The day before I traveled to New Jersey in addition to retiring Luna and packing I needed to arrange and be at the euthanasia of my 13.5 year-old retired guide dog Fran. Her people weren’t sure she could or should wait until I get back to cross the Rainbow Bridge. After complaining to a friend about the unfairness of it all, I settled down and did what I needed to to be present for Fran and her retirement people. Fran was well loved and gave much love—a good soul.   A line in the Writer’s Almanac poem for that day “Earl” by Jenkins described what I needed to do to make it through the day:

“Well, how else are you to live except by denial, by some palatable fiction,
some little song to sing while the inevitable, the black
and white blindsiding fact, comes hurtling toward you
out of the deep?”

I pack taking three non-essential objects to ground me:  one of the NYPL lions (probably need Patience more than Fortitude), a black onyx crow and a cross.  Those and M and Ms should get me through.

Goals for the pilgrimage: bond with new dog; see God in the other people on the pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage to Seeing Eye began in earnest with a kind neighbor dropping me and my suitcase off before daybreak at the Eau Claire airport.  I was picked up from the Newark airport by a staff member from the Seeing Eye and taken in a van with other pilgrims to the campus.

There were twenty students and five trainers who spent seventeen intense days together. Wake up was at 5:30, breakfast at seven, first walk with the new dog at nine, lunch at noon, second walk in the afternoon, supper at five and last potty break for the dogs at 8:30. Usually there were one or two lectures squeezed in each day on traffic, veterinary issues, handling the public and access issues, dog grooming, etc.  It was challenging for me to spend fifteen hours a day around chatty people and remain positive and kind.

After orientation to the main building, including single dorm rooms (complete with refrigerators and Alexa), a restaurant style dining room, administrative offices, a laundry, library with computers and an exercise room, instructors walked with each student to gauge their speed and strength to help match them with the right dog. I was matched with Calvin, a two and a half year-old black Lab.  From the beginning he was an excellent worker, calm, steady and smart.  I quickly felt at ease with his walking style and we became a fine team quickly.  The last week of training involved going places like grocery stores, a courthouse, on elevators, escalators, a bus, a train church and on a paved trail like I will encounter at home. Calvin took each in stride and even showed me the particular counter we’d gone to when we went back to the grocery store a few days later. The trainers worked hard to make the lessons fun as well as educational.  For example in the big grocery store we visited, I got to go to the juice bar and ordered a beverage of my choice. Just because of the name, I got a “drunken sailor” which was citrus juices mixed with beet juice. Interesting cultural experience but not necessarily one I’ll repeat.  For church I went to a nondenominational church with a gal who didn’t want to go alone.  I’d never been to a rock music church service with music loud enough to feel the drums through your feet—another cultural experience that Calvin was calm and silent through. He also ignored geese my instructor stirred up so I suspect he’ll do well with the ducks and geese that sometimes inhabit parts of the campus.

My fellow pilgrims were amazing folks ranging in age from twenty-something to another seventy year-old. They were authors, teachers, moms, a Paralympian and government workers.  There were a few cliques but in general people gave the training 110% effort and were supportive of each other.  One gal had to leave without the dog because of some medical issues, but when they are resolved a trainer will bring her dog to her and finish the training in her home town. The team of trainers, the waitresses and cleaning staff, the volunteers who served coffee at the lounge where we waited for our turns to go on walks, etc. were dedicated and caring individuals who gave fabulous customer service to each of us.  Amenities of a high class vacation combined with working like a dog to learn to form a partnership with a new Seeing Eye dog.

In addition to the training being physically, mentally and emotionally challenging, it also grew me spiritually.  Calvin had a bowel issue throughout training and I had to work on balancing trusting the experts that it was probably just stress and would resolve with time with advocating for my need to know more specifics and what to do if it doesn’t resolve.  Ultimately I have to trust God that it will work out as it is meant to and I need to take one day at a time.  My worries are balanced with gratitude for the wonderful people I met and the privilege of getting a tenth wonderful guide dog from the Seeing Eye.

Now that we’re home and settling Calvin in to his new home, I’m led to take things a little slower and accept the many kindnesses of friends stopping by with casseroles and offers of rides and training walks with me. I’ve changed my phone message to include Calvin and am letting it take messages when I need extra naps!  I’m enjoying snuggling with and getting to know the wonderful creature that is Calvin. I’m in love.