I have a friend named Erika; I've known her for the better part of 11 years. We've only met in person once, in 1998, and since then we've kept up a somewhat infrequent correspondence, but she's made a sincere difference in my life.
This past weekend, I received a package from Erika containing a book. She knew I had wanted a copy of this special book, Dog Blessings: Poems, Prose, and Prayers Celebrating Our Relationship with Dogs, edited by June Cotner, because of the following selection. The author is Paulette Callen.
She was taken from a wild pack in Queens. Something indefinable about her kept the ASPCA officers from euthanizing her right away.* And then, realizing she was not vicious and that she was pregnant, they asked my friend Erika (who used to work at the ASPCA) if she would foster this shepherd-chow mix until the pups were born and weaned, warning her not to get attached; a dog with her history almost always has to be put down.
Erika named her Zoë, found homes for all of her puppies, and together, they went to class: obedience, advanced obedience, agility, and all the courses required for Zoë to be certified as a therapy dog.
They could now make regular visits to a retirement home for priests. The priests and the nurses were all happy to see this beautiful dog. Even the old fellow who, when she first started visiting, would dash into his room and slam the door, yelling, "I like cats!" was won over when Erika told him that Zoë liked cats, too – she lived with four of them.
One of the residents was confined to a wheelchair and, because of Alzheimer's, lost to the world around him. The nurses told Erika that he spent most days screaming. No one could reach him anymore – except Zoë.
When he saw her coming toward him down the corridor, he became quiet and recognition would light his eyes. When she rested her muzzle on his knee, he stroked her head and spoke her name. In her presence, he experienced a glimmer of lucidity, a moment of connection and peace.
This is a dog blessing a priest.
*The packs must be culled periodically; if they get too large they become dangerous. Most of the dogs captured must be euthanized because they are diseased or too wild to be adopted (no facilities to care for feral dogs exist in New York).
I could not get past the first sentence of that selection before I started to cry and had to hand the book to my husband to read it aloud for me. As I told Erika in an email, the book is the second most precious gift she's ever given me. Zoë is the mother of my dog, Kiva.
Zoë and her puppy, Kiva
There are many reasons why I decided to raise a service puppy. One very significant reason has a lot to do with the choice Erika made to foster Zoë. By taking a chance on Zoë – giving her a safe, warm home in which to have her eight puppies and the kind of unconditional love that goes with that commitment – Erika's decision ultimately had a profound effect on my life; it brought me Kiva.
What Kiva gives to me is indescribable, although I could tell you a million stories about her. But the deepest, truest explanation of the love I have for her lies in the moments and stories I don't tell, rather than the ones I do. What Kiva has brought to my life ranges from the intensely minute to the extraordinary, so I can only imagine the levels of joy Ruby may one day be able to bring to her partner.
I know that I'm preparing Ruby as best I can for the day that she enters Advanced Training. And I hope with all of my heart that this little puppy will ultimately grow up with the right combination of skills, traits, and temperament to be a Service Dog for a person with a disability. As much as I will miss her, there would be no more precious gift than to see her placed with someone who will cherish her for all that she is, just as Erika cherishes Zoë, just as I cherish my Kiva.