Imagine waking up one morning, and you’re in another universe where everything is turned upside down. The way you do things and the people in your life are completely reversed. That’s what this past week felt like for me; the life I know irrevocably out of place, as though I was living in someone else’s body. Out of the norm, and definitely disconcerting, I had a glimpse of what my days will be like without Casper.
This past week, I had a business conference in Missoula, Montana. Because of the long flights, almost twelve hours, I made the difficult decision to leave Casper behind in South Carolina at PAALS; his home away from home. As I mentioned in a previous blog, change has been upon us, and knowing that he tires more as he has grown older, I wanted to do what’s best for him. By leaving him in South Carolina, I knew he would conserve energy and be better prepared for the busy work weeks we have ahead of us in the remainder of April and May. However, without Casper by my side, my activities and daily life would be harder and altered in ways not even I anticipated.
On Monday morning, I packed Casper’s belongings and food in his bag. We cuddled for a few minutes, and I let him know I would see him soon. He and my husband dropped me off at work. I purposefully made the decision not to go along with them to PAALS, not because I didn’t want to go to PAALS, completely the opposite; I have a hard time saying goodbye to Casper, even for a short time. Not wanting to get overly emotional, which Casper wouldn’t understand, I waved goodbye, with a smile. If he perceives I’m upset, he’d want to cheer me up because he’d think something was wrong. Rather, I wanted him to go to PAALS, happy and carefree, seeing his friends, human as well as canine, and have a good time!
For me, the day at work was difficult; I dropped things, and would go to ask him to retrieve them, and forget he wasn’t there. Four times I said, “Casper, heel,” or “push” to open the bathroom door, and realize he couldn’t help me. This made me reliant on co-workers which made me feel helpless. Feeling as though you’re dependent on others makes an individual feel “less” of a person. While I knew this was temporary, it boggled my mind, as I hadn’t felt this way since before I got my first service dog almost nineteen years ago.
We had to drop Casper off on Monday, because we were leaving so early Tuesday. As we went to the airport, I mentally prepared to go through TSA Security. I have metal inside my body from fourteen surgeries over my lifetime, so I have to go through the pat down by Airport TSA Personnel. Ironically, prior to this trip, Casper and I always did it together, and in my mind, this trip was no different. As they were getting ready to pat me down, out of my mouth comes the words, “Casper, stand,” which he always did, so they can pat down him and his cape. I am sure the security thought, “Who is this woman talking to?” I turned red and laughed, explaining, “I have a service dog, and he usually travels with me, and goes through security, too. ” They were disappointed not to meet him!
Boarding the plane, we sit on the tarmac for thirty minutes when the pilot announces, “We have a brake malfunction.” We sit there for another hour before we depart for Dulles Airport. Missing our connecting flight by ten minutes, we embark half way around the airport to customer service to be re-routed an hour and half later to Denver. Barely having any time, we travel to another terminal, and just make the flight. The whole time, I’m thinking , “Thank goodness Casper isn’t here; there was no where or no time for him to have relieved himself, or as the cue goes, “Do business.” Four and a half hours later, we arrived in Denver, only to be told we were on Standby to go to Missoula, as there is only one flight in everyday. I needed to make my work conference, luckily, someone didn’t make their flight, and we were able to take off. Arriving in Montana at 10 pm, again, twelve hours later, I pondered, “I’m exhausted; Casper would have been wiped out!”
My husband, Bryan traveled with me to assist me with my personal care needs, as Casper wasn’t there to do so. While deeply appreciative of him, it soon became apparent to me just how much Casper does for me. When I wanted to get dressed, undressed, take my shoes and socks off, get my brush, toothbrush, give my husband objects, it wasn’t possible unless Bryan did each task. While I love my husband dearly, inside I felt frustrated as well as disappointed because I had to wait for him to do each thing, and it made me feel burdensome. It wasn’t I mind waiting, but I’m used to being self-sufficient. A marriage is teamwork, as is a service dog match. When you feel one partner in the team is carrying more of the load, you begin to feel like dead weight. Not a pleasant feeling, I started understanding what life without Casper would be; me being dependent and unable to contribute.
As my work conference progressed, I had a great time, but being without Casper was hard. If I had to go to the bathroom, I had to go back to my room, and ask my husband for assistance . Casper wasn’t there to help me transfer to the toilet or open the door for me to use the public restroom. This added extra time during short breaks between conference sessions. Also, when I needed things carried or I dropped objects, I had to ask people I met at the conference for assistance. While it may seem silly, it was significant for me. I like to do for myself, and not being able to do so, reminded me just how quickly life can change on a dime. It was as though I was in a parallel universe, and all that I have known for the last six years with Casper was completely in reverse.
On Saturday, I arrived at PAALS for the Grand Re-Opening; I was so excited to see Casper, as he was me. Every other day while I was away, Jen sent me pictures and updates of Casper’s days. While I knew he was well taken care of, my heart swelled as he came toward me, said hello, and went to greet others coming inside. As I welcomed people and discussed PAALS, in the back of my mind, this week, resonated. Sharing with guests the stories of PAALS clients, service dogs, and fostering, I opened up about my personal experiences from this week as well as prior; Service Dogs change lives, they empower individuals like me to grow, work, live, dream, and participate in community life. While this past week was eye opening for me, it reminded me the journey to independence comes with obstacles, but when we look inside ourselves and face our fears head-on, we learn and evolve.
Getting ready to leave PAALS as the Grand Re-Opening came to a close, I gazed at the PAALS Family Tree Wall, each service dog placed by PAALS has a picture. Seeing how so many dogs have touched so many people like myself pierced my heart. You see, each dog changed someone’s life just like Casper changed mine. It is why my path to a successor dog began. Each dog gives someone the strength as well as power to accomplish life’s tasks, and the ability to care for oneself and others with a sense of determination, dignity, and pride. These gifts service dogs provide have no monetary value, but are truly priceless to myself and other PAALS clients. For that, I thank Casper, PAALS, and every service dog who gives selflessly each day in service to their partner!