This Holiday Season, Many Happy Returns


idcardThat’s the one word that describes my holidays this year. In a matter of days, I’ll be returning my Seeing Eye dog Whitney to the fabulous family who volunteered to raise her as a puppy. In January I’ll be returning to the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, New Jersey to train with a new dog. And in-between, my husband Mike and I will be returning to New Orleans, one of my favorite vacation destinations.

New Orleans is the only American city I know of where sight takes a back seat to the other senses. So I’ll be listening to live jazz in the streets, feeling damp, dense, warm air on my skin, and following my nose to green peppers and onions sautéing in butter. Oh! The food. Can you say crawfish etouffee? Jambalaya? Gumbo? Muffuletta?

And who knows? After Christmas, I may be returning gifts, too!

But why, you might ask, is my Seeing Eye dog going back to her puppy raisers? Good question. Whitney is healthy. She still enjoys visiting elementary schools with me, and still knows her lefts from her rights. But she’s ten years old now. Walks wear her out. Traveling outside our familiar neighborhood unnerves her. She loses focus.

Whitney has worked long and hard for me, and I don’t like forcing her to do something that makes her so uncomfortable. I love her. And if anyone deserves a happy carefree retirement, it’s Whitney the sensational Seeing Eye dog.

Plan A was for my great-niece in Minneapolis to adopt Whitney. Shelley already has an older dog named Wilson, but she is very fond of Whitney, too. That bond grew stronger when Shelley’s mother (my sister’s daughter, Lynne) died after a long illness. Whitney guided me through the airports to Minneapolis to be with Shelley and her sister Jamie during Lynne’s final days. At the hospital, Whitney was a comfort to all, even placing her head on the mattress so Lynne could reach her soft ears and get an occasional lick.

Since we spent our entire time at the hospital, Whitney never got to meet Shelley’s dog Wilson. A subsequent flight we arranged to introduce the dogs was canceled due to a thunderstorm.

And then I heard from the family who had raised Whitney as a puppy.

The Seeing Eye has a long-standing “closed adoption” sort of policy. They do not give our name or contact information to the volunteers who raise our Seeing Eye dogs for the first year. The school does send a graduation photo to the volunteer families once their puppy has been matched, and Whitney’s photo came with a letter saying Whitney had been given to an author in Chicago.

Whitney’s puppy raiser’s own Golden Retriever, Honey, was two years old when Whitney lived there. The two dogs ran, chased Frisbees, and even slept together. Honey had to be euthanized earlier this year after suffering renal failure. Grief over that loss got the family thinking about Whitney. They Googled “Chicago author Whitney,” and…voila! They found my blog and left a comment there offering to be a “Plan B” if things didn’t work out with Shelley.

You can probably guess the rest.

I called Shelley to tell her I’d heard from the Pennsylvania puppy raisers, that their family dog had died earlier this year, that they were just starting to look for a new dog to certify as a therapy dog to visit nursing homes and libraries.

Then came the hard part. “I’m thinking I might like to have Whitney retire with her puppy raisers,” I told my great-niece, my stomach twisting in worry over how she’d take this news. Her response was immediate. And surprising. “Do it!” she said, a smile in her voice. “I love Whitney, but I have Wilson, and there will be other dogs in my future. Right now, the puppy raisers need a dog to love.”

So off we go.
Mike and I will be returning ten-year-old Whitney to the loving people who raised her back in 2010. They’ve told us, “Getting Whitney back will be the best Christmas gift ever!”

And so, my holiday gifts came early this year. At first, I was very sad about having to say goodbye to Whitney. But that’s diminishing as I ponder how fortunate I am. This is a holiday to celebrate the human spirit – the love, understanding, and generosity that come with helping people we’ve never met.

Think about it: a family gives up an adorable puppy they’ve nurtured for months to assist an unknown someone who needs help. A kind great-niece gives up something she’d been hoping for, showing love, understanding, and empathy for a far-away family she’s never met. A husband has to say goodbye to a dog he loves, too, but he understands why: he wants “both of his girls to be safe.”

I have a lot to look forward to in the new year as well. People at the Seeing Eye are hard at work right now getting things ready for me to train for three weeks with a new, young, enthusiastic dog. Get ready, New Jersey. On January 6, 2020, I will be, yes…returning.


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