Why April 11 will always be special.Friday, April 11, 2014
Her name was Matti, and she was more than just a dog.
Growing up, we had cats, but I always wanted a dog. I started begging my parents for one, and of course they said no countless times. Too much responsibility, too much work, too much money. The answer was always no. But I kept asking. And then we heard about the Leader Dog puppy program. You took on a guide dog puppy for a year, socializing it and doing basic training, raising it in your home. After a year, you took the puppy back to the main facility where they received further training and hopefully passed to be placed with a blind person. For whatever reason, this idea sounded intriguing to my parents - maybe because we would only commit to having the dog for one year, and maybe they thought it would be a great project for a 10-year old girl.
I continued to beg and beg, and they finally said we could do it, if I promised to hug them each every day for one month. You see, I had major surgery when I was a little girl. Before my surgery, I was a cuddly little thing, but after my surgeries and procedures, I started to not like being touched or hugged. Going to family functions made me cringe, thinking about having to hug all the aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas. So, for me, this was a great challenge. Which I gladly took on, for a puppy!
We got called that Spring. A litter of puppies had been born on April 11, and we were asked if we would take one. I was 10, and we agreed to drive to pick up a teeny yellow lab puppy one weekend in late May. That weekend also ended up being the weekend of my Great-Grandma Lillian's funeral. We named the puppy Matti. Partly because we just liked it, and partly because Great-Grandma's last name was Mattix. It seemed fitting.
I still remember sitting in that waiting room, with so much anticipation, for that woman to come walking through the door, with our puppy. She was squishy and wrinkly and soft, with that puppy-breath smell that only little puppies seem to have. She licked our hands and we put a collar on, and took her with us. She was Matti, and I had already worked hard to earn having her. She was more than a dog to me, she was my prize, my excitement, my first puppy.
On the way home, they said we should keep her crated, but she cried for her family most of the way. Finally, my mom said we could let her out. She crawled on my lap, snuggled her face up in my arm, and fell fast asleep. I was smitten.
We had Matti for almost a year. I took her to 4-H dog training classes, we followed the Leader Dog training guide, we took her to grocery stores, restaurants, church, parks, schools, and farms - she went pretty much everywhere with us. I remember her falling asleep in the back row of church, wiggling her way out in the middle of the aisle, rolling on her back and snoring - Pastor Dan came up to us at the end of service, commenting that his sermon must have been really boring that day. I remember being in a grocery store with her, reminding her to watch out for old ladies and their wayward carts - didn't want her paws getting run over! I remember my mom bringing her into school one day, so I could share her story with my 6-grade English class, and feeling like a proud mama as she laid there and stared at the other students.
She was a sweet soul, learning her manners quickly, making us laugh with her puppy antics, cuddling with us on the floor (since she wasn't allowed on the furniture), being a constant for me that year.
The next Spring, 1998, we got the call that it was time to take her back - she was due for the next phase of her training. I don't think we had quite thought it through, what it would mean to have a puppy for a year, and then to have to say good-bye to her. I remember driving back to the Leader Dog facility that weekend, with Matti in the car, my heart in my chest. I was almost 11, and didn't know how to emotionally respond to what I was feeling. She laid there in the car, and I imagined that she knew we were taking her back, and that her sad eyes were simply a reflection of my own. I remember walking into that waiting room, the same one we had been in a year ago, and sitting down to wait. For a woman to walk through the doors, to take Matti away. We hugged her one last time, my mom choking back tears, me trying to hold it together, and watched her walk back through the doors. I knew it was good and right, but it was still so, so hard. That night, I cried and cried, as my young emotions finally found a release. Matti had been there, at our side, for a year, through so much with us. And we had gotten so attached.
It wasn't long before I was begging my mom for another dog. We were all lonely, missing our Matti, and her presence in our home. I think my mom knew how sad I was, and for some reason, she agreed to let me bring a black with blue-eyed lab-shepherd mix home from the humane society. We named her Chloe, and she was nothing like Matti. She was crazy and loud and had serious life issues. But we loved her just the same. And she helped us not miss Matti as much.
Honestly, I think we thought that would be the end of our story with Matti. We had heard, a few months after taking her back, that she had passed her training, and had been placed with a blind woman - we kept their graduation picture framed for a long time, we were so proud of her and how she was helping someone. We had always known that when a guide dog retired, the puppy family had first chance at taking them back, if they wanted, but we never really gave it much thought.
In April of 2008, I got a frantic message from my mom, in the middle of Swahili class, asking me to call her right away. She said that Leader Dog had called her, informing her that Matti had retired, asking if we wanted to adopt her, and if we could come that weekend. She called to tell me that she had said yes without even thinking about it. I remember crying in the middle of the hallway that day, in shock and disbelief that we would see our beloved Matti again.
That weekend, which also happened to be my 22nd birthday weekend, my dad and I packed into the car, and drove hours away, to Michigan, to the Leader Dog facility. I remember getting out of the car, and walking into that waiting room, the exact same one where we had met and left her, feeling such anticipation and joy that we had this chance. She was waiting with the women at the front desk. I remember kneeling down, and she walked over to me, tail wagging. Her face was older, grayer than I had remembered, but it was her. Our Matti. It was a feeling like coming home, to something old and worn and familiar. Feeling like a piece of the puzzle that had been missing, had finally been found. I hugged that old girl, and the women marveled with wonder in their eyes, saying they could tell she remembered me. 10 years later, and we were reunited.
Matti was with us for one year. She had been sick and was recovering. She had arthritis and couldn't get around well. She needed help doing stairs and getting in the car. She had her daily regime of pills and supplements. She slept a lot. But she was home. She was sleeping next to me at night, and hanging out with me during the day. She befriended that crazy Chloe dog, and even helped us welcome a new kitten, Milia home. She greeted all our family members like she had never been away. We were all so happy to see her, to have her with us again. It just felt so right.
We knew when it was time to finally say good-bye. We could tell she was trying so hard to be strong for us, but that she was in so much pain, and it wasn't fair to keep her alive, when she would only try harder to be brave for us. It was on her birthday, April 11, 2009, that we took her to the Vet. I was just pregnant with Eliana, and an emotional hot mess. I stroked her soft ears on the trip there, and we sat around her in that exam room, as she peacefully went to sleep. It was good and right, she was free from all that pain, but saying goodbye was hard.
I am so thankful that we got to see Matti again, that we got that year with her. It was unexpected, and amazing, and did something to all of our hearts that I can't quite explain. When we talk about Matti, we get this gleam in our eye, and this tenderness in our voice, and we share our stories about how her sweet self impacted our lives. She was a dog, but she really was so much more. She was friend and confidante, she was companion and protector, she was a precious gift.
April 11 will always, always hold a special place in my heart. Remembering the lessons I learned through her, because of her. Remembering the joy of a first puppy. Remembering the surprise blessing in that last year with her. Remembering the sweet yellow Lab that stole our hearts and made me a better person.
Her name was Matti, and she was more than just a dog.