Alive Day: When Your Best Friend Is Your Second Chance
by Tom Sullivan
By Tom Sullivan
The Marine sergeant stared straight ahead, his body ramrod straight as he marched down the white hospital corridor. His distinctive uniform of dress blues signaled a ceremonial occasion, as if he were on a parade ground under review by the adjutant general of the Marine Corps. The scarlet stripe, a reminder of the sacrifices made by his comrades, seemed to punctuate the soldier’s mission, one that was far more important than parade ceremony. Cradled in his arms was a box containing something sacred to the morale of the Corps.
Arriving at the patient’s door, he waited until the nurse signaled him in. Then he entered the hospital room and, after carefully shifting the package to his left hand, came to attention and saluted the man in the bed.
“Sergeant Johnson reporting by order of the commander, sir.” The Marine’s staccato voice echoed in the small room. The patient attempted a smile through swollen lips. “Thank you, Sergeant,” he said.
The sergeant placed the box on the bedside table. Sensing the man’s hesitation, the sergeant asked, “Permission to open it for you, sir?”
The patient nodded slightly, and the sergeant opened the package.
Inside was a small cake with one candle.
“May I light it, sir?” the sergeant asked.
The patient looked at the cake for several long seconds. Then he leaned his head back and mumbled, “Go ahead, Sarge.” The Marine produced a lighter. When the candle was lit, he announced, “Happy Alive Day, sir.”
The patient in the bed painfully raised his right arm and saluted.
The dog stilled in his morning walk, watching as a seagull soared overhead. His eyes followed as the bird moved almost imperceptibly, maintaining a position in the wind two hundred feet above the glassy waters of Puget Sound. The panorama of beautiful Bainbridge Island, ten miles long and five miles wide, stretched out before him. The sun was gradually overcoming the thick fog. As the light touched the seagull, the gray wings and white body took on a hue of sunrise pink.
As Brenden McCarthy stretched his muscles, he heard the seagull’s cry as it streaked through the sky. The dog looked on as Brenden reached skyward, reminded of another bird’s cry up in the Rocky Mountains eight years ago. A sound that had caused him to break his concentration while climbing, slip on loose scree, and begin the steep fall that had resulted in his becoming blind.
But on this remarkable morning in this beautiful place, he realized that the memory was no longer painful. He was a clinical psychiatrist, and his medical training suggested to him that he was now a well-adjusted human being. Then he smiled as he considered that well-adjusted was not exactly the right term to describe him. What he was, at long last, was happy and content.
His wife, Kat—or Kathleen when she signed their checks—was his best friend, lover, and confidante. And their two children— Wow, he thought—they were gifts from God. Brian was now six, a strapping boy with unlimited curiosity and energy. And then there was his Mora, age four—a daddy’s girl all the way. Just hearing her say “Daddy” melted his heart and made him a sucker for anything she wanted. He knew he was turning her into a princess, but so what? Wasn’t that the right of all fathers of little girls?
Like the twenty-three hundred other residents of Bainbridge Island, Dr. Brenden McCarthy and his family had moved here for the outdoor lifestyle and easy commute by ferryboat to Seattle, Poulsbo, and Bremerton. Just east of the Kitsap Peninsula and west of the city of Seattle, the island was largely protected by Puget Sound and Port Orchard Bay.
Brenden completed his morning push-ups—one hundred without stopping—and wasn’t even breathing hard. It’s great to be alive, he thought. He had walked the hilly section of the island this morning, strengthening his quads for the upcoming Chilly Hilly bike race he and his wife would compete in on their specially built tandem.
As Brenden stretched, his big black dog, Nelson, stood on his hind legs and surprised his master with a kiss right on the mouth, causing Brenden to laugh out loud. He reached out, found the animal’s jowls with his hands, and stretched his fingers to give the dog a friendly behind-the-ears scratching. From the sound of his thumping tail, Brenden knew Nelson appreciated the gesture.
Nelson had completely changed Brenden’s life, allowing him to be reborn, in a sense—to create a new life for himself after the accident that stole his sight. Their interdependence fulfilled both man and dog and made them an excellent team. Brenden knelt down and took the time to study his friend with his hands, patting him all over. He loved the grainy texture of Nelson’s fur. Stroking him from head to tail, his sensitive hands glided softly over the animal’s body, revealing each contour.
