THERE IS NO MEANING IN DISABILITY PRIDE WITHOUT GOD

My first braille Bible came a few volumes at a time. In the first box was the Gospel of Matthew and Acts of the Apostles, two books in the New Testament. I was ecstatic. And as they came box by box, my Bible filled up my bookshelf and at seven years old, I could read the Word of God for myself for the first time.

It was so exciting, being able to read the Bible like my family and friends at church. I took it to Sunday School with me and was able to participate in Sword drills and follow along with the passage during the sermon. I kept a volume next to my bed, and half the shelf in my bedroom was taken up with the 37-volume Bible from Lutheran Braille Workers.

In my early twenties, I decided it was time for a new Bible, one with crisp braille dots and edges that didn’t have permanent curves from leaning against the wall by my bed. I opted for a 20-volume, hardcover Bible in the New King James Version [NKJV]. It now sits on my bookshelf, taking four cubbies to hold it all. It’s made the trek with me from my home two cities and four houses ago. It still takes up most of the bookshelf, and I still keep a volume by my bed.

It’s been with me for as long as I can remember, and so has God.

But my relationship with my braille Bible is easier to define than my relationship with God. There was a beginning, a conscious decision to open the pages and glide my fingers over the sweet dots that spelled out the story of God’s love for me. But growing up in a Christian home meant that God was in my life while I was still in the womb, and before I could say the name of God, He was a significant part of my existence. There’s never been life for me without Him. No beginning, no divide between when I knew Him and when I didn’t. Along the way, there have been landmarks in our relationship, like my baptism at 14 and my decision to attend Bible college after high school.

Receiving my braille Bibles have been landmark moments in my faith journey, too, but it’s not only because of being given the ability to read God’s Word for myself. It’s because the Bible was in braille, and for the first time, my identities as a disabled woman and a Christian came together in a real, tangible way.

The immense pride I have in my identity as a disabled woman only has meaning when taken with my pride in being a follower of Jesus Christ. I never believed they could coexist before, but not only can they, it makes my life overflow with beauty and meaning in both.

My disability is beautiful because I know that God created me this way and takes joy in me.
My faith is bolstered because of what I have endured as a disabled woman and every trial I face points back to God.

As simplistic as it may sound, the Bible sitting on my bookshelf now and the one in my childhood bedroom is how I know this is true. In one book, my disability and my God come together. It’s the only way to have full and complete meaning in both my disabled identity and my Christian identity. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My disability brings me closer to God, and God brings me pride in my disability.

You all know that I’m very vocal about my disability pride and a bit less so about my Christian pride. My faith journey is a very private one, and I keep it behind a curtain for only me and God to see. But every time I write about disability equality, accessibility, rights and ways to become allies of the disabled community, it stems from my love for the God who made me disabled, and beautifully so. There’s no meaning in it if God isn’t the maker and the center, and I’m thankful that He is, and will always be, there.

How does your faith impact your relationship with your disability, and vice versa? Let me know in the comments.

I AM A CHRISTIAN — UNASHAMED, UNAPOLOGETIC AND OUT LOUD

I am a Christian–a follower of Jesus Christ, and I am not ashamed.

Many people see the word Christian and presume many things about me. Christians as a whole are stereotyped, categorized and presumed to be many things that they are not–a few of the more common presumptions being judgmental and close-minded. These are often based on a person’s encounter with a few individual Christians, and that creates their overall perception of the entire group. And as a Christian, I’ve been subjected to my fair share.

I was scrolling through Twitter a few months ago and came upon a tweet that claimed they would not follow anyone who called themselves a Christian in their bio because that meant they were Trump supporters and bigots. In a burst of uncommon boldness, I replied to this tweet, saying that not all Christians should be labelled this way, and simply because certain Christians may be, support, or condone those things, I will not be ashamed to use the word Christian.

Because that is what I am, despite what attributes the world attaches to it.

I am a Christian and I choose to use that word unashamedly because it is not a label indicative of political leanings or any other standard by which we measure ourselves. It means simply that I follow Jesus Christ and try [and fail because of my flawed and sinful humanity] to live according to biblical standards. To some who don’t share the faith, that makes me naive, unloving and a hater, and I have been treated as such and suffer for it.

But that is what living a Christian life is.

