Thursday, February 11, 2010


One South Texas Spring morning I had decided to take my well-seasoned golden retriever therapy dog, Penny, to visit at the rehab hospital. She was obviously quite weary of watching me sit at the computer for hours on end, wondering what in the world could be so interesting to stare at this screen endlessly when there are balls to be thrown and walks to be taken. Looking outside at the beautiful Texas Bluebonnets and blooming Mountain Laurel, I must admit I agreed. I couldn’t help but smile, as I remembered the James Brown song, “Enough with dwelling. It's time to start living. Get up offa that thing.” Penny couldn’t have agreed more.

As we got into the car, I realized that soon there would be more stories to be written just a few miles away. There always are.  And times I can barely get home fast enough to begin writing. There are no guarantees, but most of the time there are also great lessons to be learned and shared and taken to heart.

When we entered the rehab gym there were at least sixty to seventy patients. Destiny, as it most always does, stepped in when I saw a young man on a treadmill, walking at a very brisk pace. Jason, a hero,  was home from Iraq. He had been shot in the back of the head by a sniper. As we sat side by side on an elevated mat, he shared his story. It didn't take long to realize he was one very, very lucky young man to be alive. A portion of his skull had been removed, his face disfigured, and he was partially paralyzed on one side. But there was no doubt whatsoever that his spirit, his humor, and his courage were entirely intact. He laughed about his face being ‘lopsided,’ as he spoke with great pride about his wife and dog. Jason petted Penny and scratched her ears and muzzle nonstop, as he continued his story, tellng me he will be in rehab for at least three more years.

He appeared to be okay until I gave him a hug and whispered into his ear my gratitude for his sacrifice and service to our country. His eyes filled with tears, as this hero thanked me, from his heart, for those words. “Not too many people tell us that.” With a lump in my throat, I hugged Jason and took a deep breathe and wondered what it is in people that causes them to be so void of caring, compassion and empathy, and unable to even say thank you.

Penny and I said goodbye and told Jason we would see him again soon and headed to our next patient eager for her time with this golden girl. Rebecca, a soldier home from the war, had lost a leg and was suffering from acute PTSD/TBI and severe depression. Her blue eyes were bright, as she petted Penny and spoke softly to her. She told Penny how badly she wanted to walk again, get her own dog, and write her own story. Then from a place of hope or desparation deep within her she whispered, “One day.”

I wondered at that moment, as I have so many times before and after, where that kind of courage comes from. I have asked our soldiers returning from Iraqi and Afghanistan. I have asked seasoned veterans of other wars and multiple patients. The answers are unexpected and for the most part consistent. “We decide. We choose to be courageous.” It was then that I had an epiphany, as I recognized the priceless gift and blessing I had been presented.

Being able to choose is one of those 'gifts' our soldiers are fighting for, dying for, surviving for - our ability to make choices. We can choose to be happy and yes, courageous. We have the ability to decide to be whatever we want to be. These choices will ultimately define who we are. Jason and Rebecca and thousands of other heroes, struggling each moment of every day with devastating physical challenges, decide to be courageous!

I wonder what responsibility that gives me, gives all of us, to honor and give homage to their courage.

Preposterous as it might sound, meeting our wounded heroes with my therapy dogs have been the most rewarding days of my life. It isn’t about these special dogs, and it certainly isn’t about me. It is solely about life, and it’s about struggles, pain, laughter, love, and healing. It’s about paying attention to the gifts we have been given and living each day the best we can. Giving back, exposing, discovering the truth, and filling our hearts by filling the hearts of others.

We must learn to realize that we can’t do it all alone. For this there are no choices. We must ask for guidance and then let go, then listen and pay close attention. The answers will come, as life jumps into the middle of it. And this is the most exciting stuff of all, for this just might be the time you throw your head back, look to the heavens, smile and say thank you from your heart. There are no guarantees. This I have learned. And I have also learned that being present for these courageous heroes is the greatest gift I have and all I have to offer.

It was late and Penny was tiring, as was I. Emotions can suddenly exhaust both of us. But there was one more patient we had been asked to work with for a while. Nathan was just eighteen. A self inflicted gun shot to his face had left him blind, speechless, and disfigured. His mom stood beside him and told him there was a therapy dog wanting to visit him. Nathan gave a thumb’s up. Penny rose to the occasion and went to his wheelchair and promptly, as if on cue, laid her head in his lap. I took Nathan’s arm and placed it on Penny’s head and back. He began stroking her fur, and the corners of his mouth quivered and then turned up slightly. I told him she was a beautiful golden retriever and quite a celebrity. He continued petting her head with great tenderness. As I watched him respond to her, I wondered what had led him to this place. I thought of the enormous courage that he must now find to face the rest of his life, as he is learning sign language and  how to be blind. I wanted to believe that one day he will be an inspiration to others. Questions I will never have answers to.

As we said our goodbyes to Nathan and his mom, I felt blessed to have found an answer to at least one question. Courage is a choice.

I hoped these three patients had received a glimmer of inspiration and a moment of peace from Penny’s visit.

I know I  did.

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

"Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in

the world. But the U.S. ARMED FORCES don't have that problem."
~Ronald Reagan~

"Don't go where the road leads, rather go where there is no road and make a trail."
Dove Candy Wrapper

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