But when he reversed the process, rubbing against the grain of the short, wiry fur, Brenden was reminded of when he used to play golf with his father and how a green could be very different when you putted, based on the contour of the grass.
Now his fingers perused the animal. His friend’s large head and powerful neck gave the man a sense of the dog’s strength and energy. Unlike many Labs, Nelson was in great shape and hadn’t developed the boxy, squat body that characterized the typical Labrador retriever in middle age. In fact, Nelson had entered the age of retirement for most guide dogs, but his good health, infinite energy, and exceptional skills kept him working. And Brenden hoped he and Nelson would be a team for more years to come.
Leaning a little closer to Nelson, Brenden took in the dog’s smell, which he had come to love, though it was a somewhat sour and salty aroma. Since his sight had been taken away, Brenden had gained an ability to distinguish the slight nuances of various smells. Nelson’s scent might be considered foul to some people, but to Brenden the smell related specifically to Nelson and was an element that enhanced their bond.
Even though he knew his sense of smell was heightened, he considered how much better Nelson’s olfactory acuity must be. His canine friend could always find him, no matter where he was, just by using his nose. If the animal had been outside playing with the children, when he came indoors he didn’t have to go from room to room looking for his master. Instead, he just sniffed the air and went right to the spot where Brenden was— working or resting or watching TV.
Again he hugged his friend, eliciting a big doggy sigh of contentment and pleasure. What a good team we are, Brenden thought. “You’ve got a few more minutes, pal,” he told the animal. “I need to do a little more stretching before we head home. You go run on the trails a bit, okay?”
He heard the dog’s chain rattle as he shook himself and then took off, but not so far that Brenden lost the sound of his jingling collar. A vigorous morning workout had been part of their daily routine together after getting out of guide dog school, and probably because this morning activity gave Nelson an outlet for his energy, he never broke the rules, even off the leash.
A minute or so later, the dog tensed, drawn to a rustling in the bushes. The black Lab searched the bushes eagerly as if saying, Ah, someone to play with! Nelson bounded toward the creature, hoping it would run and giving off a high-pitched bark of pleasure, ready to play a game.
Too bad that wasn’t what the skunk was thinking. Assuming his position, with tail facing the charging dog, the skunk let go, hitting Nelson with the pungent spray and eliciting a howl of shock and awe. How could he be so poorly treated by another animal? The big dog ran to his master. Brenden groaned at the smell and feverishly tried to avoid contact.
“Now you’ve really done it,” Brenden said, laughing. “And I still have to walk home with you, you smelly beast. This is a real test of bonding.”
Brenden held his breath as he put on the dog’s harness and leash, nearly choking as he got up close and personal with the “eau de skunk.” It was so bad that he could hear Nelson snorting, as if he was trying to avoid smelling himself.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Brenden said. “Let’s see if we have some tomato juice or vinegar at home. If not, you may be living outside for a while, pal.”
Even though neither man nor dog could stand the odor, it didn’t change the fact that Nelson was extremely careful— flawless in his work—as he began to lead his master toward home, watching the ground to avoid tree roots or other obstacles that might trip up Brenden.
It took them about fifteen minutes to get back to the house. During their trek home, Brenden tried to put his thoughts on anything other than the asphyxiating odor emanating from the black Lab. He considered that in a few hours, as on all workdays, he would be seeing psychiatric patients with problems that, for the most part, were manageable or routine. Sometimes he wondered if he really was making a difference in what some would describe as his “cushy” medical practice. Prescribing routine medications to remedy sleep disorders or to break a guy’s smoking habit didn’t require a lot of brainpower. True, there were patients who required all his skill as a psychiatrist as they battled the emotional and physical complexities of a more serious problem, such as bipolar disorder or anorexia. Yet he had a nagging sense that something was missing in his work as a psychiatrist. What was it?
His thoughts wandered as the big dog moved him expertly toward home. I chose to be a psychiatrist, he reminded himself, drifting into ruminations he had gone through many times before. Before his blindness, Brendan had completed medical school and was just beginning a residency as an orthopedic surgeon, but after losing his sight, he gave up that career—and almost gave up on everything else. But because of the lifesaving counseling he had received, Brenden decided to become a counselor himself. I chose this profession because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of my patients. But maybe somewhere inside— somewhere deep down in my own psyche—I believe my work should be focused on a specific mission.