Jesus suffered insurmountable hate, pain and rejection while He walked this earth. He said, “and whoever does not take their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” [Matthew 10:38]. The Apostle Peter writes also that “for this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. / For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. / For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” [I Peter 2:19-21].

Suffering is not comfortable. It hurts. It hurts when I’m accused of being homophobic. It hurts when I’m called a hater because I disagree with what the world deems acceptable. It hurts when non-Christians use selective Bible verses–without understanding how they fit into the meaning and message of the entire Bible– to dictate how I should treat them, though they themselves do not live by the Bible’s standards. And it hurts when as a Christian, I am held to a pedestal of perfection that can only be met by the God I serve, not me.

This world hurts. And Jesus said it would. And in the moments I’ve already walked through and the many more I know will come, I hold to the truth and the assurance that I have in being a Christian, and that I am following the words of Timothy: “fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” [I Timothy 6:12] And I take the most comfort and assurance in the knowledge that I will live forever with Jesus in Heaven where there is no more suffering.

But while I am on this earth, I will do my best to live by the words that are written in the Bible. And while I know the world will be offended by it, I will follow the God of my faith first and be as like Him as I possibly can. I am called to show love to others. I am called to be kind and compassionate. I am commanded to forgive those that wrong me, just as God forgave me.

But I am not called to follow the ways of the world because those ways go against God. So, no, I am not a supporter of lifestyles that contradict God’s Word. I am not “pro-choice” because I believe God chooses life, both for the born and unborn. I am not going to compromise on my values just to make someone comfortable. I am not going to back down or stay quiet. My God and standing up for the truth comes first before anything else. But I will always care and be kind to others who don’t share my beliefs as much as I am able because I am commanded to be Christlike, to bear His image and character in the world.

I will try for my whole life to live out those things. And at times, I will fail. But I am a Christian and I do not live according to a secular worldview. My faith directs and shapes everything I do–my writing, my advocacy work for the disabled community, how I try and treat those I come into contact with. It does not mean that I am perfect, but that I am trying to emulate God’s character in my life. And that includes the parts of the Christian faith that are uncomfortable, that go against the world’s beliefs, and even against other Christians who have differing views. I choose to be a Christian and to be unashamed of the title and be proud of what I stand for. Because these are not self-made standards–they come from the mouth of God, the creator of life and the world, and I am proud to be His.

WHY I’M THANKFUL FOR MY DISABILITY

Growing up around the Thanksgiving dinner table, when asked what I was thankful for this year, my disability was never on the list. I said things like a loving family, friends that support me, Jesus, opportunities at school and church, all of which were true and deserving of a place on the list, but I was missing one big blessing.

My blindness.

The story of how I came to not only accept but embrace my blindness is a long one, and is still ongoing. It changes as I change, it ebbs and flows as I grow and learn more about myself, God, and the world around me. It’s a story that I used to look at through a lens of disgust; I was ashamed of what I was and how I couldn’t let go of my anger and feel freedom and pride in who I was. My adolescent years were spent in a fog, unwilling to change but not knowing how to change at the same time.

I only knew how to feel inferior. My blindness relegated me to a lesser place in the world, and I watched from below as my friends and family lived their lives with an ease and equality that I craved. The life I wanted for myself was a dream I couldn’t reach. So I settled into my place and passed the days and years in an embittered haze.

Being disabled is not easy. At times, it’s awful. The ableism and discrimination disabled people face is staggering, and so often, it takes everything in us to keep going. Sometimes, it feels like it’s us against the world, and the world is winning. It’s a very real part of living in a disabled body, and it can be a trial to find one thing to be thankful for. This is certainly the mindset I adopted as I grew up; surviving was hard enough. What was there to be thankful for?

As it turns out… lots!

My blindness taught me the value of every human life, no matter what abilities a body does or does not have.

It taught me that with God’s strength, I can overcome the challenges I face in a world that wasn’t designed for me.

I learned how to use my determination, stubbornness and voice to advocate for my needs and the needs of others.

I learned that you don’t truly appreciate what you have until you’ve fought for it.

And I’ve learned about love. I’ve learned how to love others, how to love myself, and most importantly, how God loves each one of His children, able or disabled. He made us in His image, and He never gives up on us even when we give up on ourselves.

