I was back in Northern California, where many of the contributors to A Gift of Puppies live. I was scheduled for lunch with Barbara and Jerry Edwards, whose first guide dog puppy was a yellow Lab Doris. The account of that adjustment in their lifestyle and the blessing she was to a young blind woman named Rebecca was the first story in the book. They also raised a beautiful red Lab Havarti, who had recently finished training, been paired with Andrea Christensen and graduated. Barbara had agreed to send me pictures and write some updates on the puppies in the book, so I could post them here.
Recently too, Doris was retired from guide work. Though she hadn’t worked very long, Doris had decided she didn’t want to guide anymore. People think these “poor dogs” are forced into slavery. They don’t understand that no one can force a dog to guide. They choose to do the work. And they can just as easily choose not to. They make it quite clear one way or another. I know of a guide who simply turned and walked away every time she saw the harness in her handler’s hand. Sometimes a guide can be re-motivated and paired with another handler. Sometimes Guide Dogs for the Blind simply retires the dog. Now Rebecca was receiving another guide dog and Doris was returned to the Edwards, who were mystified by her choice not to guide anymore, but glad to welcome her back into their home.
I was looking forward to spending time with Barbara and Jerry again, but this time there were questions to be answered and sadness to be shared. It began the day of the PetCo event in San Diego, When I checked my email that night, this message was in my Inbox:
I am afraid I have some terrible news. Havarti passed away Tuesday night. I am so sorry to bring this to you but I thought you would like to know. Her graduation was so joyous, but she did seem somewhat reserved. She had apparently contracted some kind of virus that caused all her systems to shut down. Guide Dogs is performing tests to see if it can be determined what she had.”
The email was from Jerry Edwards. I was horrified. How could that be? There was more. Barbara was in Georgia with a death in the family. Jerry would have been terribly alone, except for Doris. I don’t know how they do it, but dogs seem to understand. On that day of shock and sorrow, Doris was there to share Jerry’s grief.
Jerry wrote that Barbara would want to talk with me when she returned.
On May 7, the day I spent with Pat and Sheena and our dogs on the beach of Coronado Island, Barbara sent this message:
“I wrote this story in memory of Havarti as it has helped me to cope with her loss. I have edited it so many times and each time my heart aches for her. We were so happy when we heard she was going to a woman who only lived an hour and a half away and thought we would have many visits to see both of them. I still can’t believe she is gone and I think of her every day. I hope you enjoy my story.”
In Memory of Havarti
May 6, 2010 – April 3, 2012
“On July 13, 2010, we picked up the most adorable 9-week-old puppy at the San Rafael GDB campus. Before the kennel staff member brought her out, she asked if we liked cheese. We thought that was an unusual question but our response was “yes” and she said good because your puppy’s name is Havarti.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better puppy to raise. She certainly had her moments the first couple of months and we were beginning to wonder if she was going to make it. She was very demanding of our attention to the point she would do whatever she needed to get our attention to play with her. With some diligent training and lots of patience we were able to get over this hurdle and she grew to understand her boundaries. Havarti was very food motivated so she was willing to please us in order to get the food reward when it was appropriate.
“During the 16 months we raised her, she had so many opportunities to experience life. We are retired so we were able to take many vacations that allowed us to include Havarti. Her one-year birthday was spent at Disneyland where she got to meet Goofy and Pluto. She loved our camping trips, playing on the jungle gym at the campgrounds, going to the beach and going to the snow. She was extremely well behaved on all of our public outings and knew that when she had her puppy jacket on, she was expected to show good manners. But she also knew that once we were home and the jacket came off, she could relax and frolic around the house.
“One of Havarti’s favorite past times was getting her daily belly rub. Our routine after dinner was a game of tug. When it was time to stop, I would tell her that’s enough and she would let go of the toy and proceed to roll over onto her back for a long belly rub until she fell asleep. She loved her belly rubs so much that when a stranger would lower their hand to pet her, she would slide down onto her back for a belly rub. Of course, that became a training issue and her belly rubs were limited to off training times.
“In October, we received the notification that she would return to the GDB campus in November for her formal training to become a guide. She progressed quickly through the program and completed the phases in early February but was held back until she could be matched with the right person. That special person (Andrea Christensen) arrived at the GDB campus on March 11, and on March 14, Andrea and Havarti were united and their long awaited adventure began. It was love at first sight for both Andrea and Havarti. They worked well together and Andrea said that Havarti would get excited when she saw the harness in Andrea’s hands. On March 31, 2012, Andrea and Havarti graduated during a beautiful ceremony. When we walked up to present Havarti to Andrea, it was evident that Havarti had a strong bond to Andrea as she looked up to her new “mom” and wagged her tail.
“Prior to graduation, we noticed during our meet-and-greet with Andrea that Havarti didn’t seem to be herself—not her usual energetic self—but we thought maybe it was due to all the excitement of the day. On Monday, Havarti started showing signs of distress and it was evident that something was really wrong. She was taken to a local vet in Andrea’s hometown and it was quickly determined that Havarti was extremely sick and needed to get to an animal hospital immediately. On April 3, her health rapidly declined and within a few hours of arriving at the hospital, she passed away. It was later determined that she had developed a very aggressive form of leukemia that goes undetected until the symptoms appear in the very last stage of the disease. There was no way for anyone to have known she had this disease.