Brenden realized with a shake of his head that though his own experience lent itself to helping people with physical disabilities, he was not prepared to take that on. He hated himself for thinking it, but he just didn’t want to be involved with the handicapped. He still did not see himself as one of them. He wasn’t like them—those people. He simply wasn’t one of them.
And yet, as he felt Nelson pull on the harness, he knew he was lying to himself. He was blind, wasn’t he? Of course he was one of them. So maybe his current medical practice was not the best use of his talent because it lacked mission. Did his focus on patients with relatively easy-to-cure problems, instead of the messier, more complex psychological issues of patients with physical disabilities, make him a fake psychiatrist? Or even more disconcerting, a phony person?
His reverie was interrupted as he became aware that Nelson was pulling aggressively on his arm, indicating some particularly bad road surface in their path. Circumventing the problem, the big dog skillfully moved his master back to the right and continued their walk without even the slightest misstep.
“Good boy,” Brenden said. “You may stink, but you’re still the best, Nelson.” Brenden smiled as he remembered that Nelson’s trainer, Smitty, had described the Lab as “the best dog” he ever taught. In thirty years, Smitty had never seen a dog absorb concepts as quickly as Nelson. The lovable Lab had showed exceptional intelligence and focus when applying himself to his work, but—as Brenden found out soon enough—he also displayed a hyperprecociousness when not on duty. The first night that Nelson stayed with Brenden, the dog had chewed up his shoes, socks, and shirt. Brenden, still new to his blindness and unconvinced of his need for a guide dog, had been furious—but it was anger over his personal loss, misdirected toward Nelson.
:: He later learned from Smitty that Nelson’s sensitivity could turn to anxiety if he was in an uncomfortable environment. Though he was perfect when doing his job in harness, Nelson had displayed destructive habits with his prior two masters, neither of whom gave Nelson adequate ways to release his energy or anxiety when he was off duty. Neither of whom had been able to bond with Nelson the way Brenden had.
As they walked, Brenden said a prayer of thanks for his furry friend. He was also grateful for all the smells and textures that permeated the air. Thankfully the island still possessed some beautiful cedar, even though much of it had been cut down in the early days to supply masts for seagoing ships. The sensory blend of sea life coupled with cedar and pine, along with breakfast being cooked by early-morning risers, made for a welcome interruption from the skunk’s assault.
Passing Battle Point Park, Brenden decided to forgo his situps, knowing that if he lay on the grass, Nelson would stand over him like he always did, licking his face. The idea of being so close to the dog’s pungent odor was too much to stomach. The dog’s tail was rhythmically banging his master’s leg as they passed along the edge of the park.
“I know what you’re saying, boy. You want to go swimming, and maybe that would be the ticket to getting rid of the smell. The ocean heals everything, you know, but it is still much too cold for me. You might be able to handle it with your fur coat, but it’s too cold for your master, so let’s just go home, okay, pal?”
Brenden felt the animal’s head turn for one more longing look out at the bay, but Nelson did not break his gait as they continued toward home and family. Then the dog picked up his pace as they crested a rise and started downhill to the McCarthy condo.
Brenden and Kat had purchased a unit on the top floor of a beautiful complex directly across from Eagle Bay. Every day Brenden and Nelson commuted on the Washington Ferry to his clinical practice in Seattle. They both loved the peaceful experience of the crossing, and also appreciated that with no traffic on the Sound, the ferry was always on time.
Nelson pressed his nose on the button for the elevator, and in seconds they were turning left with the big dog’s tail once again banging Brenden’s leg in anticipation of seeing his family. When he thought about it, Brenden was amazed at Nelson’s capacity to compartmentalize his life and his responsibilities. On the one hand, when he was working, his focus could not be broken. Kat said you could see it in his expression. She often joked that she wished human beings could focus in the way Nelson did. He missed nothing with any of his senses, and his keen awareness gave Brenden the confidence to believe that their team would always be able to work out any problem presented. On the other hand, when Nelson was with the children, he became the ultimate family pet. Brenden had come to understand what differentiated the two Nelsons: it was the harness.