This is why I’m thankful for my disability. Because it taught me that underneath what we see on the surface, when we look deeper than skin-level, it’s about people, and it’s the people we are inside that count. My blindness shapes who I am and who I will become. It’s a part of me I will never again be ashamed of. It’s a part of me that has made me into the person I am and the person I know I was meant to become. This is why I’m thankful for my disability.

And I’m thankful to be in the middle of this life. With all its challenges and struggles, and all the light and love that comes with it, I am thankful to be who I am because God created me this way. I will love my disabled body because He loves it and will use me and my story to make a difference for Him. And I can’t wait.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving? Tell me in the comments. And if you’re American, join in anyway! We should be thankful all year round.

AN OPEN LETTER TO GOD AND MY GUIDE DOG

To God and my guide dog, Saint:

Both of you know something that I want to know. But neither of you can tell me.

Well, I know You can tell me God, but I also know You don’t often spell things out for us that easily, so I’m going to wager that You’ll be keeping pretty quiet on this one. But You really don’t have to. And as much as I wish more than anything for a Narnian reality in which animals can talk, I also know you, Saint, cannot tell me what I so desperately want to know either.

And what is this thing, you ask?

It’s purpose. Specifically, my purpose.

Saint, you’ve known your purpose since you were born. From conception, you’ve been destined for a life of great meaning: to learn to lead a blind person throughout a world that is not built to accommodate them. It is one of the greatest blessings I have received and I am eternally thankful that you, my sweet boy, have this purpose and live it out daily for me. Because of you, I feel safe, confident, independent and loved.

You know your purpose. When the harness goes on, you switch into guide dog mode. Your ears perk, your tail wags, and at a brief “Saint, forward,” you take off like a rocket, all while keeping me from tripping on the slightest bump in the road. Your purpose is clear. It amazes me that as a newborn puppy and now as a three-year-old, you know your life’s purpose beyond the shadow of a doubt.

And I don’t know mine.

Now, over to You for a minute, God. Feel free to chime in anytime.

I know You know what Your purpose is, and I know You know what mine is. But before I beg You to let me in on the secret, I have two thoughts.

Firstly, as a Christian, I know and believe that my purpose is to serve and bring glory to You. Okay, great! That’s… clear as mud. Wait a minute: glorifying God and serving Him sounds wonderful (and it is), but how in the world do I do that?

Do I have to do something specific? Is there a list of “God-glorifying” jobs You can email me to make it easier? Because I’m kind of drawing a blank here.

Now, this second one is just a thought, but I have a sneaking suspicion I’m on the right track. I wonder if my purpose has something to do with writing.

But what kind of writing? Am I meant to write books? Poetry? Radio dramas? Commercials? And what do I write about? Is my purpose to advocate for disability equality and accessibility? I’m already doing that, or trying to on this blog, so, well, I’m not sure. Do I need to write Christian books and work to tell people about You? Can I do both?

Maybe it doesn’t involve writing at all. Or maybe, writing is a way to bring glory to You. That could be possible, right? Or, maybe my purpose is something that I haven’t even thought about at all!

Seriously God, anytime now.

I just don’t understand it. How does a yellow lab know his life’s purpose and me, a woman with faith, a university degree, a blog, a family and boatloads of passion, don’t know my purpose? Will I ever know? Or will I have a moment like Saul on the road to Damascus when You appeared to him in a bright light and changed the course of his life forever? The only bright lights I have are in the light switches by the door, and I can’t even see those.

Can you help me out a little? I want to glorify You, I do. But how? Is this blog enough? Is it even worth it? Should I be doing something else?

I have too many questions, but they can all be rolled up like a tortilla into one, overarching question that I want to scream (but I can’t since the neighbours will hear):

What is my purpose?

I just hope I have one…

But until You show me something else, I guess I’ll continue along this path and hope that You’re doing something with it.

That’s all I got, God. Anything to add?

All right, then. Talk to you soon. And Saint, yes, I’ll give you a belly rub.

Love,
Rhianna

A SILVER DOLLAR FOR DISABLED MARRIAGE, PART TWO: HOW TO HAVE YOUR COMMON-LAW CAKE AND EAT IT TOO [BUT WHY I DIDN’T]

Please read A SILVER DOLLAR FOR DISABLED MARRIAGE, PART ONE: WHEN I SAID I DO, THE GOVERNMENT SAID WE DON’T HAVE TO ANYMORE before continuing.

