August 13, 2013
by Mark Dunning
Bella was twenty months old and had just come out of the surgery for her first cochlear implant. She was groggy and nauseous from the anesthetic. She had a tight wrap on her head. Tubes ran from her arms which were both wrapped to splints to keep her from fussing with her bandages. She was miserable.
As she blinked herself awake, Julia and I rushed to her side to check on her. “How do you feel?” we signed, “Mommy and Daddy are here. Are you OK?”
Bella signed back two signs: “Where’s Oats?”
Oats was our dog, a yellow Labrador retriever only a few months older than Bella. Oats was Bella’s companion and friend. When Bella was sad or sick or tired, she liked nothing better than to sit next to Oats and rub her soft ears. Oats wasn’t in the hospital room that day to provide comfort and Bella immediately took notice. Mom and Dad were there but where was Oats? She needed Oats, too.
Eight years later, Bella found comfort in a different yellow Labrador retriever. It was during two days of testing in a freezing cold laboratory in Philadelphia. Ten year old Bella was exhausted from sitting in the dark, beeping her way through test after test after test. Her hearing was no longer the primary concern. Bella had Usher syndrome and her vision was at risk. So the family had trundled off to visit any and every expert in the country to learn about Usher syndrome. Philadelphia was just the latest stop.
The family had taken a “vacation” to Philadelphia to see Dr. Jacobson. Bella had gotten to see the Liberty Bell and the Philadelphia Zoo. She went to the Chocolate Bar and ate a Junk in the Trunk bar. But mostly she had spent her time in the dark in a chilly, stale laboratory whose kind staff couldn’t compensate fully for the discomfort of the testing.
There were drops for her eyes and long waits to adapt them to the dark. She wore a patch over one eye at all times. The long waits were broken only by long tests that either were uncomfortable, required a lot of concentration, or both. The infrequent breaks were taken in a small sterile waiting area with little to occupy the mind. Ten year old Bella sat there wearing goofy looking dark goggles to protect her eyes from the ambient light, exhausted and bored, unable to even read an old magazine.
On the last break of the last day, Bella couldn’t take any more. She was close to tears and it was hard to find anything to motivate and comfort her. The well was empty. She was slumped and heavy. Each step was an effort. Bella had reached her breaking point.
As we slouched off to the break area, we found someone else sitting there for the first time in two days. She, too, was wearing goofy looking goggles and had one patched eye. At her feet was a guide dog, a yellow lab just like Oats. Bella straightened and the shackles fell. For a moment the tests were forgotten.
Her name was Moira. The dog was named Owen. And, yes, of course Bella could pat Owen. Moira took off his harness and Bella dove in. Moira and Bella talked about dogs and laughed at their goggles and talked about dogs some more. Bella rubbed Owen’s ears and smiled and found the strength to survive the day.
Bella is fourteen now. Oats died a little over a year ago after a long happy life. Owen passed away earlier this month. He had been retired for a while but had still lived with Moira and her husband Chris. He had continued to charm everyone he met and was active and happy to the end. Bella was very sad to hear of his passing. You see, as time has gone on and Bella has become more aware of Usher, she has continued to find comfort in Owen.
“I don’t think I’m going to go blind,” she’ll say, rubbing a soft ear in her mind, “But if I do, it won’t be that bad. I can get a dog just like Owen.”
Good-bye Owen. You’ll be missed.