Happy New Year From Fin and Kitty Pudding

Hey everyone, I wanted to wish everybody a Happy New Year.

I can’t believe 2013 is almost over. Those of you who know about me through FaceBook and emails know its been a year of lots of changes for me. Until July, I lived at Billie Black’s cat house with a bunch of other feline friends. I had lived there for a long time after being rescued when I was a kitten. Miss Billie took care of me. She takes care of lots of cats and helps to rescue cats who don’t have a safe place to live. I’m glad she took care of me, but I didn’t have my own special person yet.

Then, on July 20, Miss Billie introduced me to Carmella. Carmella met several cats that day but liked me the best. She said I had delicate little bones and such soft fur. She said I was sweet and that she wanted me to come and live with her so she wouldn’t feel so lonely and sad. Her very special dog Maggie was very old and she had to go to sleep so her spirit could get away from her old body and be free. That happened just a few days before Carmella and I met each other. I’m glad that dog Maggie is free now. I know Carmella is glad, too, but she has also been sad. She knew she would feel too alone without an animal to come home to.

That’s where I came in to the picture. Carmella says she thinks Maggie would have been happy about her rescuing an animal who needed a person of their own, even though she didn’t like cats much. I don’t care for dogs much either, but I’ve heard all kinds of nice things about Maggie. I know she was an extra special dog. I’m glad Carmella wanted to rescue a cat after everything that happened with Maggie. I’m glad she picked me. I’m kind of quiet so I got looked over by a lot of people, but Carmella saw something special in me. Now, I live in the city, up in the sky in a big box!

I’m sure going from a big friendly yellow girl dog who was very old to a shy little black cat who is just about a year and a half old was pretty different for Carmella. She says she doesn’t have to buy me special food, that I don’t eat as much, and that cleaning up after me is a little easier. She says there’s a lot less extra hair around. I know she misses her friend Maggie, too, though. Maggie lived with Carmella and helped her for fourteen years. That’s a long time!

I don’t get to go to work with Carmella and help her clients feel better. Maggie got to do that and went all kinds of other places, too. That’s okay with me, though. Maggie was more outgoing and friendly with strangers. I’m more of a home body myself. Me and Carmella like lots of peace and quiet. I hid a lot when I first came here. I hid good. I blend in to dark corners, except for my big eyes. I just think that, if Carmella can’t see me, no one else should be able to see me either. I don’t hide as much as I did at first. Carmella usually knows where to find me now. She’s cool about it. She lets me hide wherever and whenever I want unless we absolutely have to go somewhere, which isn’t often.

I’m not a helper animal like Maggie was, but I’m glad to be Carmella’s new little buddy. That’s what she calls me. When I jump up on her bed to visit her at night, she always says, “Hey little buddy, what’s up?” Sometimes, she calls me Finfin or Finster. I saw a show on TV pretty soon after I started living with Carmella. The people kept saying “Finfin” and saying I did something to cause people to have heart problems when they got me to help them lose weight. I don’t know what that’s about or why the TV kept calling me. It wasn’t nice. I was worried I might need to see a psychiatrist to get medication because I’ve heard Carmella say that, if you think the TV is talking to you, you might need special medicine. It only happened that one time, though, so maybe it was just a response to the stress of being in a new home. I don’t know.

Carmella and Nana got me lots of toys when I first came here. I had a feather wand, a catnip mouse, and a mouse that’ squeaks and his eyes light up when you go by him and he glows in the dark. I wasn’t interested in any of those toys. Carmella’s friend Peggy sent me toys, too,things her cat likes. I didn’t play with those either. Miss Robin (Carmella’s driver) sent a Cat’s Meow like you see on TV for me to try. I liked to watch it go round and round and would put my paw out to stop it every now and then. Another friend sent me one of those things with the ball that rolls around on the track. I’ll play with that a little if Carmella plays with me. I got some new toys for Christmas. I got a bag full of cat nip, some pipe cleaners, some cotton balls, and a Christmas bow to play with. Carmella will have fun trying to get me to play with them. Maybe I’ll decide to. We’ll see. Mostly, I am entertained watching her trying to get me interested in things. I’d like to think I’d stalk, and pounce, and attack like a fearless warrior if I had to, but that issue hasn’t come up in recent months. I will attack Carmella’s feet under the blankets if she moves them around a lot and I’ll pounce on an empty toilet paper roll every now and again. That’s about it.

Carmella is nice. She takes good care of me and doesn’t always try and bother me. She lets me be me and checks on me during the day but lets me have my space and my rest. Carmella says she understands me because we’re so much alike. We both like to sleep during the day, get easily overwhelmed when too much is going on, would rather stay out of the way, need a lot of peace and quiet, and like to eat at night. We’re both much more about flight than fight and try and be nice. Carmella says I’m a good boy because I don’t pee on things, scratch or bite, or climb around and break stuff. I guess that’s more ways we’re alike. She doesn’t do those things either.

I like to eat! I have a little trouble because some of my adult teeth have already come out. The vet says that can be something genetic and wants to check on me again in a few months. Other than cat food, I like chicken. I also like licking the leftovers out of pudding and yogurt cups and cereal bowls. Carmella lets me try different foods sometimes, just to see what I think. If I want attention or want a bite of something, I try and meow at her, but my meow is pretty quiet. Sometimes, all that comes out is air. Other times, I just make a little squeak. Every now and then, something comes out that sounds like a real “meow!” but that’s not too often.

When I first met Carmella, we spent a couple days at Nana and Grandpa’s house. We also spent time there during Thanksgiving and for a week at Christmas. Usually, if she goes somewhere overnight or just for a couple days, I stay here. I get a little bored, but Carmella leaves me plenty of food and water (bowls in each bedroom and the living room) and cleans my box out before she leaves and after she gets back. I pout a little and fuss at her sometimes, but that’s just because I miss her.