I got married.

And with that, my husband and I prepared for a unique financial situation—the inevitable loss of my disability income. But, there was a possible escape, a way to have my cake [ahem, income] and eat it, too.

Enter common-law relationships.


I grew up in a solid Christian home and as an adult, I still choose to hold to those values and beliefs. And I have always dreamed of getting married and having a godly, Christ-centered marriage. But by the time my husband and I met, it was clear that we had to make a choice between my financial stability and my longing for a godly [and legal] marriage. And I wasn’t the first to face this dilemma.

In British Columbia, the Ministry slashes a disabled person’s disability income once they get married. Because, as we all know, disabled people marry rich, financially secure partners with no money woes or debt to pay off, so it’s totally fine to cut back one partner’s entire income once they say “I do.”

Exaggerated? Maybe. But it’s sure how it feels, considering that is the choice my husband and I faced and now, the consequences we live with.

Let’s take a moment and refresh our memories, shall we?
As a married couple, both partners have to claim every dollar made between them, and each dollar claimed is a dollar less that can be received through monthly disability support once the income threshold for a couple [$18,000] is reached.

However, there is one loophole one can jump through in order to keep both their disability income and a shared life with their partner—living common-law. Many disabled British Columbians are opting for this option rather than legal marriage because as stated, it allows them to live with their partner and keep receiving support payments, which is often that partner’s only means of income.

My husband and I wanted a legal, on-paper, out-loud, God-honouring marriage. But that isn’t to say we didn’t seriously consider foregoing the tradition and simply moving in together and beginning our lives together without the fanfare.

Financial success isn’t everything. But being financially stable is not something to be dismissed, and it has always been a goal for my marriage. And we knew what we were up against: Being disabled is expensive. Caring for a service animal is expensive. And finding a job to pay for these expenses is next to impossible, since too many employers are unwilling to hire people with disabilities in favour of their convenience. Living common-law would at least let me share a home and a life with my partner while contributing to our financial future, whereas legal marriage would ensure a regress in our goals and a slap in my face for doing the right thing.

Now, being married and living with the aftereffects of that choice, I do have to say that I do not regret it. My faith and the values I glean from it are more important. But admittedly, it hurts, knowing that I can’t contribute equally to our financial future, that what I can contribute will be lost in a few months’ time, and that we have to have a “Scary Fund” to keep us afloat when the months without my income arrive.

But this is how it is with the Ministry every time I make a call, go to the office, or claim my husband’s and my income on our monthly report. It’s a slap in the face for doing the right thing, both legally and biblically. I did not hide my marriage nor skirt around it to keep my income, but in following their policies and procedures, I lose my income.

Why?

Because the government system in place to provide for people like me makes us choose between a loving relationship and financial security.

Because God knows, we don’t deserve both.

Read this next: A SILVER DOLLAR FOR DISABLED MARRIAGE, PART THREE: MOTHER MINISTRY, HER CHILDREN, AND THEIR CO-DEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP

NINETEEN YEARS AGO TODAY…

I Became Blind

Nineteen years ago today, I took one last look around the Children’s Hospital with blurry vision.

I saw my family, together with the ophthalmologist, holding hands in a circle as we prayed for what was about to happen.

Nineteen years ago today, my Daddy carried me into the operating room and laid me down on the operating table.

And I smelled the watermelon scent that always lulled me to a blissful, dreamless sleep.

Nineteen years ago today, I became fully blind.

And nineteen years ago today, I became cancer-free.


This day goes by several names—my blindaversary, my blind birthday, Classy Glassy Day, but no matter what I call it, it will always be a day that I celebrate.

Yes, it’s the day that I became blind. It’s also the day my little body was free of the retinoblastoma. But this day acts as a marker for much more than that.

It reminds me how far I’ve come.

It reminds me of what my family and I went through, because cancer and blindness isn’t just my story—it’s theirs, too.

It reminds me that everyone who has a disability has a story, and each of those stories are unique and worthy.

It also teaches me things that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

It taught me the value of my health, and how nothing in this life can be taken for granted.

It taught me to be thankful for what I have, and who I have.

