The anticipation was almost more than I could bear. I had been planning the surprise for 4 months, and it seemed August 8th would never arrive. I nearly ruined the surprise on several occasions, and it began to feel like it could burst out of my mouth at any moment without warning. I told very few people about the surprise in hopes of containing it.
Finally, the date arrived, and my younger sister, Jillian, and I set out on our trip to unveil the big surprise.
I clenched the phone in my sweaty palm as my heartbeat quickened with excitement. “Hi Joy, JIllian and I are just hanging out and really wish we could be there to see you and Roja graduate.”
“I know!” she replied, “I miss you girls!”
“Have you taken Roja out to do her business yet?” I asked as I walked alongside Jillian towards Room 412.
Joy laughed. “Did I tell you about that?” Knock. Knock. Knock. “Hang on. there’s someone at my door.”
“SURPRISE!!!” Jillian and I shouted as Joy stared back at us with bewilderment. She looked down at her phone, and then back up at us, and then down at her phone again as she repeated, “What? What? What?! What?!”
We had accomplished the surprise trip to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California. GDB reserved special seats for us, and Joy’s friends Sara and Adam, who had driven up from LA to be at the graduation. The ceremony was moving, and I learned so much about the intense process of raising puppies and training guide dogs. I was both surprised and impressed by the level of dedication of the volunteer puppy raisers and GDB training staff.
Each graduate was given an opportunity to speak, along with the puppy raisers. I was touched by the sweet stories the puppy raisers told of the young curious puppies, and the life-changing impact of the guide dogs each graduate described.
When it was Joy’s turn to speak, I felt nervous and trembled a bit as if I was about to speak in front of this large group. But my anxiety quickly dissipated as Joy began to speak in her confident, sweet, natural demeanor.
“…The first day of training, the training supervisor gave me some feedback and said ‘you’re doing a good job following her and it looks like you’re really natural with her, but I want you to start trying to picture walking confidently with her, and holding your head up high, and having your destination in mind. You want to look like someone who knows where you’re going and knows where you’re at with your dog.”
.Pause. Deep Breath.
“He didn’t know it, but that meant a lot to me because that was always how I wanted to walk around the world. I always felt like I was just hesitant and having to walk a lot slower and more cautious than I wanted to…and using my daughters as guide daughters.”
Laughter from the audience.
“Anyways, I have felt like that these last 2 weeks with Roja, where I can just move. I can just go, and I can be confident and I can hold my head up high.”
She went on to share how grateful she is for the puppy raisers and the amazing program and staff at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Her speech was filled with authentic emotion, and I received several compliments on it following the graduation from strangers who assumed that I was Joy.
It is likely no surprise that her speech was particularly moving to me, as I share her DNA and many of the struggles she described. The person that I feel I am on the inside is not often the person that appears on the outside, due in large part to my vision loss. I feel energetic and friendly as I walk into a party, but I glance around cautiously to make sure I will not bump into anything, or anyone. I am often focused on where my next step will be rather than greeting my friends with enthusiasm as I would like to do. I have been mistaken for shy, confused, drunk, and stuck-up. It can be a very exhausting and isolating way to go through life. The people who are close to me know these struggles, and so naturally want to know, “Will you be getting a guide dog, too?”
While I am inspired by my sister, I am not certain that it’s the right decision for me at this time.
However, Joy’s journey towards independence has inspired me to finally go through cane training, something that I had been putting off for quite a while. I completed a one day training in May, and I will share my experience in future posts.
There is one person in my family who is convinced that everyone should have a guide dog, fully sighted or blind. “I don’t even want to learn how to cross busy streets by myself, “ my fully-sighted six year old declared, “I just want to get a guide dog like Aunt Joy!”