Meet Roja: Day 1 of Training at GDB

IMG_8346-2You know how some days can just fly by, to the point where you can’t even figure out what you did? And then there are those other days, those 24-hour periods that are so thick with events that it seems several months have passed overnight. I’ve experienced this during a weekend of silence at a trappist monastery, and on several short-term mission trips over the years, and today, at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, CA, during my first day of training.

It seems like ages ago that United Airlines lost my luggage, though it was just yesterday. And the classmates whom I sit in a circle chatting with on the back patio after dinner, laughing hysterically, feel like old friends. How could we already have numerous inside jokes? Sure, 3 of us had collided in the hallway the day we arrived, an awkward slew en route to our rooms, canes battling like hockey sticks. And some of us had already driven across the Golden Gate bridge together as our tour guide, Siri, explained it was 1.7 miles long, a fact Dale couldn’t stop repeating in various forms. But besides the basic family and career fact introductions, we didn’t know each other all that well. Yet after our one day of training together, it feels like we do.

And these labs resting peacefully at our feet in a lopsided circle of their own, feel like permanent fixtures in our lives, friendly shadows we’ve always had beside us. Though just this morning we trained with fake Juno dogs, which were no more than rolled up dog rugs, and Wheeler dogs, which were basically stuffed animals on skateboards, learning halt commands and right pivot turns inside meeting rooms and then around campus. But these faux fur rugs in harnesses couldn’t nearly prepare nor demonstrate the real thrill of being led by my guide dog for the first time.

We were given the name, gender, breed and color of our dogs shortly after lunch, following our morning training sessions with Juno and Wheeler. We sat in a conference room, giddy with anticipation, as one of the trainers read through the list of dogs. Dale would be receiving Helm, and we all murmured how neat it was that a helm is the steering mechanism of a ship. Dawn would be receiving Ava, and James would be receiving Ariana. And Joy…..

“You will be getting a female yellow lab named Roja”.

“Cool name!” I heard a couple classmates say, and then I zoned out, vaguely aware that Julie would be receiving Coraline and Jazelle a dog named Muesli.

Roja was the only name on my mind. Roja… I thought about how many times that name would roll off my tongue in the years to come, how that name would become as familiar to me as that of my children and husband. How that name would become an integral part of our family. How that name would weave me through the airport on the way home. How that name would lead me across streets safely and to places I can’t yet imagine. And I couldn’t wait to meet her.

We were told to go wait in our rooms for the trainer to bring each of our dogs to us. We were to sit in the leather armchair, kibble pouch and leash in hand. I sat in the chair, texting my daughters and husband the info, Since my aunt’s last name is Rojas, I texted her the name, and she reminded me that it means red or colored in Spanish. “Is she red?” she texted. “No! She’s a yellow lab!” I wrote back.

Then I just sat in the armchair, staring out the window, rubbing the leash strap between my fingers methodically, wondering what Roja would be like. Never having had a pet, much less a guide, before, my excitement was littered with anxieties.

Sure, I could walk, instruct, and praise Juno the rug and Wheeler the skateboard, but how would I do with a real, live dog? The last time I had tried to give a friend’s dog a treat, I flinched and yanked my hand away, dropping it. What if I couldn’t even reward Roja properly? What if she set off my allergies? What if she slobbered? What if she chewed my slippers? What if I gagged picking up her poop? What if this didn’t work out?

When the knock came at my door, Roja walked calmly into my life, matter-of-fact and very anti-climatic. She didn’t jump or lick me, which was exactly the type of dog I had requested. Her coat was silky soft, and my trainer said that she has a beautiful red coloring with darker red ears. She described her as calm yet affectionate, a relational dog who works hard to please. I couldn’t believe I had been given such a unique and beautiful creature.

The trainer left, saying she’d be back for our first walk in 10 minutes. I sat there, petting Roja, not knowing what to say to her or how to interact. When I reached to pet her head, she turned away from me. She didn’t put her chin on my lap, as I had hoped, or wag her tail wildly as I thought a happy dog should do. Again, I reached to pet her ears, and she moved away from me. “She doesn’t like me,” I thought, “I will be the one person in the world whose labrador retriever, the friendliest family dog on the planet, does not like”.

I picked up her leash and walked her to my dormitory-style room door and stuck my head into the hallway.

“What’s up Joy?” my trainer asked, “do you need something?”

“Um, no. I just want to know what to do while I wait.” I replied.

“Just enjoy her company. We’ll go out on a walk in a few minutes.”

Ok. Enjoy her? I did have a bone she could play with. I handed it to her, and she chewed on it a minute and then dropped it. She laid down. I rubbed her belly, and she continued laying on the floor. She enjoys that, maybe?

When I told my trainers about her moving away from me when I attempted to pet her head and how she might not like me, they laughed. “You’re just getting to know each other! Would you want someone you just met touching your face? And isn’t this the exact dog you described you wanted?”

She was. Calm and non-mouthy.

And as soon as that harness was on, boy could she guide like a pro. I trusted her instantly, following her fluidly. Her pace was perfect, steady but moderately fast, accelerating into a light trot. I felt like I was gliding along, for the first time not having to think about my every step.

When we got back from our first walk with her “working”, I heeled her beside me and she laid down on the hallway floor, enjoying the cool hardwood against her furry body after trotting in the hot sun. One of the trainers showed me how to scratch near her ears and cheeks, and she rolled onto her back, thoroughly enjoying it, nuzzling against me. The trainers standing nearby laughed. “See, she likes you!”

We ran into a couple classmates, who told me how playful but wild their dogs were. One of them had already nicknamed his dog “Tyson” after it nipped at his ear. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have Tyson. A dog I just met nipping at my ear to play? No thank you.