When the harness was on, Nelson was on duty, working and serious; but when it was off, the big black Lab loved just being a dog.
As they turned down the hall from the elevator, Brenden speculated that his family might already smell them coming, and he wondered what kind of greeting they would get. As Brenden put his key in the lock, he heard the sound of little feet rushing to greet him. Pushing open the door, Nelson did what he always did—burst forward to relish the affection from the family he loved. Then Brenden heard a unanimous response from both children and Kat. “Eew, what smells?” “It’s Nelson,” Brenden said sheepishly. “He got sprayed by a skunk.”
“It’s gross, Dad,” Brian said. Mora just held her nose, and practical Kat was already going to the pantry to see if they had any tomato juice or vinegar.
“Okay, team,” Brenden said, “we’ve got to try to get Nelson ready for me to take to work. Brian, you go fill up the tub with warm water. Mora, see if you can find your bottle of children’s shampoo. Kat, is there anything else we might use?”
“We have some tomato juice,” Kat said.
“Okay,” Brenden said. “Let me take Nelson outside, and I’ll start with that.”
Over the next few minutes, the McCarthy family got busy. Brenden poured tomato juice all over Nelson and—to Nelson’s annoyance—rubbed it into his coat. But all that seemed to do was make the smell stronger.
When the tub was ready, the family moved back inside, and Brenden lifted Nelson over the edge and dropped him into the warm water. Now, for a Lab, that was about as good as life gets; he was being patted and stroked and loved, and he was in water. Life couldn’t get any better, could it?
The entire family got wet as the big animal enjoyed his bath, shaking water all over the place, soaking the bathroom floor. Rub and scrub and scrub some more. Everybody took a turn, with Nelson apparently finding the whole experience fantastic.
Eventually, after using three or four big towels, Nelson was dry, and the smell had diminished somewhat.
“I don’t know,” Kat said. “If you bring that dog to the office, I’m pretty sure you’ll lose patients.”
“Yeah,” Brenden said. “I’ve been thinking about that. I might just have to”—he paused—“get out the old white stick.” “What stick, Daddy?” Mora asked.
“It’s called a cane, Mora. I know you’ve never seen me use it, but it’s something that many blind people use to help them get around.”
“A cane?” the little girl asked again. “Is it alive? Is it an animal?”
Brenden laughed. “No, princess; it’s just a stick.” That’s how Brenden had always seen a cane—as a stick, a symbol of limitation, a badge of blindness. He had hated using it in rehab, and the idea that he might have to use it today made him irritated at Nelson, and the realization made him disgusted with himself. It wasn’t the dog’s fault he got sprayed by a skunk, and didn’t millions of blind people use their canes every day? Suck it up, McCarthy. Just suck it up and stop feeling sorry for yourself.
“Listen,” Kat was saying, “I’ll get the kids to school while you take a shower. Your clothes will be laid out on the bed. And I’ll give you a sharp tie so you don’t feel uncomfortable with the cane.”
She knows me so well, Brenden thought. Her instincts had always been pitch-perfect, but she had never been a docile spouse. When he needed it—and he often did—she was not afraid to tell it like it was.
They had met while Brenden was rehabilitating from his accident. Kat was a ski instructor in Winter Park, Colorado, at the National Sport Center for the Disabled, and they had fallen in love during their time together on the slopes. When they were dating, Kat used to tease him that being blind wasn’t such a bad thing because he didn’t know how ugly she was. In truth, Kat Collins-McCarthy was a stunner whose smile could light up the world and whose eyes were so lively that people couldn’t stop looking at her. She stayed in great shape, and even though Brenden met Kat after losing his sight, he could tell she was a babe. But her guileless sense of her own self-worth added to her charm, and Brenden loved her for her goodness, honesty, and that quality of innocence that made her an extremely positive person.
Brenden knew he could not live without Kat because their love was special in so many ways. Principal among these was the directness of their communication and the trust they had established— much in the way he had with Nelson—in developing a relationship that could best be categorized as interdependent. He knew the pride she took in dressing him just so, shopping mostly at an exclusive men’s store in Seattle called Mario’s, where she spent much too much money. But she was committed to the idea that if he looked the part of a professional, people would be more willing to accept the concept that Dr. Brenden McCarthy was a competent psychiatrist, rather than merely a blind one.