I had a quiet Christmas. That’s what I like. Peace and quiet. Carmella says my favorite Christmas song should be “Silent Night.” The one I don’t like is the one about “kitty pudding.” I don’t know what kitty pudding is, but I don’t want to find out or to try that! Carmella says it doesn’t actualy say that, that I have the words wrong, but I’ve listened. It says, “Bring us some kitty pudding, and bring it right here.! We won’t go until we get some so bring it right here!” I hope you don’t eat kitty pudding. I should stop thinking about it or I might have nightmares during my daytime nap. I mean, what do you think they use to make kitty pudding exactly? It creeps me out.

And also… I don’t like that Christmas vacation movie. No one should wrap a cat in a present box. That wasn’t so nice. And then, when the cat got electricuted… That was terrible. I didn’t know it was going to be a horror movie! No one warned me that was going to happen. I learned a valuable lesson about not chewing on wires or going near Christmas trees, though. I’ll sure never forget it. Carmella told me that, when Grandpa took her and her sister to see that movie Homeward Bound, he stood up and cheered when the cat went over the water fall and almost drowned in the river. I think she’s telling me a fiction story. Grandpa has been nice to me, even when I almost coughed up a big hair ball in his room the first night I was there for Christmas.

I had fun exploring Nana and Grandpa’s house. I was fascinated by the fireplace. I also liked looking out the windows at all the woods and nature. I even got into a staring contest with that big dog named Drake that is there a lot. We looked at each other through the window. I didn’t run away and he didn’t try and come after me. I’m not ready to say we’re friends, but maybe one day… Carmella said I was very brave to do that. I had some of Nana’s yummy mac and cheese and some turkey and ham, too. If I keep eating like that, I’ll need a bigger box. I’d hate to get stuck going in or out of it.

I slept under the futon in the flop room a lot and would hang out on Carmella’s bed at night like I do when we’re at our house. Sometimes, I would watch Nana work on her mosaics at night. I’m a little worried that, if anything happens to me, she’ll want to bling out my skeleton for Carmella, but I like all those shiny things on her work table. I tried to climb up there a couple times to investigate but Carmella told me I couldn’t mess with Nana’s art projects.

I’m glad to be home. My current favorite place to nap is the closet in the guest room. There’s a big comfortable pillow in there and my stuffed puppy brother is there for me to cuddle with.

I hope Carmella and I have a good year together in 2014. This thing about her getting a new guide dog sometime during the next few months makes me nervous. I hope that works out for all of us. I know Carmella will do what is best for everyone involved. I’d like for us to all be a family and I know Carmella would like that, too. I like living here and I like Carmella.

I hope everyone has a happy new year and lots of peace and happiness this next year.

Sincerely,
Fin

Beginnings: Meeting Maggie, July 1999

Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes. I recently experienced a tremendously painful goodbye by allowing my guide dog Maggie to rest in peace after fourteen years of love and loyal service. I’m sad but I’m also tremendously grateful to have had all those years with her. I met her a few days before her second birthday and her spirit and body parted ways a few days before her sixteenth birthday. She worked up until a couple weeks before her passing. I’m blessed, lucky, and thankful to have had such a good dog by my side for such a long time.

Statistically, those things aren’t supposed to happen. Guide dogs are generally a year and a half to two years old when they complete formal training and are matched with the blind person they’ll be helping. Then, each dog’s “working life” will last eight to ten years, on average. The typical life expectancy of a Labrador Retriever is ten to thirteen years. It amazes and humbles me to think about all the averages we blew past years ago. Knowing Maggie, though, it doesn’t surprise me that she kept going for so long. She was that way from day one. Maggie had such enthusiasm for life.

Since Maggie’s passing took place exactly fourteen years from the day we met, I’ve recently spent time recalling our first days together. I’d rather think about July 11 1999 than July 11 2013. That more recent date has been the one I’ve been talking about and emotionally responding to the most lately. It was a sacred day and as right and peaceful as such days can be. It was also very sad and contains details I absolutely can’t dwell on. The other July 11 fourteen years earlier, the day I met Maggie for the first time, was a much happier day. A ray of sunshine entered my life that day and has been a source of warmth and comfort to me ever since.

Maggie represented hope and second chances for me. She was my second guide dog. I traveled back to Pilot Dogs in Columbus Ohio to train with her only three years after being matched with my first guide, a black Lab named Poppy. I hadn’t expected to be going through that process again until at least 2003 or 2004. My plan was to have Poppy with me throughout the rest of college and graduate school, at least. In total contrast to how things went with Maggie, that working relationship was much shorter than average. Our training went extremely well, but problems began soon after we returned home and only got worse over time. I didn’t want to give up on Poppy, but trying to keep her working left us both frustrated, exhausted, and miserable.

As hard as it was, making the decision to retire Poppy was a relief in some ways. All the energy and effort that had been going towards trying to “fix” her could now be put towards planning for the future. Once I started accepting the situation for what it was instead of what I wished it could have been, it was easier for me to begin putting it in perspective. I knew I was doing what was best for both of us and that we would both be okay. I knew my Mom would take good care of her and that Poppy would enjoy being out from under the stress of guide work. I knew I would be able to still visit her and have a relationship with her. It would be different, of course, but Poppy would still be a meaningful part of my life. Knowing we weren’t saying goodbye forever was a tremendous comfort to me.

Poppy would always be special as my first guide dog but I knew I didn’t want her to be the last one or the only one. There were times when she’d done excellent work and I knew how much I enjoyed the feelings of freedom, dignity, and independence I felt at those times. Going back to being a dogless cane user was not something I wanted to do. I was ready to begin working with a dog who could be the reliable and capable guide Poppy was no longer able to be.