It taught me that my story has shaped me for the better, that I wouldn’t be who I am without having experienced what I did.

And it taught me that God is here through pain and suffering, and sometimes, it’s through those times that He’s the most visible.

So, happy Blindaversary to… me! I’m excited for what the next year will hold. How will I grow? How will God shape me into the person He wants me to become? I’m excited to find out.

Oh, and I forgot to mention one thing that this day always reminds me to be thankful for:

It isn’t the end of my story.

WHY I’M NOT WEARING A WHITE WEDDING DRESS

Having grown up in a traditional, conservative Christian household and adopting many of the traditions for myself, planning a wedding seemed straightforward. It would be a church wedding with the lead pastor officiating, every member of my and my fiance’s families attending and me, walking down the aisle in a beautiful, white dress.

I still hold to these Christian values, beliefs and traditions. They are the core of who I am and who I want to become.

So then, how do you explain the emerald green wedding dress hanging in my closet?

I find it amazing and a bit quirky, that sometimes, I don’t even realize I need the answer to a question until someone else asks me. This was the case when my Auntie—who, by the way, is the officiant for my wedding and neither my fiancé or I attend her church—asked me plainly: “Rhianna, why do you want to wear a coloured wedding dress?”

I was silent, but when I did speak, it was a mess of half-sentences and I don’t knows. I knew somewhere deep down, but until that moment, I hadn’t needed to find it words. My Auntie had asked a genuine question out of curiosity and I wanted to give a genuine answer.

It’s taken me weeks to process my thoughts and feelings into an intelligible form. So here we go, my three reasons for choosing a coloured wedding dress.

Green Is My Colour

Let’s begin with the simple answers.

Green is my favourite colour. It’s warm, cozy, inviting and also adventurous. Whenever I paint my nails, I love doing dark green with gold accents. My guide dog wears turquoise boots in non paw-friendly conditions, and any chance I get to buy green items, even down to mugs and socks, I take it.

And might I mention too, that emerald is my birthstone.

White Equals Vulnerable

Vulnerability is a necessary part to any healthy relationship. But learning to be vulnerable is not an easy process, and it becomes harder when you’ve been hurt. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to trust people because my trust has been broken by others. It’s hard to let go of the fear that my perspective won’t be heard or appreciated because in the past, it’s been thoughtlessly dismissed. I often look for ways to protect myself from further hurt, and one mechanism I’ve come to realize that I rely on is my clothing.

For as far back as I can remember, my wardrobe has consisted of jeans and sweaters, most of them in dark greys or blacks. And I was only in my early twenties when a friend broached the idea that my need to wear dark clothes might be connected to my blindness.

My blindness makes me more noticeable to the world, and for a teen who wanted nothing more than to fit in and not be noticed, I resorted to clothes as a protection mechanism. I was at a disadvantage—everyone could see me, but I couldn’t see them. And the less of me they could see, maybe the less susceptible I’d be to judgment or criticism.

As I get older, while I still prefer to be clothed in layers from top to bottom, my colour scheme is expanding. Nothing too bright or outlandish, but I’m more comfortable being seen in oranges, yellows, greens and other shades.

There is a caveat though—it needs to be a solid colour. This way, even in coloured clothing, I’m protected because no one can see through it to the me underneath. Yes, I am aware that lighter colours, like white, aren’t necessarily see-through, and I’m not just referring to the physical implications. But the deeper one, the one where I’m afraid to be seen because if I’m seen, I might be known for who I really am.

And that’s scary.

But before anyone jumps to conclusions, my fears of being known and judged do not apply to my future husband; I’ve known only unconditional love, understanding and complete safety in our relationship. But that doesn’t stop my mind from asking, “What about everyone else?”

White does not equal vulnerable, and colour does not equal protected. But due to my past experiences and my deep desire to be protected, a coloured wedding dress makes me feel safer.

I Want to Express My Individuality

I became blind at the age of six, and since then, my blindness has been a defining aspect of my life. I learned to read braille and use assistive technology. I participated in sporting events for the blind and attended programs specifically for blind and visually impaired children and youth, like summer camp and competitions. I used a white cane and after university, received my first guide dog.

