Keynote speech, NEADS graduation, November 2013
I was inspired to write Weekends with Daisy because I was in awe of all of the people, personalities, characters and moving parts it takes to turn a little puppy into a service dog. That was my intent at the beginning, then the story shifted to memoir as I dug deeper into that year with Daisy, and with some distance, was able to see what Daisy did for me.
Any weekend puppy raiser already knows what these animals bring to their lives. For those of you who haven’t done it – or are considering being a weekend puppy raiser, I’ll give you the short version.
When I started with Daisy, I was in it for the dog. Yeah, supporting a wonderful organization was nice, too, but I was really in it for the dog. Our own dog had died a few years earlier after nearly 15 years with us. I was working as a writer mostly from home. I’d go into the office once a week, but the rest of the time I did most of my communicating by email. I’d go days without speaking to anyone outside my family. My kids were 11 and 15 and I was no longer in the thick of their lives, molding and shaping them. Instead, I was monitoring them. I had been the potter, elbow deep in clay creating a couple of magnificent pieces. Now I had yielded the bench to them, you know, maybe whispering a tip or two but mostly staying out of the way. It was fine, really, but I could see that in just a few years, that bench would be empty. Then what would I be? I couldn’t start a new kid.
But, I could start with a new dog. Daisy not only gave me a new sense of purpose, she opened the world to me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
Now I want to jump ahead to the dog I most recently puppy-raised, Rescue.
Rescue was named by the Worcester Firefighters Association in memory of rescue worker Jon Davies, who died in a building collapse. There had been a fire in the apartment building and someone thought there might be a man still inside. There wasn’t.
All of the dogs I’ve puppy raised have been special. Rescue was special because of his name and because of his intelligence, the connection he formed with the humans in his life, his loving nature, his deep concern that he always do the right thing. If I said a command wrong, he would stare at me until I said it right. Only then would he execute it.
On April 14, I returned Rescue to prison. The next day was Patriot’s Day – Marathon Monday. I think everyone who lives in New England has a story about that day. This is ours: My brother flies in from LA to run Boston every year. My entire family sees him off in Hopkinton and a few of us split off to meet him at the finish line.
I never bring my current puppy-in-training to the Marathon because after the race, we all meet at my father’s to celebrate his birthday and by the time we’re done, it’s too late to get the dog back to the prison. This year was even more special than usual because our son Josh, who was 15 at the time, was going to run bandit next to his uncle for a few miles. Josh made a sign with his name on it and taped it to his chest. We saw my brother off in Hopkinton, then drove to Natick, making it to the sidelines in time to spot him running toward us, waving and smiling. Josh jumped into the race, falling into step beside his uncle. They ran together for about four miles, past Wellesley College where the legendary Wellesley college women read Josh’s shirt and screamed his name. Meanwhile, my husband, Marty and I were driving the back roads to Wellesley center, where we were to meet up with Josh.
But he was having so much fun, that he kept going about half a mile past our meeting spot in the center until he reluctantly tore away from the race and walked back to find us. He was beaming! It was one of those seminal experiences for a 15-year-old kid and he didn’t want it to end. So we hung around watching the runners for awhile, then went home with the plan that we’d meet up with my brother and the others in a few hours. Josh posted pictures on Facebook of himself on the Marathon route. His friends were so excited for him.
Then the bombs went off.
My first thought, of course, was my family. Craig had finished the race by then, but I knew that he and the family who met him at the finish were still in the area. And for a terrifying 20 minutes, I couldn’t reach any of them – not either of my brothers, or my father, or my 23-year-old niece, who was with them.
Josh had the television on. He was very quiet. Our daughter called, hysterical. She had been with friends, watching the race from Heartbreak Hill. She was on the T, trying to get to South Station when the train was stopped and everyone ordered off. While I was on the phone with her, a text came through from my brother, then another one from my father. They were okay.
Marty left to pick up Aviva, and Josh and I got on the Mass Pike to Cambridge, where my father lives. Josh, who had been so quiet, sat in the passenger seat and sobbed. I turned off the car radio. All I could say was what was already being reported. I told him, “Look at all of the people who ran toward the explosions, Josh. So many people are helping. For most of us, the impulse is to help one another, not to hurt each other.”
But we weren’t there to help and because of that, we felt helpless.
A few weeks later, I took Rescue to the memorial in Copley Square. Almost immediately, a woman ran up to me. She recognized the patch on Rescue’s vest and told me that her co-worker recently got a NEADS dog to work with their nursing home clients and she had the honor of dog-sitting one weekend. Later, the woman’s husband sought me out so he could meet Rescue, too. Afterward, walking down Boylston Street past one of the bombing sites, a woman stopped us on the sidewalk. She introduced herself as a member of the NEADS advisory committee. I remember wanting to hug her.
This trip, this somber trip with Rescue to the site of the bombings and the memorial to its victims, became a reminder of what I had told Josh: people don’t want to hurt. They want to help. And wherever I go, as long as I have a NEADS dog with me, I’m going to find them.
NEADS responded to the bombings by creating the Pawsitively Strong fund, which provides service dogs at no cost to the victims. Of the hundreds of people injured, there was one who knew very early on that what would help her heal was a service dog. That was Jessica Kensky, an oncology nurse who, along with her husband, lost a leg in the attack. She filled out the application for a NEADS dog before she had even been released from the hospital. A few months later, her match was found. The perfect dog for her, it turned out, was Rescue.
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen them together and they are a perfect match. All that unconditional love and that strong desire to please that is Rescue, now has a singular focus: Jess. And she loves him like crazy.
Nothing will change what happened on April 15, but because of NEADS, Jess has Rescue. And my family and I, and in particular my son, Josh can look back on that day and also think of the weekends between April 15 and Sept 15, when we said goodbye to Rescue, and how without even knowing it, we were people who were helping.
Every now and then, and you weekend puppy raisers know what I’m talking about, people will thank me for my part in helping to socialize service dogs. I’m like, are you kidding? I love doing this! Because of this, I get to spend time with a dog – and what I can’t easily explain, but what you other weekend puppy raisers know, is that because of NEADS, I have the great, good fortune to be part of a community of people whose natural inclination is to help, to always help.