Retiring Poppy and retraining with a new dog was one of several stressful transitions I was experiencing during the summer of 1999. I was twenty-two and had just served as maid of honor and wedding singer in my sister’s wedding, with Poppy by my side. That was her last official work day and we barely got through it. I was living in Columbia for the summer, and sharing a house with several friends. At the end of August, I would be starting my final semester of college. I was facing decisions about where I might go to graduate school and what type of counseling I wanted to focus on. Poppy would be moving in with my Mom and the newlyweds and I would be living an hour and a half away with a new helper. I was still getting used to being an aunt and a sister-in-law and would have a new human roommate when we moved back into our dorm, as well. I’ve never handled change particularly well and was experiencing a lot of mixed emotions about all these things.

To make matters worse, I was also physically sick. A few days before I was supposed to travel back to Columbus, I’d come down with some kind of cold or allergies. I was coughing, had a sore throat, and was experiencing fatigue and achiness. I felt mentally foggy and had a hard time deciding what to pack and making last minute arrangements. I wasn’t running a fever so I didn’t want to postpone the trip. I had no idea how I would get through the intense and exhausting process of two weeks of retraining if I didn’t start to feel better, though. Most of the symptoms were gone by the time I met Maggie, but I kept a chronic cough throughout the time I was in training with her and for several weeks after we returned to South Carolina.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with airplane travel sick and emotional after saying goodbye to Poppy. I’d initiated contact with the mother and daughter who had raised her more than a year earlier. When they found out when I was supposed to go back to Pilot Dogs, they told me they’d be vacationing a couple hours from our home the week before and offered to take me back with them. I could spend a night at the home Poppy was raised in and they would drop me off at Pilot Dogs the next day. Nora and Emily had visited us the previous summer and I felt comfortable traveling with them. More importantly, I knew they’d experienced the same emotions I was struggling with when they returned Poppy to the guide dog school for her formal training. I could cry openly without feeling embarrassed and in the company of understanding friends instead of being on an airplane full of strangers. We had a fun road trip and I heard more stories about Poppy’s puppyhood. Those helped me to think happy thoughts about her rather than sad ones.

Once I was at Pilot Dogs again, I immediately became eager to meet the dog who would hopefully become my next guide. My trainer Sue had recently completed her training apprenticeship and was just beginning to conduct classes on her own. She was young and fun and I knew we would work well together. I also knew I would get reacquainted with trainers who were there when I trained with Poppy. I was familiar with the structure of the program, the campus, and the areas we’d be traveling around Columbus. I was ready to be introduced my new dog and to begin the process of bonding and learning to work together. It was July 10, 1999, and thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long.

The next morning, I was in my room, waiting, tense, and listening for excited panting, the click of toenails, or the jingle of a dog’s collar. Trainers at Pilot Dogs joke that they’re the only people in the world who get happy reactions when they say, “Go to your room and wait for me.” That’s the procedure when students are about to be introduced to their new dog.

Meeting a new guide dog for the first time is exciting and scary, kind of like a first date you’ve really been looking forward to. There are speculations and expectations. I wondered what the first moments with my new dog would be like. The first time I’d met Poppy, she hadn’t seemed interested in me at all. She was more concerned about where her trainer had disappeared to. It had been disappointing and very anticlimactic. I hoped this time would be different, especially since I was already worried about how long it might take me to begin getting attached to Poppy’s “replacement.” Could I really connect with another dog when I still cared so much about Poppy? Could Dog Number Two and I form a solid enough bond and working relationship in just two weeks? Would we work well together? Would she be able to handle getting around campus as well as sitting through long boring classes? Would she be a yellow lab like I’d asked for so everyone would be clear that this was a new beginning with a dog who looked different from the last one? Would she have a normal name or something weird?

I squirmed in my chair as I listened to the sound of footstepps and the familiar jingle of metal tags coming down the hallway. I wanted to run to meet them. I already had the leash. I just needed a dog to attach to it.

“She’s a yellow Lab and her name is Maggie,” my trainer Sue said from the doorway. “Call her.”

“Maggie!” I repeated, feeling an immediate sense of relief. Maggie was a cute, normal name for a dog, and as I quickly discovered, it suited her perky personality. And she was a yellow lab. Two important questions answered the way I wanted.

Worries about our initial meeting were quickly crossed off the list, as well. As soon as she heard her name Maggie launched herself across the room at me. She flung herself into my personal space like she already owned the rights to it. She acted as though we were long lost relatives. She was a squirming, hyperventilating, wagging whirlwind of fur and enthusiasm. She tried to climb in my lap and lick my face and seemed truly thrilled to be with me.

It was as though she were saying, “Oh my gosh, where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you forever! Thank God. I thought you’d never get here. I think you’re awesome. Let’s go places. Let’s do things. Let’s be friends. We’re finally together!” I was pleasantly surprised (and a little unprepared) for that level of unrestrained happiness. It was impossible not to respond emotionally to a reception like that. I couldn’t help laughing as I reached for her. I got down on the floor to pet and talk to Maggie, but quickly turned my head when a blast of her horrible fish breath hit me full in the face. That problem never went away and it always got worse the more excited she was.

Despite her horrible breath, Maggie had a great personality and the best attitude towards her work and her life. She got excited about pretty much everything. She seemed to think every aspect of the world she came in contact with was fascinating and completely worth getting worked up about. She was like a ditsy blond cheerleader on four legs and amphetamines.

Maggie’s excitement about the world in general made her eager to get where we were going when we went out on morning and afternoon training walks, too. I discovered this later that day, when we took our first walk together. We dashed from one intersection to the next, dealing with whatever obstacles or distractions presented themselves along the way. My left arm was sore for the first several days because Maggie’s pull in harness was so strong. We practically sprinted down the sidewalks of Columbus and would often have to wait at the end of each block for Sue and the other guide dog team we were training with to catch up.

