Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Miracle Named George

To understand the story you are about to read, you will first need to understand three important things about me: I have issues with trust, for the first nineteen years of my life I was terrified of dogs, and until that July day I knew very little about unconditional love. It was a Monday, July 20, 1998 to be exact, and it was around one o’clock p.m. I was standing in the doorway to my room at The Seeing Eye in Morristown New Jersey, anxiously waiting to hear my instructor call my name. All sorts of questions were running through my mind, and in the forefront was the fear that I was making an awful mistake. One by one other names were called. Each time a name was called, a few seconds would go by and then I would hear the person and her dog walk quietly past my door. I wanted to bite my nails. I probably cracked my nuckles a time or two. I shifted from one foot to the other and sighed enough for thirty people. Finally, shocking me out of my own thoughts I heard my instructor’s voice. “Shannon?” I don’t remember responding, but in seconds I was seated in a chair in the lounge, my instructor standing beside me. “Shannon,” she said, “ this is George.” At her words, two huge paws touched my knees. “Down, George,” my instructor said, and the dog obeyed immediately. But, all I could think of was, “His name is George?” George, though, didn’t give me time to think on his name. We were taken back to my room where the door was closed, leaving us alone. I petted him, he put his paw up to shake hands, and he sat so pretty, as if to say, “I’m a good boy. I promise.” After several minutes, George got bored, I think, and went to the door, pressing his nose against the tiny space between the portal and the frame. He sniffed it, then licked it and then whined. I could almost hear him crying out for the lady who had trained him. I sat down in the chair in the corner of the room and dropped my hands in to my lap, feeling at a complete loss. “Okay, God, you got me here. Now, what am I supposed to do?” Some time later, my instructor, who, oddly enough was also named Shannon, took George and me on a walk outside. George wore the harness and leash, as well as a second leash that my instructor held in her competent grip. It felt like I stumbled around that path instead of walked, and I kept stepping on poor george’s feet, but he never stopped and neither did I. Still, I was worried. If this stumbling around was what I could expect, maybe this guide dog thing wasn’t for me. From the beginning we were taught to feed, water and care for our dogs without any sighted assistance. We were also taught how to use a plastic baggie in order to pick up after our dogs when they left their droppings at our feet. Cleaning ears, brushing teeth, grooming, feeding, watering, and giving our pups pills were all things we had to know how to do well before we left the school. Sometimes, it was easy, and sometimes it was not, but always there was a positive atmosphere. The day that stands out in my memory took place on Tuesday, July 21. I can’t remember if it was morning or afternoon, but I do remember it was a bright, sunny day. I also remember my confidence was sorely lacking. I was still wondering if maybe God had brought me up here for nothing more than to show me how crazy getting a dog would be. Our instructions were simple. Take up the handle of your dogs’ harness and walk down the sidewalk before us. The instructor would be right behind our right shoulder, watching our every step. No need to worry. Looking back, I can’t remember if we were told anything about the sidewalk or not, but I don’t think so. I stood there at the corner and took a deep breath. Quite literally, my instructor was asking me to put my life in to the hands...ahem, paws of a dog. Could I do it? Was God calling me to do it? I hooked George’s leash around my wrist, lifted the leather handle and took another bracing breath. Here goes nothing, Lord. “George, forward.” Suddenly, where there was calm and quiet, there now was this seventy-eight pound dog pulling me down an unfamiliar sidewalk. Several times I cracked my toes on parts of the sidewalk that jutted up from the ground. “Toes up, Shannon!” came the voice of my instructor. “Oh, Lord,” I whispered, frantically, “what on eartha m I doing?” Swirving around trees and overhangs of leaves and branches, George and I flew down that sidewalk of slate. I had never walked that fast in my whole life. It kind of felt like a roller coaster ride that your friends have talked you in to trying. You are barreling along, and your feelings are ranging between terror and amazement and a thrilling joy. And then... Then, without warning, george stopped, and for a moment I just stood there in awe. I heard the traffic in front of me and my instructor’s words, “You did it!” I had done it! i had walked down an unfamiliar sidewalk at a pace that most sighted folks would later call running, and I was still alive to tell the tale. I had... Wait! I was forgetting something...someone. Right then and there, I knelt down on that hot, slate covered sidewalk and hugged that big, Labrador/Golden Retriever mix. I, who had never hugged a dog in my life, threw every reservation aside and wrapped my arms around him. “We did it, George! You did it! Oh, thank you God!” For the next eight years of my life, I was covered in blondish dog hair. For the next eight years of my life, I did not feel like a blind person. George and I went to school, went to work, walked in ten degree weather, walked in four inches of snow, walked in rain and mud, went to grocery stores, went to concerts, went to restaurants, visited elementary schools, took a plane to visit a friend in Savannah Georgia, slept side by side in the floor to the sounds of an audio book or two, shared pizza after attending a week of church camp, and spent many happy hours just enjoying one another’s company. Many was the time George lead me up a church’s isle to the piano where he lay quietly while I played and sang. Looking back, I know there were things I could have done different. I know all my decisions back then were not always the best ones, but George never stopped loving me, and I never stopped loving him. Some said that having a guide dog wasn’t worth the clean up, but those are the ones who never knew how much we meant to each other. Today, some say I shouldn’t get another dog, but, again, those are the ones who are not yet aware of the bond between a guide dog and a blind person. Sadly, I had to retire George in August of 2006. He past away in February of 2007. I was not there for his last moments on earth, but the George that I remember was happy and healthy, not dead or dying. George, who liked to rub his body against your legs like a cat, lives on in my memory. And, it is because he taught me how to give up my own control and trust, I am ready to move on. Out there somewhere is a new dog just waiting for a blind person who needs him or her. I have applied to a new guide dog school, and once again I find myself feeling a tendency to fear the unknown. Will I be able to trust God again with a new dog? Because, see, it’s not the dog or myself I need to remember to trust - it’s God in whom I am placing my trust. “So, God,” I pray, “get me ready to take that first walk, again and remember I’m scared. Prepare a gentle soul, like George was, but, Lord, help me not to compare this new dog with my first one. Give me confidence, Lord, because no matter how broken up the sidewalk, no matter how many obstacles lay in my way, I can do it, with you and my new furry friend in the lead.”

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