Any joyful spirit I would usually have on Christmas Eve morning was lost on me that year as I waited for news I knew I probably didn’t want to hear. Tightness squeezed a shallow breath out of my chest as I heard the raspiness in Dr. Tom’s voice through the phone. The vet I loved who had taken exceptional care of my dogs for almost two decades was choking back a sob.
“Her sight is not coming back, Lorraine. I am so sorry.”
My heart and my hope sank to my toes.
Leah, my black Lab, was trained to retrieve things for me, but over time she also lifted my spirits on bad days and made me laugh every day in between. Our bond was deeper than I had with most humans. Leah knew my soul. In our years together, she was joyful and inquisitive, learned my moods and my needs, and took good care of me. Her only quirk was that she never barked. When she needed something or wanted my attention, she would come find me instead. She quickly learned how to approach my wheelchair while I was working in my office and put her head under my hand, so I had to stop typing and address her concern. Usually, she was telling me that she was hungry or needed a snuggle. Ours was a life of easy partnership, I took care of Leah’s needs, and she helped me out whenever she could, always with unwavering loyalty.
One morning, as we got ready for the day, Leah did not seem like herself. She moved with hesitancy and seemed to be in pain. On closer examination, her eyes were swollen and unfocused. It was also apparent she was confused.
“What’s up, sweet pea?”
I didn’t have the answer, but I knew if I could tell that Leah was in pain, her pain had to be excruciating. With the help of a caregiver, I got her to Dr. Tom’s office as soon as I could. The diagnosis just about broke me in half. Sudden onset glaucoma. Dr. Tom gave me a glimmer of hope when he offered to keep her at the vet clinic for a few days. He thought it was possible if she was given powerful eye drops on a strict schedule, some of her vision might return. Because of my disability, I couldn’t give Leah those eye drops. She hated them, and she knew how to wiggle away from me when she didn’t want any part of what I was trying to do. She was at the vet clinic when Dr. Tom called me with the news. Despite the best efforts of my vet and his staff, my service dog was blind.
Everything in me wanted to hold her, but I was alone. I wondered “What would Leah’s life be like? Would I be able to take care of her? Would she still be the lighthearted and mischievous dog that I knew and loved? She played a game with one of my caregivers. She loved to run around the house, so he would make her run before he fed her dinner. After a few weeks, she started running around the house whenever she saw him pull up in the driveway for his evening shift. I didn’t know if there would be any more games like that. I knew one thing for sure. I wasn’t going to give up on Leah. She needed my love now more than ever. So, when Dr. Tom gave me the news that Leah could no longer see, I pushed down all the panic and the fear I was feeling and responded in the only way that made sense to me.
“That’s okay, Dr. Tom. In our house, we adjust to disability every day. What do we need to do for Leah?”
When Leah and I were first matched, she didn’t see any of what other people called my weaknesses. She got to know me for who I was, and we adjusted as we needed to. I was determined to return the favor.
When she came home, the first thing I taught her was how to come to me. For her safety and my peace of mind, I wanted her to be able to get to me quickly. With the help of some caregivers who went to various places throughout my house, we would call her name often until she was right in front of us. Her reward from them was some praise and petting, but when she came when I called, she got a piece of kibble. I wanted her to understand that coming to me was a really good thing to do.
The next few months were a little rocky. Before Leah was used to her surroundings, she bumped into things often, and she seemed to wonder why she couldn’t navigate her world in the same way that she always had. I got the vibe that she felt like she was letting me down. One day, I found her napping in a corner of my bedroom as if she was embarrassed by her limitations and wanted to stay out of my way. Tears stung my eyes. I couldn’t imagine losing one of my senses without any context. I couldn’t imagine my world suddenly going dark. I went to her and put her head in my lap. Months earlier, she had taught herself to hold my hand. When I asked her to do so, she would take my outstretched hand and wrap her paw around it. She held my hand as I spoke.
“Hey, sweet pea,” I whispered as I buried my face in her fur. “We are going to figure this out, I promise. I am going to be with you every step of the way.” I was hoping the kisses she gave me meant that she believed me.
We doubled down on our quest to create a new normal. There were toys with bells and others with squeakers. Leah relearned old commands and learned some new ones. Over time, she learned the layout of our house so she knew where she was all the time. She began to trust my voice to guide her. She learned to stop in her tracks the moment I said “careful” and wait until I redirected her. She eventually learned how to get to her food and water bowls without skipping a beat. With every success, her confidence surged, and she got more comfortable. She even figured out where her treats were kept and started to sit obediently next to that cabinet until I noticed her. She seemed to smile every time that specific effort was rewarded.
One day, about six months after Leah lost her sight, I had been in my office working for several hours. Almost instinctively Leah came in and put her head under my hand, so I had to stop typing. According to Leah, I had worked long enough, and it was time for some kibble and a snuggle.
My heart melted.
In that moment, I knew that Leah would be okay. No matter what happened in our lives, she would always find me.