When we got back to our room, and I clipped her leash to the tie-down near her dog rug, she placed her paw on my arm and licked me, just once, and no slobber.

Roja is already the perfect dog for me.

Hands

photoHands,

stacked and held,

matted and framed

hanging on a hook above my bed.

Four hands.  Mine is at the bottom, followed by my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and the tiny newborn hand of my eldest daughter.  When a friend took the picture 8 years ago, I had no concept of the significance it would hold for me in future years when the physical hands would begin to perish.

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Mr. Clean

I have a dirty little secret to share.  A housekeeper cleans my home once or twice a month.  And….that’s it.  That’s the secret.  Pretty dirty, I know.

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I am not wealthy, but rather house cleaning is something I prioritize in my monthly budget.  It’s not as though my house needs to be perfect.  I have 2 small children (8 if you count my husband), and a dog, so a perfect house would be quite a stretch at this point in my life. Continue reading

Life Without a Dishwasher

Spring has sprung, and that means lots of park dates with the kids. Playground conversations amongst the parents can be riveting. Yesterday’s topic of discussion was dishwashers. Some people have them. Some do not. Two of the non-dishwasher moms were lamenting this missing appliance

“Yes,” I chimed in, “That would be so hard not to have a dishwasher.”

“Well, I mean, it’s not that bad,” one of them responded in defense, “You just get used to it after awhile.”

“Yep,” piped in the other mom, “People lived for many many years without the luxury of dishwashers. It’s really not a big deal.”

“True,” I agreed, changing my stance like a crafty politician, “It would probably force me to stay on top of my dishes if I did not have one.” Continue reading

The #1 Way to Assist a Person With RP in Public

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Friends and family have often expressed to me and my sister their concern over whether they are being helpful when we’re out and about.
We have told people there is no right or wrong way, and no specific expectation, This is half-true.  I posted a list of tips and pet peeves a couple years ago, though looking over it now, it may be too detailed to remember.
Some friends have observed our husbands’ interactions with us and followed their lead.  This is an overall wise idea, as our men have been with us long enough to help us seamlessly.  My husband, however, has been known to be so laid-back and hands-off that I have walked into signs and fallen down a flight of stairs walking right next to him!  This may be why he recently told me that he feels excited when I pull out my cane. Continue reading

Book Review: “Now I See You”

“You’ve got to read the book I just finished,” I heard Joy telling my voicemail.  This was not an uncommon message for her to leave.  Recommending the latest and greatest books to each other has been happening since our “Sweet Valley Twins” days.

But what she said next sparked my interest a little more than usual.

“The author is a mom about our age who wrote a memoir about her life and she has RP just like us.  She actually sounds like someone we would be friends with.”

I instantly knew she meant that we would be friends with her because of her personality, not her RP.  I uploaded the book from Audible a few minutes later, and began the journey into Nicole C. Kear’s memoir “Now I See You”. Continue reading

Bloom

Last summer I had the idea to start a legacy story-telling business that would help capture people’s life stories through video, audio and print. I bought 3 different domain names because I couldn’t come to a final decision, and the name I really wanted (Legacy Storytellers) was already taken. I worked on my web content, read and researched everything related to personal storytelling, met with experts in the industry, interviewed possible videographers, and began making plans to attend “The Association of Personal Historians” annual conference. I talked incessantly about my budding career plans, announcing to family and friends my goals for the year.

And then I took a little sip of air, often referred to as a breath.

And I exhaled for the next several months, wondering if this is the right time to start such an endeavor and feeling kind of embarrassed that I opened my mouth to so many people about it. Continue reading

Choosing Our Struggles

I love to read about other people’s struggles, especially if they are very different from my own and if they have overcome something unimaginable to me.  Whether it’s the personal memoir of an oppressed woman in the Middle East or wise sentiments from a man born with no limbs or a documentary about a wealthy hoarder in New York.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s dramatic, life-altering challenges, though those tend to be the ones that grab my attention, I glean just as much wisdom from writers like Brené Brown and Ann Lamott in their depictions of more common human ailments, such as shame and chemical addiction.

Back when I taught 7th grade, I was the only weirdo English teacher who chose “Life’s Biggest Challenge” as  my students’ major narrative essay topic.  While other teachers were assigning jovial topics like “What I Did Over Summer Break” in which kids could write about al the fun they had riding Big Thunder Mountain at Disney, I was “that” teacher asking 12-year-olds to think about their deepest struggles in life. And how they overcame them or how they continued to face them.  Granted, preteens these days do face incredible challenges, and there were maybe 2 or 3 kids each year who were able to articulate them and put them into any kind of big-picture perspective in a concise essay.  But for the most part, I read handfuls of narratives about overcoming skateboarding or gymnastics stunts that the students had attempted to master all of their lives. Continue reading

Adaptive Skiing

Yesterday was the final day of winter.  And although I am really looking forward to sunny spring days and warm summer nights, I am going to miss all the winter activities.  I recently learned to ski despite the fact that I thought skiing was something that I would never do.  Mainly because every time I have pictured myself skiing, I envisioned heading straight into a tree or some other object/person not within my field of vision.  Although running into objects makes for some great stories and blog material, it’s not my idea of fun.
Maybe it was the Winter Olympics, or my dad telling me about a skier with RP in the Paralympics that inspired me to try cross-county skiing this year and hopefully alpine skiing next year.  I had no idea that adaptive skiing even existed, but once I started looking into it more, I learned that there are multiple organizations and foundations that support skiers with disabilities.  Although I have not yet had the opportunity to receive any special training or adaptive tools, it is something I am looking into for the future.

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