Blindness was all over me. And while I gained valuable skills, made long-lasting friendships and had unique experiences that have shaped my perspective, I can’t deny the impact that my disability had on my self-image. I was still a blind girl, and for years, I viewed this as a negative. No matter how intensely I fought it, my disability was the first thing that people noticed. Whether it was the white cane sweeping the path ahead of me, the four paws guiding me around obstacles, or the fact that I couldn’t make eye contact and was usually looking up, it was there. The blind girl.

And when it came to getting engaged and planning my wedding, I began to notice a deep-seeded need to prove my individuality.

For so long, I’ve been different, but not for the things I wanted. I was praised for being a fast braille reader, winning a braille competition and maintaining a positive attitude despite my disability. Now, I was afraid that this thread would be woven into my wedding.

I didn’t want to be a blind bride, or a blind wife. I was afraid that the emphasis would be placed on the fact that my fiance is marrying a blind woman, or that the dress or decorations don’t matter because I can’t see them. I needed to be different for something I wanted people to notice.


Being deeply rooted in Christianity, I know that some may be surprised and curious at my choice to not wear a white dress. I don’t blame them; a few years ago, I may have questioned the exact same decision. But when I think about what it truly means, and what I wanted in a wedding dress, there’s one thing I come back to.

Before I bought my dress, I showed my Uncle a picture of it and explained my apprehension at what others might think of the non-traditional colour. His response was unshakable, and made me smile:

“It’s your wedding, kid. Wear what makes you happy.”

And you know what? This emerald green dress, with its silky skirts that do the best twirls I’ve ever done, makes me happy.

But what makes me more happy is that while wearing this dress, I get to marry the love of my life. It isn’t indicative of any deviation from my Christian faith or tradition, but simply an embracing of my individuality and something that makes me feel confident and beautiful. And that’s how I want to feel on my wedding day.

What did your wedding dress look like? Let me know in the comments.

THE WAY WE ALMOST WEREN’T

It would be easier to tell you the story of how my guide dog, Saint, and I met and became a team. Spoiler, it involves a lot of cuddles, kisses, wags, wiggles, and lots and lots of love. It’s straightforward and predictable: I arrived at GDB for training, I was given the leash of my dream match, and two weeks later, we flew home to begin our life together.

But that’s not the story I’m telling today. Rather, this is the story of how we almost weren’t.

Tears on Tuesday

It was the Tuesday of the second week and we had only three days until our flight home. By this time in the program, we were scheduled to be working on training in environments specific to our home life. For me, that entailed walking along some trails, rough terrain and navigating through chairs, tables and the crowds in coffee shops.

But Tuesday afternoon, while my fellow clients and their dogs headed out to work on various routes, my instructor, team supervisor and I headed to a local park to walk a long, looping path. It was half concrete and half gravel, nothing complex or difficult to navigate. We were there to work on pace.

Pace is a crucial aspect of matching the right dog to the right handler. If the speed at which the handler walks is faster than the dog, a myriad of issues can arise. The dog may begin slowing down because of forward pressure on the harness handle. The dog may also feel defeated and wonder, “if my handler is going to walk ahead of me anyway, then what am I guiding for?” Additionally, with a slower dog, the handler is often “hopping-up” the dog—hopp-up being the command to go faster. Alternatively, if the handler walks slower than their guide dog, the handler is continually asking their dog to “steady” or slow down. While this may seem less problematic than having a slow dog with a fast handler, neither are ideal and the pace needs to be matched appropriately.

My first guide dog and I were matched primarily for my mental and emotional health. I was struggling significantly with anxiety and wasn’t terribly active. Therefore, they matched me with Cricket who was very chill, laid-back and cool with lazy days in. But as time went on, I noticed that our pace wasn’t cohesive.

I was walking faster than Cricket was and consistently asking him to hopp-up. In response, Cricket would slow, and when I slowed to try and match, he would slow to a stop. Pushing the harness handle forward and simply walking at my preferred pace yielded only a moment of catch up before he would slow again. It was a source of constant frustration in our teamwork and a mishandling of the situation on my part.

But after Cricket’s retirement, my lifestyle changed and so did what I needed in a guide dog. When asked what I was looking for, I said simply that I wanted a dog with lots of energy and a fast pace.

Fast forward to week one of training and Saint was all that I had hoped for and then some. He had a good pace that matched mine and lots of energy and enthusiasm for the job. At our mid-training meeting, my instructor said that she was confident Saint would be going home with me.

