53: Pop Pop’s Promise

53: Pop Pop’s Promise

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Loving Our Dogs

Pop Pop’s Promise

Of all the attitudes we can acquire, surely the attitude of gratitude is the most important and by far the most life-changing.

~Zig Ziglar

When I was a little girl my grandfather, Pop Pop, used to tell me that every part of life held the promise of something good. He said if I believed in that promise, sooner or later I would find a good thing even in life’s roughest situations. When I was young, it was easy to believe what my grandfather told me, especially when the two of us spent time together on his farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The gentle greeting of a milking cow, the fragrance of freshly turned earth in the garden and the unspoiled sweetness of a newborn kitten taught me the truth in my grandfather’s words.

Still, as a child born with cerebral palsy, I thought I’d found something my Pop Pop had gotten wrong. He had said “everything in life holds the promise of something good.”

His words made sense when it came to newborn kittens and fresh gifts from the garden, but not when it came to cerebral palsy. I couldn’t find a single good thing in my disability. It meant physical pain, frightening operations, difficult therapy and the frustrating realization that no matter how hard I tried, there were things that I just could not do. I used to watch other children walk smoothly across a room, but when I tried to do the same, my muscles refused to cooperate. My body behaved like a complicated toy that never worked the way I wanted it to. I underwent my first operation before I was two. By the time I was sixteen, I had endured a dozen surgical procedures on my feet, ankles, thighs, calves and even my eyes. Cerebral palsy did not fade away with surgery, therapy or braces, and it didn’t fade away with prayers hung on every star in the heavens.

Walking was an overwhelming task. It demanded determination, concentration and luck. If I had all of these, I could usually move across a room without crashing into anything. For me, that was graceful. Far too often, my poise faltered in midstride and I’d tumble to the ground like some weary, wind-tossed butterfly.

With time and practice, I learned to manage — somewhat. Still, my greatest struggle was that cerebral palsy had a terrible hold on my heart. I tried to act happy and secure, but beneath my smile I felt guilty and afraid. Even saying the words “cerebral palsy” made me redden with shame. I believed my worth was measured not by the way I lived, but by the way I walked. I was afraid that other people would see my disabled body and decide there wasn’t enough to love in the person they saw. That fear surrounded me like a huge stone wall, and I couldn’t open up to other people. I could not believe in the person I was created to be — I could only hide behind that wall of fear.

Since my grandfather said that everything in life held the promise of something good, I wanted to believe him, but after many years of trying, I couldn’t find anything good about having to live in my body. Then, when I was twenty-three, something good found me.

Slugger was a lively young Labrador, a handful of sunshine-colored fluff. Doggy delight bubbled up inside him and escaped in a constant stream of puppy wiggles. When Sylvia Fisher of Caring Canine Companions saw Slugger, she knew he was destined to make a difference. Sylvia enlisted the help of Vicki Polk and many other Caring Canine Companions volunteers. Thanks to the tireless dedication of these people, the bright-eyed puppy was transformed into a skilled service dog.

I’ll always remember the moment when I met Slugger for the first time. His tail waved an easy hello and his brown eyes sparkled with friendly curiosity. At that moment I fell in love. He was the most incredible animal I could have imagined, but I soon discovered there was even more to him than I could have guessed. Much more! As a certified service dog, Slugger had mastered basic obedience. He knew how to retrieve dropped items, open doors and bark on command. He had even learned to provide support while navigating steps and hills with his handler.

It had taken two years for Slugger to learn the skills essential for a service dog; it took the two of us several months to uncover the secret of successful teamwork. We graduated together in 1993, and although he and I still had a lot to learn from each other, I knew this dog would make a difference in my life. At the time, I had no idea how great that difference would be.

My partnership with Slugger brought a new freedom to my life. When we began our career as a service dog team, I was completing my master’s degree at James Madison University. With Slugger by my side, tasks like carrying heavy textbooks and walking across a crowded campus became easier than I had ever dreamed they could be. I no longer had to rely on other people to give me a hand when I was going up a hill. If I dropped a pencil during one of my classes, he quickly retrieved it. On many occasions, Slugger even kept me from falling on icy steps and rain-soaked sidewalks.

My service dog brought me the gift of physical freedom. Even more precious than that, however, was the gift he brought to my heart. Slugger touched me with an extraordinary love — a love that kept pace when my heart danced, and held steadfast when I stumbled. In sweet, unspoken ways, that love eased the pain in my heart, and his devotion taught me to believe in the person I was created to be. I learned to define myself not by what I had to overcome, but by what I had the courage to become.

Slugger and I have lived and worked together for nine years. In his gentle way, my service dog continues to share his Labrador lessons, and they have made me a wiser person. Thanks to him, I understand that blond fur on a dark skirt makes a wonderful fashion statement. I’ve discovered that every good partnership requires give and take. I have learned that a gift is most beautiful when it is shared. And now, at last, I understand what my grandfather meant when he said that every part of life holds the promise of something good.

~Leigh B. Singh
Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body & Soul

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