He understood that Kat was determined to make his blindness only one part of how people saw him. In his mind he was Brenden McCarthy—husband, father, psychiatrist, athlete, and citizen of the world—who happened to be blind. He knew that he couldn’t eliminate his disability, but he was driven to express his abilities rather than live in his disability.
Kat was Back From taking the children to school by the time Brenden had showered and dressed. As her husband came down the stairs, she smiled to herself at how handsome he looked. She saw him go to the closet and rummage around behind the winter coats to find his white cane. She watched as he unfolded it, clicking the pieces together.
“Honey,” she asked carefully, “do you want me to walk you across to the ferry? I mean, can you do that with your cane?” “I’d better be able to,” Brenden said. “I do it every day with Nelson.”
Kat almost answered, But that’s different, but she bit her tongue to stop herself.
“Okay,” she said lightly, “then give me a hug and get out of here.”
Nelson was already at the front door, skunk smell and all, waiting for Brenden to put on his harness and leash. “I’m sorry, boy,” the man said. “You’re going to have to stay here with Kat.”
The big dog started whining. He ran to his master, turned, and then went to the front door again, expectant. “I’m sorry, Nelson,” Brenden said again. “Stay, boy. Stay with Kat.”
He turned to his wife. “I think you’ll have to hold him until I’m out the door. He doesn’t understand.”
Kat took the big dog by the collar and put him in the guest powder room with the door closed.
“Okay,” she said again. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. I’ll need it,” Brenden said, and he couldn’t have been more right.
There are two techniques Brenden would utilize as he moved through space with a cane—the inside and outside applications. When inside a building, a blind person is taught to put the cane across the body, tracking the wall in a corridor or hallway to find a door or an elevator or a flight of stairs. Outdoors, the cane is tapped from side to side, swinging left as the right foot moves forward and right when a corresponding left step is taken.
To Brenden, all of this was mechanical, arduous, and cumbersome. Whereas Nelson moved quickly and could think them through the travel process, Brenden was now forced to remember how many steps it was to the elevator from their apartment. How many steps to walk down after opening the front door and exiting the building. Where exactly was the crossing that would lead to the ferryboat dock, and once there, where in the world was the ticket counter?
A trip that normally took Brenden and Nelson just two minutes took ten with the cane, and he found himself becoming impatient and irritable.
Boarding the boat, he was nervous about feeling the gangplank with the tip of the stick. Nelson always took him right to an empty seat, but now, as he groped for a place on one of the benches, he kept sticking his cane into people’s feet. “Hey, Doc, where’s Nelson?”
“Where’s the pooch, Doc?”
Brenden tried to answer everyone politely, but he found himself becoming anxious as the ferry made the twenty-minute crossing and docked in Seattle.
the Big Black dog was also becoming anxious. For Nelson, the idea that his master had left without him was unusual. Oh sure, Brenden and Kat occasionally went out at night, leaving Nelson with the children and a babysitter, or took their bike rides without him, but this was different. It was different because the man had dressed to go to work, and work was what Nelson did. He had gone upstairs to Brenden’s office, where he always waited for his master, but now he was feeling a vibration, some honed instinct cultivated by great animals who had served their owners over thousands of years.
He ran downstairs and scratched at the front door. Kat tried to settle him and finally put him back in the office with the door closed. The dog was whining now, almost howling with concern, and Kat wasn’t sure how to handle it. When she tried to pat him and tell him everything would be all right, it only enhanced his efforts to express to her that he was worried.
So what to do? She decided that the best course of action was to leave Nelson alone, and that drove the dog into action. She was in the laundry room, folding clothes, when she heard the screen in the open window crash; Nelson leapt through the upstairs window, landing hard but bounding up and galloping away in the direction of the dock and the ferry he believed must have carried Brenden away.
“Oh no, Nelson!” Kat cried as she raced to the front door, picked up his leash, and ran after the concerned guide dog. Brenden knew that it was thirteen blocks straight up
Marion Street from Pier Fifty-two at the Seattle dock to his office in the Swedish Medical Center. He had chosen the center because the campus of Seattle University offered him easy access to its library for any supplemental materials he might need to provide better patient care.