Maggie wasn’t even slowed down by the unusual heat wave in Columbus that summer. It felt like South Carolina! We often had to do our training early in the day due to the heat and the potential for the dogs to burn their paws on the pavement. Some of the dogs were obviously more sluggish because of the hot weather, but not Maggie. Her excitement wasn’t going to be dampened by a little heat or humidity, or even a lot of heat and humidity.

It did rain one evening. When we went out the next morning, Maggie took a flying Superman style leap off a curb to avoid stepping in a mud puddle. I was startled, but hung on to the harness, and once she landed, we proceeded on across the street. “I can’t believe you were able to keep a hold on her,” Sue said, when she caught up with us and finished laughing. “We need to go back and work that again.”

Despite her eagerness and quick pace, Maggie stopped for curbs the way she was supposed to, guided me safely across busy intersections, and worked appropriately on and off busses. They were doing construction along some of the usual routes that were typically used during training. Maggie handled the noise and narrower sidewalks like a pro. When we were doing indoor work at the local mall, I worked hard, under Sue’s guidance, to slow her down to more of a “shopping speed.” To her credit, Maggie tried to contain herself, but she still moved at a brisk pace. We negotiated flights of stairs with varying degrees of steepness. She guided me on and off escalators and elevators and navigated revolving doors with surprising focus. The Pilot Dogs training facility had a revolving door on campus for us to practice on. I never did care for those and neither of us were big fans of escalators, but we were trained on how to safely use both when necessary.

Maggie was a happy worker. I could often feel her tail wagging against my leg as we walked together. I started calling her Waggy Maggie. I think she knew when other people were watching her work and liked to show off a little. She seemed to like all aspects of guiding, but obstacle work was her favorite part, I think. She appeared to enjoy the challenge of weaving around people, cars, or whatever else blocked our path to keep me safe and on course. This included knowing how to handle cars that pulled too far up in the crosswalks or turned unexpectedly in front of us. Her responses to these possibly dangerous situations were quick and confident.

She may have played the part of the ditsy blond, but Maggie proved her intelligence by how she handled several tricky scenarios. Sometimes, I didn’t know exactly what she was having to negotiate or make a decision about until Sue told me. The more opportunities I had to appreciate her judgment, the more my trust in Maggie grew.

Maggie aimed to please. She didn’t have the stubborn streak that had caused so many problems with Poppy. She didn’t need many leash corrections or verbal reprimands. Her nose got her in trouble more than anything else and she could be easily sidetracked by intriguing smells. It didn’t take much to get her back on track if she made a mistake or got distracted, though. A word or touch was often all it took to get her to refocus. She wanted to do what was asked of her and loved the verbal praise and petting she received as a reward for her efforts. Attention made her happy and she was very affectionate in return.

It takes time for a guide dog team to bond emotionally and to become truly comfortable working together. That process begins at the guide dog school as the new handler becomes the person walking, feeding, brushing, praising, correcting, and spending time with their new guide. Maggie needed drops put in her ears twice a day for an ear infection, too, and I quickly took over that responsibility. Maggie quickly seemed to understand that I was her new special person. Once that attachment began to be established, she didn’t like to let me out of her sight for more than a few minutes, ever. That was the case throughout the years we spent together.

I knew she was naturally a very flirtatious and curious dog and appreciated her ability to focus and reign in her social tendencies when she was working. Even when she was lying down, she did cute things like turning her front paws under so they made a heart shape, making eye contact, or changing facial expressions. People often commented about how, even when she was in harness and knew she would get in trouble if she made obvious efforts to engage with other people, she would try and draw them in with her gaze. I guess she thought she was getting away with something but I knew what was going on.

She was opinionated, too, and often sighed or groaned theatrically when bored. It always made me and other students laugh when she did this during college lectures. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to whisper “Amen,” after Maggie expressed her feelings that way.

Occasionally, during our dog care or animal behavior lectures with Sue, Maggie would pop her head up and bark for no reason. “She did that in the kennels during training, too,” Sue said. “She gets bored kind of easy. I guess that’s her way of saying she wants to go do something else.” She always was like that. Hours in our dorm room waiting for me to take a break from studying or a quiet weekend in our apartment were never Maggie’s idea of a good time. She preferred to be going somewhere or doing something.

I worried that she might bark like that while my professors were lecturing, but she never did. She was always mouthy when out of harness, though. Whereas Poppy barked if someone knocked on the door, Maggie barked for attention and treats, when she thought things were just too quiet, and sometimes, just to entertain herself, I think. It seemed like she truly enjoyed running her mouth and hearing herself making a lot of noise.

Poppy had never been a snuggler, but Maggie loved to cuddle. She liked physical contact and to be talked to. She would often lay on my feet or sit with her head on my knee. When we got home and I began allowing her on my bed, she often slept with her head on my chest or with her back curled against mine. When being petted, she often put her paw out like she wanted to shake hands. It didn’t take me long to figure out that what she actually wanted was to have her chest scratched.

Maggie wasn’t interested in games or toys. This surprised me given her energy level and because I was used to Poppy’s need for daily play time involving tug of war, ball chasing and catching, and destruction of stuffed animals. None of that was interesting to Maggie. All she ever did with stuffed animals was to bite off their eyes and noses. It creeped me out to think she didn’t want her toys to be able to see until I realized she was chewing up the noses, too. She obviously enjoyed them for their crunchiness. She and Poppy both loved chewing on their NylaBones, but that was about the only similarity.

In between training sessions and lectures, I worked on the Abnormal Psychology class I was trying to finish as an independent study course before the end of the summer. I also made an effort at being friendly with the half dozen other students from all over the US who were training with new dogs, as well. Most of my classmates were “retrains” instead of first time guide dog handlers but the gentleman Maggie and I usually went on training walks with was training with his first dog. He was a store owner from Tennessee who told great jokes.

