Monday, November 28, 2011

Travelogue - Tales with a Tail

Recently, my service dog Stone and I returned from a 5 + week trip, an East Coast tour of people and places I love. We spent time in places I used to live near enough to frequent frequently, but more importantly, we spent time with family I miss dearly and friends so dear they are a part of me.

It seems fitting that it’s Thanksgiving week when I finally have the time and cognitive energy to reflect on our adventure in writing because our trip was so filled with so many moments that reminded me I have so much to be thankful for.

Our adventure began in Williamsburg, VA, an area steeped with history and filled with people who love their heritage and who genuinely seem to love sharing it with interested travelers. There are lots of reasons I love Williamsburg, the life- alteringly good food at the Colonial Williamsburg restaurants being one of them, but I realized this time that one of reasons is that the people who work and volunteer in the historic sites in the Williamsburg-Jamestown vicinity, seem to get such joy from sharing their passion for history with others. Their joy and passion are contagious.

Next it was on to the southernmost tip of the Jersey Shore, Cape May Point or, as it’s known to those of us who have the Point in our souls, The Best Place on Earth. (Sorry Snooki et al, there are no bars or liquor stores in the Point so there’s no point in you stopping by.) The Point is a bird sanctuary and as it was both bird and monarch butterfly migration season, the area was filled with birds and butterflies and birders, the latter of which are easily as fascinating and engaging a species as the first two.

In addition to soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of my youth and adolescents, I was able to spend time with both family and friends and have two glorious girls’ weekends during which I talked with old friends (oops I mean long time friends), pretty much non-stop during our waking hours.

Two of the friends were women with whom I’d spent nearly every day and night during the summers I was 14 and 15 but then we grew in our own separate ways. I am fairly certain I hadn’t seen one of these women since I was 15 years old. What a great joy it was to be reminded that it wasn’t merely proximity that bonded us together, rather, it was a similar view of the world and clearly, and I do mean clearly, a shared sense of humor as well as an apparent affection for a well…, um…., let’s call it a “party game” called Riki Tiki Bear. All these years post brain injury, sometimes I still have trouble remembering how to divide, yet I can recite verbatim, with proper cadence and in complete unison with my long lost friends the words to Riki Tiki Bear. I am choosing to believe this is a reflection of the quirky nature of brain injuries rather than a reflection of my quirky brain’s priorities.

From there it was on to Washington DC to visit with the “DC contingent” of our family and with more friends who feel like family, all people I love so much I forget how much I miss them until I’m with them. While I lived in the Maryland suburbs of DC for years, I’ve never grown immune to the majesty and grandeur of the museums, monuments and federal buildings in the seat of our Nation’s capital. This trip I was able to see three new-to-me monuments, the FDR, the World War II and the Martin Luther King, which opened for visitors while I was in town.

Growing up in our Irish Catholic family, FDR was more revered than even the winningest coach of Notre Dame. Our Grandfather, like so many men of his time, lost his business in the Depression and, with the help of one of FDR’s loan programs, bought a farm, where he started over, literally, from the ground up. As I walked through the Memorial, I thought about my Father and the stories he told about his own Father and about growing up on that farm and I missed him just a little bit less.

Just a short walk around a portion of the Tidal Basin is the Martin Luther King Memorial. I’d seen it on the news just a few days before on the day of its official opening. Frankly, I had not really liked what I’d seen on TV of the Memorial so I was completely taken aback by my reaction as I turned the corner and entered. Tears flowed down my cheeks as I stood in awe of the Memorial, in awe of the man who had changed the course of history with his words and his dedication to non-violent protest.

I walked further and stood in a small crowd of people looking up at the towering central statue. This group of strangers, who’d never met before entering the Memorial, were all interacting and laughing and taking photos of each other. It was unlike any crowd viewing any Memorial I’d ever been a part of. I stood there a long time. I stood there as two more groups of strangers came and went and they too were talking and laughing and snapping photos as if they were long lost friends. More tears flowed down my cheeks. Much like the man himself, it was awe inspiring.

On another day I visited the World War II Memorial to give thanks to not only my Father who, as a boy, fought alongside other boys in the Battle of Okinawa, but to an entire generation of men and women who sacrificed so much for so many and who role modeled for all of us how to put the good of the country and the common-good above our own individual welfare.

As always, traveling with Stone provided ample opportunities to be amused and and just as many opportunities to remember how incredibly lucky I am to have him in my life. As anyone with a service dog will attest, people are intently curious about our canine companions and like most Mom’s, I’m convinced there is something uniquely special about my baby which serves to increase the number of inquiries and admiring glances we receive.

In answering the questions of curious strangers, time and time again I told the tale of Circle Tail, the non-profit organization that trained Stone. I talked about how they rescued all the dogs they train to be service dogs and that they partner them with persons with disabilities and hearing impairments at no cost to the recipients. When they wanted to know more, I told them “our story”, at least the cliff notes version, about how Circle Tail had rescued Stone when he was 8 weeks old and placed him in their Prison Training Program for nearly 3 years where he rescued prisoners by giving them a chance to love and be loved and an opportunity to give back to the community and then went on to rescue me from a post-brain injury life of dependence, isolation, inactivity and inability.

As I listened to my own words and watched the reaction in the faces of strangers, I realized that I am living a Lifetime Movie Network feel-good, inspirational movie of the week. And I was grateful. And I am grateful. Each and every day I am eternally grateful to Circle Tail for rescuing my beautiful and brilliant beast and then for giving me the tremendous privilege of being his human partner and I am equally grateful to this amazing animal who has quite literally transformed my life.

Valerie Bertinelli, if you’re out there, I want you to play me in the movie. Stone will, of course, play himself.