“A close friend of Andrea’s (Glenna Williamson) wrote this about the connection between Andrea and Havarti:”
“Andrea called me several times throughout her three weeks of being away from family, and each time we spoke, she was thrilled beyond words of the connection and affection she felt towards her new escort. One might have to have an inside look to know and understand that Andrea is full of life, and although blindness has been a thorn in her side, she never complained about this obstacle in her life, but she kept her determination and with a full blown “Attitude Ahead,” she was ready to meet, greet and move forward in life with Havarti. Oh how she instantly bonded with Havarti with a new sense of life’s direction for both of them. Andrea had a song in her heart of Amazing Grace as she could now sing “I once was blind but now I see” of course that being in doggie language.
“Andrea stayed by Havarti’s side till the end. For Andrea thought Havarti was there for her, but in actuality…God turned the tables, as Andrea was there for Havarti.”
“Andrea told Jerry and me that in the short time she had Havarti, she performed her guide work with excitement and enthusiasm. We all are very saddened that Havarti succumbed at such a young age and wasn’t able to fulfill her long time purpose as a guide dog for Andrea. She touched so many hearts in her short life and she will always hold a special place in our hearts.
“Havarti, you were a special puppy and you made us very proud of your accomplishments. We feel blessed that GDB gave us the opportunity to have you for 16 months as you warmed our hearts with your many puppy antics, and your enthusiasm to please everyone. You will forever be remembered as the energetic puppy who loved belly rubs, would do whatever anyone asked of you, and loved everything life brought to you.”
—Barbara and Jerry Edwards (Havarti’s puppy raisers)
Three days after receiving that email, I was in Sacramento having lunch with Jerry and Barbara. They had answers now. “The vet said dogs don’t show signs until it’s too late,” Jerry told me. “Havarti didn’t really suffer until the last day. There is a little comfort in knowing that.”
There was nothing anyone could have done.
Barbara handed me some things Andrea had given them. One was a book of photographs she’d taken during the three weeks at GDB. And there was Havarti’s paw print on a plaque. The nurse at the vet’s had lovingly pressed Havarti’s foot into the soft clay, made it into a plaque, and presented it to Andrea, but Andrea felt the Edwards should have it since they had Havarti for so much longer than she. I touched the indentations. Her paw was the same size as Hedy’s. Tears came to my eyes. Hedy’s prints look like that. I’ve seen them in the snow.
Sighted people don’t understand the bond we have with our guides. In some ways it’s more than with a spouse because you have to be so tuned in and attentive, so responsive to each others’ movements and meanings because your lives are bound together. I loved my husband, but my life was not dependent on him. Hedy keeps me from hurting myself every day, and more than once she’s saved me from being hit by a car. For Andrea to give that memento to Barbara was a most gracious and generous act. Perhaps she understood that the dog she was privileged to receive was nurtured and shaped by the ones who taught her from nine weeks old to be a vigilant, joyful, and reliable partner.
I debated whether to post this story. It isn’t the norm when it comes to puppy raising. Guide dogs grow old and pass away and some are killed in the line of duty, but guide dog puppies graduating at twenty-two months?
What’s the message? Love is a risk but it’s worth it? Treasure those you love, and remember how precious time with them is? Treat everyone as if they were going to die the next day?
Hedy has been naughty since we returned. She grabbed one of my slippers and ran off trying to get me to chase her. Turkeys, rabbits, deer, and new dogs have been going past my house leaving their trails of invisible smells. Hedy has been sniffing instead of paying attention to her guide work. I’ve had to work hard to get her back on track. I’m tired. I get exasperated.
But death—it makes us think. It sets priorities in terms of lifetimes instead of incidentals. It reminds us what a privilege it is to have a guide dog, a spouse, a child, a friend. It doesn’t mean we should get permissive and indulgent with the ones we love, but it takes the preoccupied irritation out of our mundane interactions. Puppy raisers know they must turn that little beloved pup back in. Is that one of the best reasons they have so much patience with them? And how would we be if we remembered that lifetimes have limits as well?
Andrea, still grieving, applied to GDB for another dog. On June 28, I received this email from Barbara:
“Andrea received her new guide dog on Tuesday of this week and her name is Renee (which means “reborn”). She is a half-sister to Havarti (they have the same dad) and not only does she look exactly like Havarti, they’re personalities are identical. The only noticeable difference is that Havarti’s nose was part pink and black and Renee’s is all black.
“Amazingly, as soon as Andrea reached out to pet her, Renee slid her butt to the floor, flipped over onto her back and splayed her hind legs apart for a belly rub—that is exactly what Havarti used to do. She is also a very cuddly dog—again, just like Havarti. I think GDB made a big effort to give Andrea a dog that matched Havarti’s personality and looks. Andrea is absolutely in love with her and I know they have already bonded.
Barbara (and Doris)
On Saturday, July 7, 2012, Andrea and Renee graduated from the San Rafael campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. The Edwards were there, rejoicing.