I have been sharing military veteran life stories of brave men and women who have found hope and healing on their journeys with PTSD in the form of fur. Translation – service dogs. I have shared these sacred stories with the intent that the stories can reach others who struggle on their journeys not to give up. I have also shared with the intention that the stories become a bridge. These stories can create a platform in which those who struggle to share their voice for fear of judgment and rejection are met with those who are setting aside their negative perceptions to listen and listen more. Yes, stories that contain pain, trauma, sorrow, and despair, and the moments that created one of or up to all four of these, are not easy stories to listen to. Yet, they are extraordinary stories that matter. The more we listen, the more the story becomes reframed into something that becomes a tender scar and no longer an open wound. For the story teller, the loved ones of the story teller, and us as story listeners; for when we give, we also receive.
This week’s blog is a military veteran story. It is of bravery, hope, and a service dog who brought healing to a family. It is not necessarily a story of diagnosed PTSD. Yet, it is a story of pain, of sorrow, and in some moments despair. And how from that pain, purpose was found and every day since a family has found gifts in the journey with autism. Judge tenderly, if you must. There is usually a side you have not heard, a story you know nothing about, and a battle waged you are not having to fight – Traci Lea La Russa
Here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye. – Le Petit Prince
The world would soon be shaken to the core when I was being shaken to mine in pain. The world didn’t know what was coming on this particular August day. I didn’t know my family’s world, nor the larger world in which we belonged, would soon be turned upside down, sideways, and then begin spinning relentlessly round and round. I only knew this moment in the ambulance in which my body was screaming at me. And I, in turn, was screaming inside, please, oh please, let nothing happen to my baby.
I was a lawyer in the Navy, I was a wife, and I was a mother of a daughter not quite two. And I was carrying her baby brother, our son, with two more months until I was due. I was strapped to a gurney unable to move while the bumpiest road known to mankind was unmercifully scrambling my body. The medicine to alleviate the pain from my kidney stone did not seem to penetrate the acute agony. I was being transported to a hospital with a natal ICU just in case it would become a need. Three hours travel on a good day, now five hours because of traffic was my journey.
After arrival and tests, I became another who stands at the crossroad needing to decide. Would I like good news first, or would I prefer the news that stops time. My kidney stones had dissolved, the grace and gift of roads that jostled every inch of me. Yet, my son did not meet “standard measurements” of where he should be. His brain, his lungs, his kidneys – all at risk of deformity. Excess water on the brain meant our son had hydrocephalus or he would be a Downs Syndrome baby.
In this moment the world began turning at angles I had not experienced before now. So incredibly quiet as time stood still, yet my ears pulsing from a most deafening sound. Was this my reality or was it happening as if I was watching a movie? Surely, the medication had left my mind foggy and this couldn’t be happening. The medical staff seemed to think my husband and I needed time to decide if our son was meant to be. Without hesitation, there was only one option – our son deserves to be on this Earth! the staff heard unanimously.
An ultrasound four weeks later revealed no change. No additional risks, yet the first prognosis the same. My family was on high alert awaiting my due date. We were no longer alone, though, in this vigilant watchful state. The world had just received a jolt unlike anything it had known before, too. New York City, the Pentagon, twin towers collapsed, brave yet non-surviving passengers and flight crews. September 11, 2001 and suddenly my purpose was not only guiding one soul through his transition from the womb into life. I was now writing hundreds of wills for soon to be deployed soldiers preparing that they may not come back alive.
Jack entered this world approximately one month after 911, “normal” with no signs of the concerns once seen. No excess water on the brain and no Down’s Syndrome as his soft spot revealed “healthy”. Of course, true to a parent, my high alert did not ease. Ultra-sensitive that Jack meet the medians for his age my priority. His walking, his height, his appetite, and his speaking. His motor skills were right on point, though at twelve months momma and daddy were not yet his vocabulary.
A wellness check at eighteen months revealed his speaking was not a defiance or a slow start. Once again time froze as my breathing stopped while my blood coursed through my rapidly beating heart. It is not definitive, but we have a high degree of certainty. Your son is autistic, your son is “special needs”. It is said that when time becomes before and no longer the same, hindsight can reveal something deep within us knew something would soon change. We were dancing between protecting ourselves from the sting of reality and preparing for inevitability. Tantrums and “acting out” had already became part of Jack’s coping. In the throws of these moments, our hearts desired to believe. It was nothing that couldn’t be “fixed” with more nap times or the foods he would eat.
Imagine being a mother of a near seven-year old, a five-year old with autism, and a newborn baby. Imagine physical tantrums so forceful, one wasn’t sure there would be strength to keep both mother and son from injury. Imagine medical and alternative health appointments multiple times in one week and driving to these appointments all for one child, while wrapped tightly in that natural maternal guilt for neglecting his siblings. And now that you are imagining the lack of sleep wishing for a few hours reprieve, and then when sleep is available, instead it is insomnia as you lay awake worrying. If you are a parent or a care-giver you can empathize with me. Yet, you know what was hardier than feeling helpless to my son’s needs. It was how people saw Jack for what he was not instead of seeing him for all that he could be.
