddled in to watch one of the Harry Potter movies while Annie was at a Girl Scouts outing – a little time, just the two of them.

I loved watching Mary and my grandmother chatting away over lunch. I loved a chilly Saturday afternoon spent inside, with the girls scarcely leaving GranMary’s side as they did projects (she always brings some; it’s a highlight of her visits) and watched more Harry. I loved the opportunity to sit and talk with her after the girls had gone to bed, while Nick was at a party for his hockey team – a little time, just the two of us. I loved how GranMary gamely participated in our scavenger/egg hunt, seemingly unfazed by the dozens of children shrieking about our backyard in search of chocolate and money. (Then again, who could blame them?) I hated it when we said goodbye for another few months and Nick drove her back to the airport – a little time, just the two of them.

I hate that Bill is no longer here to come out and see us, but I love that Mary still does. I love that we’ve made our own relationship with her, in part because she is GranMary, but in part simply because she is herself, and we want her in our lives.

And Bill is not entirely absent from her visits; we talk about him all the time, wistfully, longingly, but almost always with laughter. This visit, GranMary surprised Ella and Annie with little photo books for each of them – pictures of them with Grandpa Bill. Many of the photos, I’d already seen, but some were new to me and they took my breath away. See, I thought I’d already sifted through my Memories Of Bill, had pored over everything I could recall, turning them over in my mind and reveling in their comfort… but here were moments that I’d never seen before. Memories that I never even knew existed.

It was amazing.

The girls loved their books, too. After going through each page, asking about every picture, smiling and laughing, I wasn’t sure what they’d do with them… But then I discovered that Annie had taken her book to school to share it with her friends, and that Ella keeps hers beside her bed. It seems that they’ve inherited my photo-loving gene (and the book-loving gene and most definitely the chocolate-loving gene; it remains to be seen what they think of Sauvignon Blanc).

Mary also brought a small collection of individual prints with her, which she gave to Nick and me – all pictures of Bill, most of them with us in one way or another. I’d seen nearly all of them, and cheerfully thumbed through the pile without really paying them too much mind… until I found this one and was stopped cold.

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Bill and me, May 2013, laughing like nobody’s business

Looking at it, you might be thinking: that’s cute enough. You’re both laughing, ice cream seems to have been involved, and you look like you’re having fun. A nice picture… if you don’t count the faded smudge at the top of the photo (an errant finger? late afternoon sun?) or Bill’s compression socks or the way the cuff of my capris is practically cutting off the circulation in my calves.

I see those things, too, but I don’t care even one bit… because this is the only photo I have ever seen that contains just Bill and me. We have photos from our wedding (Nick’s and my wedding, not Bill’s and my wedding… Although I do have photos from Bill and Mary’s wedding…), from before our wedding, up North, downstate, with Ella and Annie, with Nick, with Mary – and many of them are delightful photos – yet none of them contains just Bill and me.

Believe me, I know. I looked. Hard.

Why this matters, I’m not sure. It’s not like there’s anything unspecial about photos containing other people, too. But somehow, it gives me incredible joy to have this photo of the two of us, obviously enjoying one another’s company, laughing and generally getting a kick out of life.

I hadn’t even known this photo existed, hadn’t known that Mary had surreptitiously snapped it a year ago during Bill’s last-ever visit. I’m so very glad that she did, though, and that she printed it out and gave it to us. It is, without question, one of the most wonderful – and unexpected – gifts I’ve ever received.

I can’t wait to stumble upon it again when I go through our photos (and eat chocolate and drink wine) and relive the memories of that day.

Nah, scratch that. This one’s going on the wall.
Joy that big should be shared, don’t you think?

Throwback Thursday: A Dog and her Girls

I had a dream about Madison the other night. It seemed so real that when I awoke, I momentarily forgot that it’s been nearly two months since she left us.

Perhaps that dream occurred because I’d been looking through old files on my computer and came across these, from the spring of 2008 when Ella was three, Annie was one, and Maddy was a spry young seven.

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Sand burial.

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Sharing secrets.

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Sunlit cuddles are always awesome.

I hadn’t seen those photos in years – maybe since they were taken – but they made me remember, despite how the girls often ignored her, and how she resented them usurping her position on the priority list, that they really were buddies, once upon a time.

I hope Maddy’s basking in the sun, wherever she is, feeling warm not only from the rays, but also with the knowledge that, truly, she was loved.

And I hope someone’s petting the heck out of her, our attention seeker who could never get enough. ‘Cause otherwise, eternity’s an awfully long time for her to hold a grudge.