But by Tuesday, we knew something wasn’t working.

Saint had slowed down, even from his recorded pace during his training, and my instructor noted how often I was hopping him up on our routes. I was befuddled; our first week had gone off perfectly. But it was now a problem.

The pattern was all too familiar. I hopped him up, he slowed, and we both got frustrated. It was happening again.

So on Tuesday afternoon, we were at the park, hoping that on a straight and easy-to-navigate path, Saint would get into his groove. We called it “the wiggle,” and feeling that dance in the harness was what I so desperately wanted.

He didn’t. And when we walked an in-town route afterwards, the result was the same.

My heart was sinking. My stomach was in knots, and the only sound on the drive back to the school was the slight gasping of my breath as I tried not to completely break down. No one said it out loud, but the question hung over us like a dense fog:

Did I have to give Saint up?

In the fireplace room, my instructor and supervisor sat me down and laid out my options. There were three:

  • I could keep Saint, so long as I accepted his slower pace and was content to work with him this way.
  • I could go home without a dog and come back to training when they had a dog who walked my preferred pace.
  • Or, I could try out a new dog, because they just happened to have one in the kennel who had just graduated and walked that fast pace.

Tuesday night was one of the hardest nights of my life. Every time I ran my fingers over Saint’s silky fur, or got a surprise kiss on the face, I started sobbing. I called my fiancé and my parents, trying to process what was happening, but I couldn’t. My heart was breaking and I could do nothing but cry and whimper a prayer of “help me, God.”

Was this really my last night with Saint?

Whirlwind on Wednesday

On Wednesday morning, I put Saint into a crate at the downtown training lounge and picked up the harness handle of a dog with tufty, yellow fur and boundless energy. When we set out on our route, it was obvious from the get-go that he had the pace I was searching for.

Maybe even a bit too fast. But then, it was easier to slow a dog down than to speed them up. This dog had the energy and the pace I wanted… but Saint was my baby. Already, we’d bonded on such a deep, emotional level and I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Saint was everything I’d dreamed about but hadn’t dared to say out loud; he was a boy, a yellow lab, an enthusiastic worker and a snuggler. But working with a guide dog wasn’t about snuggles, but being guided safely and independently through the world.

I was torn. Seeing the struggle, my team supervisor offered to have me walk one last route with Saint before making my final decision. But before we took off, I took a minute to talk to God. I said, “God, I need an answer on this walk. I’m so confused and I don’t know which dog to choose. But you know. If it’s going to be Saint, you need to make it clear on this walk.” Then I picked up the handle and said, “Saint, forward.”

It couldn’t have been clearer. And I couldn’t stop the smile from taking over my whole face. My supervisor, observing from across the way, said that this walk either made my decision so much harder or so easy.

“Easy,” I said. “God gave me my answer. I want Saint.”

Love for a Lifetime

It feels impossible to think that I may have come home with a different dog, or no dog at all. Both were very real possibilities. My instructor told me that dog switches happen almost every class, so I wouldn’t have been the first.

But I was among the minority to keep the dog that I was originally issued. And in the month since we came home, I’m so thankful I did.

Saint is my baby. Once I took the pressure off of us to keep up a faster pace, his pace naturally increased and is now exactly what I wanted. We fly down the sidewalk like a well-oiled machine. We snuggle in bed at night, and while I groom him, he licks me clean. He loves playing with his squeaky dinosaur and chewing on one of his many Nylabones. His favourite place to be is on my lap, tummy up and getting endless belly rubs.

He has my heart so fully and completely.

Guide dogs aren’t just dogs, nor are they just mobility tools. Guide dogs are so much more than that. They’re dogs who are part of who we are, who give us things this world can’t, and who help us become the people we desire to be. Because of Saint, I feel independent, free, safe, a little more equal, and so, so loved.

This was the story of how Saint and I almost weren’t. But I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that we were, and are, and will be forever together—the dream team. Nothing in life is ever guaranteed, and once you come close to losing something you love, it changes your perspective. It helps you stay thankful and not take anything for granted. And that’s my prayer, to never take Saint for granted and to stay thankful for the amazing blessing that he is in my life. He gives me so much—independence, freedom, unconditional love—and all I want is to give him the best life I can in return.