There were several black labs, a Boxer, a Doberman, and a Standard Poodle in our class. Pilot had recently begun training the Poodles as an option for students who needed a hypoallergenic breed. Maggie was the only yellow lab in our class. When some donors came by who especially liked yellow labs, Pilot’s Executive Director asked if Maggie and I would spend a few minutes talking with them and posing for a few photos. I was glad to do so.

Guide dog schools are nonprofit organizations. Several, like Pilot Dogs, are supported by the Lions Club’s local and regional chapters, as well as the contributions of private donors. The training and travel expenses of dogs and students are usually covered in full and costs for all these services are considerable. The couple I met with seemed charmed by Maggie’s big dark eyes and freckled nose. They were interested in our new partnership and in how she would be helping me achieve my educational and career goals. I told them about how excited I was to be training with Maggie after my first dog’s early retirement, how she would be helping me during my last semester of college on a small campus, throughout graduate school (most likely on a larger university campus somewhere in SC, NC, or GA), and on into my career as a licensed psychotherapist.

Maggie celebrated her second birthday on July 15. I didn’t know this until I got her records right before we left Pilot Dogs. She still seemed to have a lot of awkward adolescent puppy left in her. Her head seemed way too big for her slightly scrawny body. Maggie wouldn’t eat around the other dogs so I had to feed her separately. Throughout her life, she was funny about her food, often trying to push her bowl into corners or under rugs to hide it if she wasn’t hungry when I fed her. She was picky about dog food, but never turned down other types of treats or snacks.

Time passed quickly, and within about ten days of training together, it seemed clear that we were a successful match. We passed our final test involving executing a planned route around Columbus to demonstrate the ability to stay oriented and to travel safely as a team. That meant we were considered “graduates” and that Maggie would be going home with me as my new guide dog. We took pictures for our ID cards certifying that we were a formally trained guide dog team, signed paperwork transferring her ownership from Pilot Dogs to me, and received a new harness and leash instead of the older ones we’d used during training. These practical matters all symbolized our readiness to leave the supervision of our trainer and to return home to begin our lives as a working team.

Some schools have formal graduation ceremonies and opportunities for puppy raisers and donors to visit with the new guide dog teams. Pilot Dogs didn’t do those things and I appreciated their lack of emotional hoopla. Training is stressful enough on handler and dog without a lot of extra excitement and drama, in my opinion. Her puppy raisers would receive a copy of our ID card and I would be able to contact them through the school eventually if I wanted to.

I packed my stuff, and my new dog’s stuff, for our flight back to SC. That would be our first airplane trip together, but not our last. Other adventures would take us to Albuquerque and Philadelphia and would include flight transfers in busy airports in Atlanta, Dallas, and Charlotte. They would also involve post 911 TSA security checks to make sure the blind woman and her yellow dog weren’t carrying terroristic contraband. I was looking forward to getting home and spending time really cementing the bond with my new helper and companion before beginning my final semester of college. But first, I just wanted to take a nap in my own bed. I was so tired that I kept falling asleep at the airport while waiting for my flight.

I was exhausted but hopeful. My life with my new guide and friend had begun and I had every reason to think it would go well. I knew we still had a lot to learn about each other and that every guide dog team experienced frustrations and challenges early on as they continued sorting out how to work and live together. I felt sure we could handle whatever was to come, though. And we did, from the moment we met on July 11 1999 to July 11 2013. When we arrived back in Columbia near the end of July, exchanging the unusually bad Columbus heat wave for the identical but more typical South Carolina summer heat, our partnership was less than fourteen days old. To my surprise and delight, it would last for fourteen amazing years. Maggie was a blessing to me from the first day to the last. I could have been matched with any number of dogs. I’m so glad Maggie became mine. God gave me a tremendous gift and memories of our years together will always keep her close to me. There will be another guide dog in my life (maybe several more) but there will never be another Maggie.

A Note From Maggie

To My Favorite Humans,

I don’t always know how to put dog thoughts and feelings into people words, but I know that goodbye is a sad word. I didn’t want to go without saying thank you and I love you. I’m sorry I had to go away. I didn’t want to. I stayed as long as I could. I almost made it to my 16th birthday. I’m glad I could stay so long, longer than most dogs get to. I made it to me and Carmella’s 14th anniversary date. I would have kept trying. I loved being me and living the life of Maggie. I would have kept right on being me the way everyone was used to if I could have, I promise.

What dog wouldn’t want to stick around with a life like mine? I loved my job! Sitting around at home was boring. I liked people and places and getting to do stuff most dogs don’t get to do. I loved being Carmella’s special helper. I knew she needed me. We were a great team for 14 years. I had friends everywhere, got to do things regular dogs can’t, was never alone, and had all sorts of creature comforts. It was great! I had so much fun, an important job to do, and always knew I was loved and safe. Please know that my life had enough good things and special moments for a million lifetimes! Every dog should have the life I had. As you humans say, I was blessed. Carmella says I was God’s greatest gift to her and a blessing to so many other people, too. I’m glad. I wanted to make the world a happier place and to give people a reason to smile and to help them feel special.

I was trying so hard. Its just that I was getting tired and it was getting harder to get around and sometimes things would get jumbled up in my brain and I would get upset. It was so hot and it was getting harder for me to breathe and my legs didn’t work very good anymore. I was taking so much medicine and it would make me fall over more and I would wake up and be confused about where I was or where I needed to go. Carmella said it wasn’t right for me to be like that. I knew she was trying to decide something important and I saw her crying a few times. She tried not to cry in front of me too much but I knew she was sad anyway. I don’t like it when she is sad.

I spent my last days on earth with Carmella and my family at Nana and Grandpa’s house. We didn’t have to go anywhere and I just got to rest and enjoy being with Carmella. Nana and Grandpa helped her take care of me and Aunt Crystal and my favorite little girl, Kristy, came to see me, too. Carmella told me how much everyone loved me and told me when our friends called or emailed to check on me. I hear I was talked about a lot on FaceBook. I always did love attention and everyone said such nice things. Thanks for caring so much about me and Carmella. Thanks for praying for us.

