Planet of the Golden Retrievers

A few weeks after Ben died, we had our first encounter with a service dog in training (to work with individuals with PTSD). We met him at Tazza, our favorite local coffee shop where we'd spent endless hours with Ben and our family friends. His owner gave us a card, and we later invited them to our house to share his gift with the girls. Then, the week after our Today's Show interview, Kyle and I were eating at a restaurant in the Danbury Fair Mall when I walked by a table and heard someone whisper "....she is....Today's Show." My first instinct was to hide because we had encountered so much negativity and gossip by that point. But, after we were seated a woman walked up to our table, introduced herself and told us she had seen the interview, respected us and was keeping us in her prayers. It was Jen Marr, the handler for Addie, a Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog that worked with Newtown families (see Good Morning America segment). She offered to bring Addie by to see my girls, which we gladly accepted. She is now a dear friend, and that one visit changed our life for the better. 

It was after feeling our intense anxiety melt away, if just for the moment we were petting Addie, that we began exploring the idea of getting a Golden Retriever. We found a breeder in California, and I knew it was a match as soon as she told me his name was Harley. He was bred for service work or simply to be a family dog. Next thing I know, in late September I found myself waiting in the cargo area at JFK to meet our new puppy. This is what greeted me: 

Over time, we learned that Harley had very distinct traits and gifts:

Giving and receiving love. Our family joke is that he is our lazy dog, inevitably quitting on us at the end of every hike, quietly lying down on the trail. Sometimes I think he needs us even more than we need him. He craves love, each and every minute of the day. He slowly stretches out on his side when he sees us walk toward him. “Just pet me,” he says. He is a dog that doesn’t bark but “mumbles”…it’s a low key growl-like sound (call it a "purr") that he emits whenever he is happy and relaxed. Now, don’t get me wrong, he musters enough energy to run or play with the kids each day, but he really exists simply to love and be loved, nothing less, nothing more.

Staying. Because of his laziness, Kyle loves to say he is Yellow Dog "guaranteed to never run away” (from the Chevy Chase movie, Funny Farm). When Goldens find their family, they stay. One day, our youngest daughter let him outside, not knowing the wind had blown the gate to our fence open. Twenty minutes later, our neighbor showed up on our front porch where Harley was sitting patiently staring at the door and waiting (not barking, of course). “I saw Harley sitting here on your front porch when I drove by and wasn’t sure if you knew he was out,” she said. He is not a runner, he is a “stayer.” I’ve read articles and wonderful blogs about how friends can help grieving families. There are many things you can do, but I can narrow it down to one of simplest yet most fundamental actions: Staying. There may be nothing to say or do; your friend may push you away only to come back again later. You may feel utterly helpless and in pain, but a simple message of “I’m here when you are ready” can mean more than you could ever imagine. Often there are no other words. I'm sure I have whispered amongst tears many nights, Just Stay.

Therapy. He senses stress, anxiety, sadness, depression. There have been days when I’ve come home, and he has absolutely attacked me….would not stop crawling all over me, giving me hugs, putting his face against my leg. Sometimes I don’t even know how stressed I am, until I realize he has sensed it. Then, I try to let go of the tightness in my chest. The picture above was taken last Friday morning. It had been a subtle trigger. I’d awoken to sun seeping through the slits in our blinds, then the breeze of the ceiling fan hit my face, blowing my hair. In an instant, I was taken back to a morning in our bedroom in Connecticut last summer, sun breaking through the thick tree cover, birds chirping, window fan circulating the fresh summer scent through our room. I was there again, breathing in the smell of our house and yard, humidity enveloping my body, waiting to check the monitor and see Ben playing in his crib, quietly waiting for us to get him up. But, this Friday, when my youngest ran into our room and I buried my face in her hair, yearning to smell our past life again, there was no crib, no Ben, no trip to the lake later that day. But, we had Harley. We needed some love therapy, and he was eager to give it.

Amidst the criminal and DCF investigations and court proceedings against us, Kyle made a statement that resonated with me: “You know, humans are going to destroy each other, and one day Golden Retrievers will rule the world.” Sometime I think he’s right. Humans fight and argue without even stopping to ask why, and Goldens, well, their only goal is to make it all better. Have you ever argued with someone and realized later it was because you loved them, not because you were angry or disagreed with them? I have. How counterintuitive, yet so utterly human, is that?

As for myself, I am still trying to learn how to simply...

love and allow myself to open up enough again to receive that same love in return.