As adventures with Stone always are, this trip was filled lots of laughter courtesy of my canine. While he didn’t add to his list of “States and Countries I’ve Peed In”, which is, after all, the whole point of any road trip, he did teach himself a new skill. Museums, historical buildings and the like have always been on his Top Ten Things to Avoid on Vacation, but during this trip, he learned a sure fire way to get to leave when it’s been “enough already – how much old crud can you look at?”. He taught himself the fine art of looking as if he is about to throw up and I have to say, it’s quite effective. We did in fact make a hasty retreat. Mind you, in neither instance when he employed this tactic did he ever actually get sick and it’s worth mentioning that in all of our years together he has never once looked like this without actually getting sick. Yes, it’s pretty clear who the brains in our partnership is.

On our way to Cape May, we took the Cape May-Lewes Ferry across the Delaware Bay. During the Ferry crossing, I had my favorite to date “I-don’t-care-what-you’re-in-the-middle-of-doing-I want-to-pet-your-service-dog-and-that’s-so- important-it’s-okay-I-interrupt-you” story, which we service dog people share with each other accompanied by squeals of laughter. The day before, I discovered I’d inadvertently run out of one of my brain injury medications and rather than call my Doctor on a weekend, I decided to tough it out and wait until Monday. So, I was sick before we got on the Ferry to find the water considerably less than calm.

I was laying on a bench, vomit bag in hand with a back up nearby and Stone was asleep-ish with one eye open focused on me, under the table. I’d finally fallen asleep when I was awoken by, you guessed it, “Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.” each time a little louder than the last. I opened one eye and found a Ferry employee looking down at me. Thinking she was there to offer some sort of assistance I sat up, sort of. Alas, I was wrong., what she really wanted, of course, was to ask “Can I pet your dog?” I explained “No. He’s working. “ and before she could ask more about him I added, somehow mustering up my nice voice in spite of the narrative going on in my head about her, “And I’m really not feeling well so I’m gonna lay back down now,” to which she said “Oh yea. I saw your sick bag when I walked up so I figured you weren’t feeling well.” I try to keep my blog rated PG so I will refrain from sharing what the narrator in my head had to say about her when I realized she knew I was sick and still felt compelled to wake me.

In Washington DC, we had lots of fun educating Taxi Drivers about service dogs. I learned quickly I had to call dispatch to request a cab because drivers wouldn’t stop when they saw Stone. Little did they know he’s, by far, much better behaved than I am.

My favorite Cabbie moment came in front of the Martin Luther King Memorial. We had just come from the incredible moving Memorial and I called dispatch to request a cab. When he got there he said “You have a dog. You can’t get in my cab,” to which I explained that he’s a service dog, just like a guide dog for a person who is blind. “I don’t care. You can’t get in my cab.” The conversation went on for several minutes, with me explaining that it’s against the law to tell me I can’t get in his cab, that it would be like saying to someone “You can’t get in my cab because you’re blind.” etc. His reply remained consistent, “I don’t care. You can’t get in my cab.” Finally I told him he could lose his Hack license and that if he drove away I would report him. This got his attention a bit and he was now willing to compromise: “Okay, but he has to ride in the truck.”

Can real life get any funnier than that????

Shockingly, I was unwilling to put Stone in the trunk so he did in fact drive away, giving me an amazing, once in a lifetime, goose bump-moment opportunity. I got to call and report my civil rights had been violated standing right there in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Often people refer to the quest for equal rights for persons with disabilities as the “New Civil Rights Movement” and there I was at the entrance of the Memorial built to honor the Father of the civil rights movement standing up.

Stone is particularly proud of our next funny taxi story. We were in DC near the rear entrance to the White House. While it had been raining on and off, the rain started coming down pretty hard. I tried to hail a cab, but, no surprise, no one stopped for my wet dog and I. There was a DC police officer on a bicycle talking with the two uniformed Secret Service agents guarding the back gate of the White House. I approached the officer, explained that I couldn’t get a cab to stop for my service dog and I in the rain. One of the Secret Service agents, without hesitation, walked into the middle of the street, pointed at a cabbie going the other way and asked “Are you headed to pick up a fare?” When he said “No”, the Agent instructed him to “Do a U-Turn and pull over here.” He then opened the cab door for us, asked me where we were going so he could tell the driver and added “This is a working dog so I don’t want to hear that you gave her any trouble about it.” Stone is convinced he’s the only dog who has ever had the Secret Service hail a cab for him.

One of Stone, (and my), favorite parts of the trip was a weekend stay with our friends Frank, Maria and Mia. For Stone, I’m fairly certain their house was a lot like Disneyworld. First, the human to dog ratio was excellent, especially because all 3 of our hosts are dog lovers. Next, they have 3, count ‘em 3, cats, to stare at obsessively. When one gets boring, move on to the next, sort of canine channel surfing. Then finally, they have an open door walk-in pantry filled with endless goodies and endless good smells. I would find him there periodically, standing, gazing lovingly at the food with an “all’s right in the world” expression. In fact, since they had Wheat Thins, which are forbidden in my house because to me they’re like Crack, I would, on occasion, join him and together, the two of us would gaze upon the goodies.

And so, on this Thanksgiving weekend, to all of those who made my “East Coast Tour of People and Places I love” so wonderful, Wood and Stone and Donna and Nancy and Lee and Mark and Karl and Norah and Patty and Randi and Debbie and Leilah and Mo and Mo’s Frank and Bongi and Craig Joe and Frank and Maria and Mia and Richard and Richard’s pie, you are all on my list of things for which I’m grateful. Thank you for being in my life and for sharing our adventure.