Carmella didn’t want to make me stay until I couldn’t do any of the things I loved anymore. Up until my soul and my body parted ways, I was still eating, going outside, and drinking lots of water. I wanted lots of petting and liked being talked to and I wanted Carmella very close to me all the time. I had been having trouble sleeping at night, but during the last week, special medicine helped me sleep much better. Carmella let me have lots of foods I didn’t get to have before, like blueberry muffins, Cheerios, goldfish crackers, pizza crust, bites of grilled cheese sandwhiches, chicken nuggets, French fries, vanilla cookies, … And she gave me all my medicine in little balls of peanut butter cookie dough. She thinks I didn’t know the pills were in there, but I did. By the last week, I was taking lots of pills and I got several of them three times a day so I got lots of cookie dough. Grandpa even made me some scrambled eggs! That’s one thing that’s not so fun about being a guide dog. You aren’t supposed to eat people food. Now that I’ve had it, I must say, it sure is good! Some of the medicine made me sleepy so I spent a lot of time the last few days just sleeping on soft places in front of nice fans and air conditioning. I still went on walks with Nana or Grandpa when I felt up to it and we went for boat rides almost every day. Those helped me settle down and relax. There were people willing to take me outside at any hour of the day or night, which was good because I drank TONS of water that last week. But I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that in the house and I didn’t, not even when the medicine made me dizzy so it was hard for me to walk to the door to go out.

Taking care of Carmella and being here with her was so important to me. That was my job and she was my most special person. She wanted me to be able to rest and not push myself because I felt responsible for helping her. I wasn’t going to give up, but I knew I could trust Carmella to take care of me and to be fair and she didn’t let me down. She said that’s how it needed to be because I always took care of her and helped her get around safely and be independent. She told me I was so good and smart and special and beautiful and that I didn’t have to keep going when it got so hard. My heart was so full of love and life but my body was getting so weak and my brain started getting so confused. My soul just couldn’t stay in there anymore. Carmella knew that and promised to help me.

Dr. Tim came to us so I didn’t have to go into a scary vet’s office. I had fallen asleep a few minutes before he got here so I was resting and comfortable and peaceful. Carmella, Nana, and Grandpa were with me. They wrapped me in the blanket I’d been sleeping on. My body is near Nana and Grandpa’s house, next to where her first guide dog Poppy is. The Saint Francis statue Carmella gave Nana for Mother’s Day is sitting nearby. He was the patron saint of animals and took care of and protected God’s furry creatures. He’ll watch over us. Nana is going to plant some pretty flowers for me, too.

My new home is really awesome. I don’t know what this place is exactly, but I’m frisky and strong like a puppy and have been since I got here. I don’t have to take medicine anymore. My legs don’t hurt or get weak or stiff. I don’t have allergies anymore so I don’t itch, no matter how long I stay outside. I don’t have to eat any special yucky food now. No vet or anybody else will ever stick anything up my rear end again! Ever!

I haven’t been able to scratch my back in the grass in a long time. I used to love doing that and now I can roll around on the ground as much as I want to. Then, I can just jump right up and run as far and as fast as I want to. I don’t ever get tired. Its so fun! I can flip right over and sleep on my back if I want. I haven’t been able to do that in years! I can bark all I want just to hear myself and no one fusses at me for it. That’s so fun. I can eat a hundred dog bones, cookies, and treats a day and never get sick. And the treats here are SO good! There are soft blankets and beds for me to sleep on wherever I want that have fans blowing on them for when I want to relax.

I have lots of woods and grass here and get to play and sniff all I want to. Sometimes, I just lay down and enjoy the sunshine. There are birds and squirrels and bunnies, but I don’t chase them. I just watch them. I have a beach to play on where I can run in and out of the waves and dig in the sand. I have dog friends, too. Carmella’s first guide dog who became Nana’s dog Poppy is here and other dog friends I’d heard about when I was with you are here. We play together and share happy memories of our special people and fun things we did before we came here. We all have great stories!

Carmella trusted me and I trusted her and we took care of each other. That’s how its supposed to be and no dog and person were ever closer than us. I could tell you all kinds of things about Carmella because I was with her all day every day for so long, but those stories go with me. Its that trust thing again. My second job was as a counseling dog so I know all about confidentiality. Speaking of sharing stories, please talk about your happy memories of me with Carmella. Remind her of the special times and of how much I loved her and how I want her to be happy again. She’s going to be saddest of all and I hated leaving her the most. We spent almost every moment of our lives together. The bond we had wasn’t like anything else in the world. I’m glad I could help her when she needed me. That made me very proud. I know our family and friends will look out for her for me and that, one day, there will be another special dog to help her. I’m glad about that because I know that won’t make me any less special to her. I have a place in her heart that no other dog will ever have.

Carmella loved me most of all, and she was my most special human. But I’m also glad she let me love and be loved by so many other friends and family, too, when I wasn’t wearing my special work harness and helping her. I’m glad she was willing to share me with the world. I had so much extra love in my heart and I wanted to be like sunshine so people would feel warm and happy. I’m so glad to have been your friend. Thank you for being my friend. Thank you for giving me treats, petting me, talking to me, and for being part of my wonderful life. I’m sorry you have to feel sad right now, but I hope after a little while you’ll feel more happiness than sadness when you think about me. Remember my wagging tail, my tilted head, and my smile. Remember my big eyes and my funny nose and the happy jingly noise my collar made. Remember I had a big mouth and liked to bark. Who could forget that? Remember how curious I was and how I liked walks outside, going for rides, and treats! I loved treats of any kind and got them from so many people. In the car… at work… where we lived… at Nana’s. Remember how much I loved being around people. I just thought everyone wanted to be my friend. Why wouldn’t they? I had a great personality and was very cute, if I do say so myself.

