A Dog named Slugger
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by Leigh Brill
Category: General Nonfiction/Mainstream
Description: The heartwarming true story of Slugger, author Leigh Brill's trained service dog, who transformed Brill's college years as she struggled with congenital cerebral palsy. Brill is now a counselor and motivational speaker involved in the service dog community. She travels with Slugger's successor, Kendie. In the tradition of Marley & Me, and Dewey the Library Cat.
eBook Publisher: BelleBooks/Bell Bridge Books, 2010 Trade
eBookwise Release Date: April 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [275 KB]
Reading time: 160-224 min.
* * * *
My hands were trembling again. I needed to get a quarter out of my purse, but my quivering fingers made the task feel as intricate as neurosurgery. It's always been that way with cerebral palsy--sometimes I just shake. I can't help it. Still, the tired store clerk waiting at the counter in front of me didn't understand this. She sighed, clearly wishing I would hurry up and pay for my purchase. I would have liked to be able to do that.
At last I grasped the quarter. I started to hand it to the clerk, and my fingers slipped. With a familiar flat plink, the coin hit the floor and rolled past the purple metal legs of my wheelchair. It was far beyond my reach now, but I knew what to do. I spoke softly to the companion who was standing attentively at my side, and he did what I could not. He retrieved the wayward quarter and put it carefully on the counter before taking his place beside me once more. I smiled when he did this. Now the tired clerk was smiling too. "How amazing!" she exclaimed. "I never knew a dog could do that!"
My Labrador, Slugger, flicked his tongue across his jowls as if to remove the taste of the quarter. He was a highly trained service dog; for him, scooping a fallen coin into his mouth--and then spitting it out on command--was routine. Slugger was accustomed to retrieving anything that slipped from my grasp. My canine partner also carried my belongings, fetched my telephone, and opened heavy doors for me. His unwavering devotion brought me confidence and joy. With Slugger by my side, I discovered the life-changing power of unconditional love. And I learned that even the most formidable challenges can offer something good.
* * * *
Six Years Earlier
I Need Help
* * * *
The scarlet oak and white ash groaned on that October afternoon in 1992. Lashed by a bitter wind, even the stateliest trees on the campus of James Madison University creaked as if lamenting the frigid gusts in their boughs. I'll bet that's how my bones sound, I thought as I walked to my graduate class. At twenty-two, I knew Virginia's cold autumn weather would make the symptoms of my congenital cerebral palsy much worse--it always had. But I wasn't going to dwell on it. I had just begun working toward my masters in community agency counseling, and I wanted to focus on my coursework. Obsessing over my studies made it easier to ignore the pain of my condition and the newest stress fractures in my feet. I hunched beneath my overstuffed backpack and willed myself to keep going.
The sidewalks were full of pushy bodies on strong, hurrying legs; and I avoided them whenever possible. The lawn seemed a safer route. It was less crowded. Trekking across the grass, I headed to my Abnormal Psychology class. I'd had trouble cramming two notebooks, my textbook, and the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) into my purple backpack. Now the load banged against me as I walked. Even with the top unzipped so that the flaps parted in a black-toothed grin, my pack was straining at the seams. My body was straining too, though I refused to acknowledge this.
Beneath my feet, the earth was furrowed. This was dangerous terrain for legs like mine. I should have been paying close attention to where I put my feet, but the icy wind stole my attention. It stung my face and turned my fingers numb 'round the edges.
I shoved my left hand deep into the pocket of my winter coat and felt my fuzzy yellow mittens there. But I couldn't make my half-frozen fingers grasp them. The mittens popped from my pocket and fell to the ground. "Great," I mumbled, bending to retrieve them. I should have squatted down carefully. I should have moved slowly to keep my balance on the uneven ground. Instead, I dove forward, mimicking the start of an impromptu somersault.
Suddenly my body was out of control. I slammed against the earth so hard that my breath deserted me. I tried to inhale. It was like sucking a thick milkshake through a cracked straw. The effort made me dizzy, and each attempt brought more pain than air. I smelled dirt, tasted its grittiness on my lips.
With my face turned sideways and my head flat to the ground, I resembled a kid pressing an ear against the metal snake of a railroad track in hopes of hearing an oncoming train. But I was too shaken to hear anything. The steady whir and click of an approaching mountain bike went unnoticed until its rider's words exploded behind me. "Whoa, perfect ten! Way to go, grace!" The voice was taunting, sarcastic. I looked up in time to see a flash of spandex, bright blue leggings over sculpted calf muscles. Those muscles flexed and pumped. They did not slow as the rider pedaled past me.
"Shut up!" I wheezed. Without air, my response collapsed, as empty as a deflated balloon. But the voice inside my mind was clear now; it took up a familiar mantra, Just try to relax. The sooner you do, the sooner the pain will leave.
I'd first heard this when I was just eight years old. I was in the hospital then, facing one of the many surgeries that marked my childhood. An orderly had helped me onto a stretcher. It was cozy and the blankets were warm, so I didn't protest when my arms and legs were strapped down. I was wheeled into a large waiting room where other boys and girls lay on their own cots. A nurse moved, catlike, among them. Suddenly she was poised over me. She looked as if she might pounce, but instead she rolled me onto my side. My hospital gown--a parade of cheerful teddy bears marching across yellow fabric--fell away and I blushed. A sharp sting on my bottom made me cry. The nurse patted my shoulder reassuringly. "Try to relax, honey. The sooner you do, the sooner the pain will go away."