I don’t say that to judge strangers who saw me in a store with a child screaming until he could barely breathe. Their eyes communicating “can’t you control your spoiled child who is clearly manipulating?” I don’t say that in anger at day care providers who would nervously say your son is too disruptive, taking away from the other children, so we will need to ask you to respectfully leave. I don’t say that to make you feel guilty that I swallowed back many a tear when you turned the other way shaking your head in disgust at my family. How can I blame you when there aren’t visible signs to communicate disability? And, I understand for my husband and I had moments we had to learn to better see. To notice what our son was and not only look at “was not” has not always been easy.
Our son, a runner, and an escapee. More than once he would leave school bound for home with only two things – his running feet. His emotions crested hills and soared to valleys faster than a roller coaster careening through loops, twists, and rapid falls. No longer a baby, and yet, swaddling him tight in my arms sometimes his only sense of calm. And even then, if he had passed a point of no return, my arms were incapable of keeping his raging storm inside him at bay. The only safety Jack could then find was riding out what he felt but had no words he could adequately convey. Being on high alert had new meaning now for me; would it be the school calling in crisis needing my presence immediately?
And then North Star Dogs became a lighthouse shining a beacon to the East. They were presenting opportunity for another alternative therapy. We were feeling we had exhausted multiple holistic healing avenues to give our son the best chance of flourishing. Perhaps a service dog could hear Jack’s torment better than all of us who tried our best to understand his cries he couldn’t always explain. Perhaps a dog would be able to soothe Jack’s fears and inner pain.
A waiting list and unconditional love of grandparents to give Jack this furry gift. Then notification one of ten puppies were destined to be his. Sassy joined our family and once again life became before and no longer the same. Only this time, the storms that often swirled our home were now kept at bay. Sassy had brought new beginnings. Sassy provided service to not only Jack; she brought comfort to our entire family. Sassy, the intervener, distractor, calmer, and paw to hold. Immediate calmness she would bring Jack as soon as the emotional thunder started to rumble and roll.
An unknown author writes and then my soul saw you and it kind of went “Ah, there you are: I’ve been looking for you”. It was an immediate best friendship when four furry feet joined our family brood. Jack was the first to say Sassy was his best friend to anyone he might meet. I am certain Sassy would have said the same words if English she could speak. Her eyes ever watchful of when Jack was in need; unconditional love in the most calming manner her immediate responding. Sassy didn’t bat an eye when the torrential storms of his emotions were at their peak. By his side until he felt at ease, day and through his entire nights of sleep. Sassy was not able to attend school with Jack, for this was before service dogs were more accepted into a school’s routine. That Sassy was waiting for him at home enabled Jack to manage school with a semblance of ease.
While Jack was at school, Sassy would tend to my needs. Though she was Jack’s primary service dog, she was also in-tune to my emotionality. She would remind me I had the strength to keep going and that I was doing okay. She would be my calming force through each of my fast-moving days. Her fur caught my tears when I didn’t want anyone else to see. Her brush against my leg would whisper you are not alone on this journey. I can’t explain what it meant to have Jack find comfort in someone other than me. Somewhat indescribable that instead of my swaddling, placing Jack’s hands against Sassy’s fur lightened a weight I had been carrying.
Sassy has retired as service dog, though her heart is still the wholeness to our family. She is still Jack’s companion while he sleeps. And though now her fur captures far more laughter than my tears, by my side she also brings her serenity. Our son is flourishing with a creative spirit, a caring heart that desires to work with children when he graduates, and a passion that perhaps could lead him to movie script writing. Who knows what the future holds for Jack, but this we have as certainty. What ever Jack decides to do in life, we will all owe much to beloved Sassy.
Little ole humble me, I’m not sure I deserve all these kind words in which you speak. I’m “just” Sassy, fulfilling my purpose and doing what I love to do. To provide comfort and unconditional love to Jack, and to all of you. Some puppies may have been nervous to leave a familiar place and then enter a really large and loud machine. I knew I was boarding a plan to travel from Connecticut to Washington for an important destiny. There was a little boy that had been crying for a friend who understood him when the world around him was a scary place. I could hear his heart across the stars and through space. I could also hear his big sister, his little sisters, his mom and his dad, too. I knew this was a big job I was receiving to serve not just one but a six humans crew. I also knew there was no better job that to become your hope and faith. To remind you that no matter how hard certain moments were, it would get easier and better “someday”.
I know you are proud of Vanessa, as I am, too. How beautifully she is making Jack’s story matter in what she is setting out to do. There will be no teacher more compassionate and equally strong in her leadership as she guides special needs students to their own flourishing. I like to dream of Jack teaching beside her someday. Even if he isn’t a co-teacher, I believe he will be influential in the lives that, together, they will positively change.
I know I never told you, either, that I find my big, talkative, sometimes pushy, sometimes silly, yet always loveable fur brother a good addition to the family. Clive has brought laughter and joy into our home, along with another important quality. Clive is a guardian, too, keeping watch on everyone’s needs. He may not act exactly like me, but as you already know, visual looks don’t show someone everything. He acts like a young lion, poised to react if need be. Don’t be fooled though, that his calmness is also present as he listens attentively.
When we give, we receive, so my dear family. Please know that as you so kindly say I helped each of you, you have given so much to me. You have lovingly said I came into your family to help make you whole. Know that because of all of you, I’ve known no better home. I love you unconditionally, and I thank you for giving back the same to me. Jack, Vanessa, Josie, Colette, Clive, Cathy, Mike – my family. Because of you, I am complete.