I know God will take care of Carmela and everyone else who feels sad about me. Thank you for being a part of what made my life such a good one. Live like I did. Remember to trust and don’t worry. Keep your heart open because life is full of fun surprises. Enjoy the sunshine and special treats and feel love in your heart. Make friends. Do your special job. Go places. Take naps. Do things that are fun and that make you laugh. Do something nice for a nice dog the way you would have for me. And don’t be scared of cats. They’re not really scary like I thought. The world isn’t scary. Its an interesting place full of adventures and nice people. It always was for me.

I know I won’t be forgotten. There will never be another me! I was happy with you. I’m happy now. Be happy and smile when you remember me. I will always be with you in your heart and you will be with me in my heart, too. Carmella takes up most of it, but there was always room for other people and still is. Maybe I’ll get to see you again some time. Love and peace be with you every day.

Your special friend forever
Maggie
July 15 1997 – July 11, 2013

Comments on Memoir Writing

Originally published Sept 2011 at

http://CarmellasQuest.LiveJournal.com

 

I commented today on the post
In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray « From BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog
Write Hard, Write Smart.
http://brevity.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/in-defense-of-memoir/

I enjoy good works of serious fiction about families and the human condition and the complexities of relationships. I also enjoy good mysteries. No fiction book I’ve ever read has moved me as powerfully as memoirs do, though. This is because, even if some names are changed or events reworked slightly, I know the story is true in its essence. It is something that actually happened to a person brave enough to share personal experiences in writing, to put their words out for strangers to take in and pick apart and pass judgment on. I automatically feel more connected with authors of memoirs for this reason and admire them for their courage.

I know first-hand that feeling of vulnerability when you launch a book into the world. There’s no way of knowing how it will be received. I knew mine would face some criticism. I was okay with that. It was still worth it to me to tell the story. No matter what, it was my story about a part of my life. No one else lives in my skin with my heart and my brain so no one else can tell the same story or stories.

Even if someone else has experienced similar circumstances, our perceptions or which parts stand out will differ. That can be said of every single person on this earth. I believe everyone has a story worth sharing. We can all learn from each other. We all have wisdom gained through experience. I tell my counseling clients this a lot when I’m talking with them about their life stories/narratives. Same goes when I give talks at churches or to other groups. I encourage people to think about the parts of their lives where they’ve learned important lessons or grown as a person, as well as times that were happy or funny. I stress that those stories are stories no one else could tell the same way. I talk to them about the power of the words they choose and the emphasis they place on certain events and the meaning they make of those events.

If someone doesn’t like memoirs in general or certain ones in particular, they can choose not to read them. Personally, I don’t read celebrity memoirs. I’d much rather read about “regular people” and what they go through. The exception would be if a celebrity writes about life before they became famous maybe. If the writing isn’t good, that should be addressed because its not good writing, not because of whether its memoir or fiction.
Carmella Broome
Author of Carmella’s Quest: Taking On College Sight Unseen (Red Letter Press 2009)
http://CarmellasQuest.LiveJournal.com

Response To A Carmella’s Quesst Reader

Originally published April 2011 at

http://CarmellasQuest.LiveJournal.com

 

I recently received the following message from a young lady named Colby Garrison who just finished reading Carmella’s Quest. I am sharing it with her permission.
“Hello Carmella, I am a totally blind college student, pursuing my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies. I have been totally blind since birth, due to retinopathy of prematurity. I am a Christian, and I am working with my first Guide Dog. I started reading your book last night, and I could not put it down. If I did not have classes to attend today, I would still be reading it. I downloaded your book from bookshare. I cannot thank you enough for writing your book. I wanted to thank you for writing Carmella’s Quest, because I feel like there is someone else with whom I am able to identify on many levels. You make me feel like its all right to experience the highs and lows of blindness, and to release the emotional responses that come with them. I will be recommending your book to my friends who are blind.”

My response:
“I’m so glad the book has been an encouragement to you. That was my hope for it from the beginning. I know how hard it can be to find time for pleasure reading while in college so it means a lot to me that you’re taking the time to read my book right now.

You’re right. As I describe in CQ, faith, supportive loved ones, and focussing on our independence and goals can help so much. Having a sense of humor and not expecting perfection from ourselves can, too. College can be challenging but rewarding, as can blindness. There are days when it really isn’t a big deal and when it presents some uniquely special opportunities and other days when it sucks. We know not everyone is going to accept us and that some people will decide everything about us based on narrow minded ideas. I don’t waste a lot of time on people like that. I’ve found way too many people who don’t make a big deal about it and treat me like a whole person, with blindness just being a part of that. They treat me with sensitivity but not with pity and consider me an equal. The older I’ve gotten, the more friends like that I find.

Sometimes, blind people aren’t honest even among themselves because we try to put such a brave face on for the public so we won’t be pitied. The reality is that living in a world set up for those who can see can take a lot of energy and can present plenty of frustrations. No matter how much technology and other plans for handling lack of sight we put in place, they don’t bring us quite up to the same level as our sighted friends. Things take longer. Gadgets don’t always work right. People don’t come through like we need them too. We try and do the best we can with it and that’s all we can do. A sense of humor and staying focussed on the bigger picture are so vital to that process so we don’t get bitter and stuck in self pity.

It sounds like you have goals and try to have a good attitude and to do the things that will help you to be successful. I think that’s great. Give yourself credit for the extra effort involved sometimes. Be honest about the difficult parts. Find some “safe” friends you can be truthful about the harder times with. It doesn’t help to dwell on them, but it can help to express emotions around them to people who care when it all gets to be too much. That’s not weakness; that’s reality. For the most part, focus on what you can do rather than getting stuck on what you can’t and know your strengths. Be open to the lessons in blindness and to God’s plan in all this. With ROP babies, any of us could have died. Obviously, knowing we didn’t can help us have more of a sense of purpose about why we’re still here and God’s hand on our lives. We know He’s working out a unique plan in us and that there is a reason why we are who we are.