The familiar edges of my reality slowly melted like butter in the sun. My father's face, my mother's voice, the sheets pressed against my body, everything began to quiver as I was wheeled into the operating room. This was a vast place of shining metal and blue-green tiles. The inhabitants were blue-green too. In their caps and masks and suits, they looked like grotesque turtles. Later I would have nightmares about those turtles. Who were they? What did they want? What were they going to do to me?
Unknown hands loosened the straps around my arms and legs. Were they going to let me go? Oh God, please make them let me go. Please! I was lifted onto a metal table. The biggest light I'd ever seen was suspended just above me. It was so bright I couldn't look at it, but I felt its heat against my skin. Gloved fingers spread cold gel on my chest and placed two small white discs there. Why?
Suddenly a figure leaned close to me, and I heard the familiar voice of my doctor. "Hi there, Leigh. Just relax now. We put those patches on so we can listen to your heart. Hear that noise that sounds like a train? That's your heart doing its job." I tried to tell my doctor that I didn't care about the train in my chest, that I only wanted to get out of there, but I couldn't make my lips work.
A black rubber mask hovered above my face like a predatory insect. As it moved closer and closer, I smelled a horrible odor. My stomach lurched. I tried to turn away, to swallow a gulp of clean air, but a gloved hand held my head still. "It's time for you to go to sleep," a nurse said. She caressed my cheek then. "Breathe easy, Leigh. Just try to relax."
Now, crumpled against the ground years later, I tried to heed those words, to stay calm. Slowly I sat up. I used my mittens to dust off my face and hair. The force of my fall had sent everything sailing from my backpack. I gathered my belongings carefully, plucking pens from the grass, shaking dirt from the pages of my notebooks. The maroon cover of my DSM was torn--a white line zigzagged its way down the middle. With trembling hands I slid the damaged book gingerly into my backpack. I vowed to fix it as soon as possible. My chest ached fiercely, my left wrist throbbed, my hands were scraped and bleeding. And I was wondering where I could find some tape to mend the cover of my book.
Swallowing hard, I picked myself up and limped to my class. The professor, a red-faced man with close-set eyes, stood at the chalkboard drawing a diagram of psychiatric disorders. When I entered, he paused. He turned to scowl at me. "This class begins at 4:00, not 4:15."
"Sorry I'm late." I apologized without meaning it and slid into the first empty desk I saw.
Frantically copying the diagram into my notebook, I pushed my emotions--the pain, the anger, the sense of powerlessness--to the back of my mind. I didn't want to feel them. But later that night I had no choice. The long hours of darkness brought agonizing pain. With clusters of aspirin on my tongue and heating pads wrapped 'round my feet, I realized I couldn't deny it anymore. The truth slipped past the fear in my throat. It came out, a choked whisper in the dark: I need help.
The next morning I scheduled an appointment with a new doctor. When I arrived at his office several days later, the silver-haired specialist told me not to worry. He said I was so beautiful that I wouldn't have any trouble finding a nice man to take care of me. I bristled. What does a nice man have to do with the pain in my feet? I thought. And who says I can't take care of myself? But the doctor grasped my hand suddenly and my questions remained unspoken. His tone was soft, as if he were cooing to an infant. "Your body can no longer do what you're asking it to do. You need to get a wheelchair."
I yanked my hand back. No! the voice inside me declared. I won't!
I'd struggled to be just like everyone else for as long as I could remember, even as a little girl growing up on my grandfather's farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Pop Pop's barn was the sanctuary of my childhood. I loved to wander through the cattle stalls and explore every dark and musty corner. Sometimes I discovered other refugees in the barn; feral mama cats often birthed and raised their young amid the stored hay. I'd follow the faint mews that rose from their hidden nurseries and crawl over prickly hay bales until I found them. Then, in the moment of discovery, my mind would fill with such awe that I'd forget even to breathe. The tiny creatures I'd found seemed to stop breathing, too. They simply stared up at me, fragile and exposed; their eyes, like newly lit beacons, gleamed with alarm.
When I was little, I often felt like those barn kittens. Terrified of being discovered, I worried that other people would see just how messed up I was. I didn't know how to face my fear then. I couldn't even name it. So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I devoted myself to the appearance and pursuit of normalcy.
By my early twenties, I'd perfected that pursuit. Now I wondered. How can I look like everyone else if I surrender to a wheelchair? How can I be normal? Still, these questions were too big, too frightening, to utter. I simply nodded politely to the doctor and thanked him for his time.
Not until I'd paid the sunny receptionist and scrambled out of the office did I acknowledge my true feelings. Outside, I slumped against the building's brick wall, pressing my palms against its roughness to stop them from shaking. I bowed my head then and squeezed my eyes shut as if a moment's blindness might hold back a reality I was too terrified to see. "Please God," I whispered. "Help me find another answer, one that's right for me."