The walk was basically uphill, and there would be crossings at Western and Post, followed by First through Ninth, then Terry Street and Bourne Avenue, and then he would find himself directly in front of the Swedish Medical Center complex. On the surface, easy. With Nelson, a piece of cake. But on this morning, with only the white stick to guide him, potentially disastrous. Between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Brenden and Nelson would enter an underpass because of the freeway running above them. The noise level was always high, but the competence of the dog and the trust the man had in the animal made the transition easy.
Why? Brenden wondered. Why on this day are there repairs going on inside the underpass?
Men were working with jackhammers, and evidently there was a temporary barrier—which Brenden’s cane and then his shins found—placed there for people to find an alternate route back onto Marion Street. Not able to see the detour sign, Brenden was completely confused, and there was no Nelson to ask for help. Disoriented by the cacophony, he turned the wrong way, tripping off the sidewalk and turning his ankle. The pain, the embarrassment, and the reality of his blindness came crashing in on him with a profound intensity he hadn’t felt since early in his rehabilitation. As he struggled to clamber back to his feet, a burly construction supervisor rushed over to help.
“Dude,” he said. “What are you doing out here like this? I mean, you being . . . uh, I mean . . .”
“You mean blind, sir? Right now I’m asking myself the same question. Look, would you mind giving me some help to get around the construction? I think I can do the rest.”
There was that awful awkwardness as Brenden and the man tried to decide how to walk together. Brenden worried that the guy was going to get a couple of his big buddies and carry him like a potato sack, but eventually Brenden got hold of the man’s arm and followed him, limping, back onto Marion Street.
From there, every crossing was awkward and nerve-racking. Brenden had almost forgotten how to listen to traffic flow because Nelson had taken care of that concern for the past eight years. Eventually he tapped his way into the Swedish Medical Complex, though he had all kinds of trouble finding the elevator.
As before, someone was there to help, pushing the fourth floor button for the Madison Tower, and he finally arrived in his corner office, collapsing gratefully into his chair with a cup of coffee delivered to him by Janet, the secretary a number of the doctors shared.
when kat arrived at the dock, she could not see the black Lab, but she heard the commotion coming from the waiting ferryboat. As she arrived at the gangway, she saw Nelson literally running between people’s legs, his nose to the ground, smelling, searching for his master. The ferry passengers were pointing to the dog and saying things like, “Where did that dog come from?” and “Wait, isn’t that the blind guy’s dog?”
“Excuse me,” Kat said to the young crew member standing at the edge of the gangway. “That’s my dog, Nelson. He ran off, probably thinking my husband would be on the ferry. I’m sorry about that. May I go on board and get him?”
“Sure,” the man said. “I know your dog. I’ve seen him ride with your husband a few times. Go ahead, ma’am.”
As much as the big animal loved Kat, getting him to leave the boat without his master wasn’t easy. What was critical to Nelson was that he find Brenden, or at least that he satisfy himself that his master wasn’t on the boat.
Other passengers got involved in the game, as if they were chasing a greased pig. Eventually two men cornered Nelson, and Kat got a leash on him and led him back home, where she kept him firmly tied to a chair, even though the smell from his earlier encounter with the skunk nearly choked her to death.
as he wai ted For his first patient, Dr. Brenden McCarthy considered the significance of his relationship with his big black guide dog. He realized that Nelson not only had changed his life but had become indispensable to him. The dog made Brendon’s career—and livelihood—possible. Even though Nelson’s high strung personality off duty sometimes challenged the McCarthy family’s patience, they received so much unconditional love from the pooch that any rowdy behavior was accepted as part of the package.
His cell phone rang abruptly.
“Hello,” he said.
“Well, your pal really went crazy this morning,” Kat told him.
“What happened?” Brenden asked.
“Oh, nothing much. Nelson just jumped through an upstairs window, broke a screen, ran across the street, got on the ferry, and almost escaped to Seattle trying to find you.”
“Oh my,” Brenden said, not able to hide his smile. “I guess that dog loves me.” “Ya think?” Kat said.