Just some thoughts on all this. Keep pressing on and I hope these words, as well as the book, have been helpful.”

Carmella Broome, Author of Carmella’s Quest, Receives 2011 Ned E Freeman Award

Originally published August 1 2011 at

http://CarmellasQuest.LiveJournal.com

 

 

For Immediate Release
Local Blind Author Receives National Writing Award
Columbia, SC. – August 01, 2011. – Columbia resident Carmella Broome, author of Carmella’s Quest: Taking On College Sight Unseen, published by Red Letter Press, is the 2011 recipient of the Ned E Freeman Excellence in Writing Award. This award is presented annually at the American Council of the Blind’s national convention. Ms. Broome received this award for an article she wrote about partnering with the SC State Library’s Talking Books Services department to record her book so that it could be enjoyed in audio format by blind readers.

Her article, “In My Own Voice: The Carmella’s Quest Collaboration”. was published in the March issue of the ACB’s monthly magazine, The Braille Forum. “I used this experience to encourage readers to think outside the box if there is something they want to accomplish that might be possible with a little creativity,” Ms. Broome explains.

“Carmella’s Quest” was released in print in February of 2009. Later that same year, Ms. Broome recorded her book (a memoir about her first year at North Greenville College) at the SC State Library. “I was able to read the book myself using my own adaptive technology combined with the technology available through the Talking Books Services department,” Broome says. “When I came to them with the idea of how to do this, they were open and willing to try something a little different. The finished product turned out better than I could have imagined.”

The Ned E Freeman Award is given out annually by the American Council of the Blind’s Board of Publications. Any piece published in “The Braille Forum,” or another ACB affiliate publication, can be nominated for this Award. Mastery of the craft of writing is a major consideration by BOP voters. Interesting subject matter, originality in recounting an experience, or novelty of approach are also considered. A Freeman Award winner receives a plaque inscribed in print and Braille and $100.

“I read the Braille Forum so I know how many excellent pieces of writing were published this year,” Ms. Broome says. “The fact that the Board of Publications chose mine is really humbling and such an honor.”

The Ned E. Freeman Award, instituted in 1970, is named for the first president of the American Council of the Blind who, after completing his term of office, became editor of “The Braille Forum.”

###

Excerpt From Carmella’s Quest

Prologue

“Now, I’d like to present the award for Female Resident Student of the Year,” announced a voice I recognized as Michelle’s. “The Resident Assistants chose the recipient from among all of our on-campus girls.”
I wonder who they picked, I thought distractedly, a lot more concerned about the algebra final looming over my head.
Everyone was assembled for the second to last chapel service of the year. The staff of Student Services was onstage presenting awards in various categories. The past twenty-five minutes had been a jumble of flowery speeches, applause, and stage crossings. RAs had been honored, and various students had received awards for excelling in specific academic or athletic pursuits. Several staff members had been recognized for their support of student organizations.
“The award goes to Carmella Broome.”
I sat frozen for a moment, unable to believe what I’d just heard. My heart began to pound as the auditorium erupted into applause. I knew I should be thrilled, but all I felt was a sense of dread. How was I going to handle this? I had to make my way to the stage to accept the award, and I didn’t have my cane with me. I considered turning around to ask David for help, but I wanted to go
by myself. I’d been up there before. There were steps and cords, and probably podiums and chairs. I could trip or run into something and really embarrass myself in front of all these people. I might fall down the stairs or step right off the edge of the stage. Was I familiar enough with the stage to chance negotiating it without help? Deciding that I was, I got up and, trying not to step
on anyone’s feet, made my way toward the center aisle.
“God,” I begged silently as I walked toward the stage, “I know I’m being really stupid, but please help me get around up there.”
Climbing the steps, I was relieved to hear Reverend Crouse’s low instructions. “Watch these cords. Good. It’s a straight shot.”
I walked forward into the brightness of the spotlights, mentally coaching myself to keep my head up and not shuffle my feet.
“Here I am,” Michelle whispered, placing a plaque in my hands. “Congratulations. Look to your left a little so they can take your picture for the paper.”
I turned my head and smiled. The camera flashed. Amidst another round of applause and cheers, I turned to make my way back across the stage. Now came the hardest part. How was I going to find that top step? I slowed down when I neared where I knew the steps to be, probing the area with my foot. I felt Reverend Crouse’s hand on my arm. “There’s the step,” he murmured.
“Thank you,” I whispered, descending the steps carefully.
Thrilled that I’d made it down from the stage without incident or embarrassment, I turned up the center aisle and counted rows until I reached the sixth one. Trying not to step on anyone’s feet once again, I counted my way past the first seven chairs. As I sank gratefully into my assigned chapel seat, thankful that I hadn’t miscalculated and wound up in someone’s lap, I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. David’s voice whispered, “Congratulations.”
With the ordeal of accepting the award behind me, I was finally able to turn my attention to the plaque Michelle had placed in my shaking hands. No one could possibly guess how much it meant to me. I had no idea what it said, but that didn’t matter. The public recognition wasn’t what made it so special, though that was certainly nice. To me, the plaque’s truest value was what it
represented. It was a tangible symbol of success. I had done something I hadn’t been sure I really could do. I’d successfully completed my first year of college.

——————
Carmella’s Quest
Copyright © 2008 Carmella Broome
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the express written consent of the publisher. Published by Red Letter Press 6148 Rutledge Hill Columbia, SC 29209
RedLetterPress@gmail.com
http://redletterpress.googlepages.com
First Edition
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Control Number: 2008930745
ISBN-13 978-0-979-44206-3
ISBN-10 0-979-44206-0