FAREWELL TO HARLEY

by Robert Feinstein

 

ONE
SAYING GOODBYE

Harley, my guide dog and best friend, became my partner in August 1994. Since meeting, we were never separated for more than three hours. About a month ago, while getting off a bus, he let out a yelp of pain. I hugged him and petted him, we continued on our walk, and all seemed fine. I had noticed that he was hesitant to board the bus and was guiding more slowly. I attributed this to the fact that he was getting older. But as time passed, he began to yelp when changing position; when he cried out while trying to eat I knew something was terribly wrong.

Believing at first that Harley had merely sprained his back, the vet put him on a new medication called Diramaxx, which eased the pain, but soon frightening symptoms appeared: he made strange noises while sleeping and his breathing grew labored. When he refused to eat, I ordered canned food, which I thought would be more to his liking, but when the delivery man arrived, he told me Harley's face was horribly swollen, and that I had to get him to a vet right away.

Tests revealed multiple myeloma, which had infiltrated Harley's bone marrow, his spleen, and his liver. His pain was due to a broken hip caused by the cancer.

Things quickly went from bad to worse, and I was forced to make the awful decision to put my best friend to his final rest. A part of me died with him. I am writing this because it became clear to me that vets, like most doctors, do not understand the ramifications of blindness. Instead of asking, they treated our situation as if I could see. One vet told me I could take Harley home after surgery and use a sling to lift him and help him walk. Did the vet even stop to think how I, totally blind, living alone and using a cane when Harley could no longer guide me, might be able to manage this?

When I tried to explain, I was treated as if I didn't want to make an effort to help Harley. I have come away from this experience not only with sorrow but anger, because no one offered me options. Instead, they made decisions without asking me what might be practical.

Not only did I lose my best friend, I lost my guide: my mobility has been greatly diminished. I now use a cane and am compelled to rely on sighted help when crossing streets. I must take more cabs, which is a financial drain. Errands, a pleasure with Harley, and an excuse to take a walk, are now so onerous that I look for ways to avoid them. The result is that I've become more dependent on other people.

With all the knowledge mankind has gained, it amazes me that blind people are still guided either by a dog or by tapping a stick. I wish that someone would invent a robot to help the blind; it would never take the place of a living, breathing dog, but it might help when a blind person is too heartsick to get another dog.

I have talked about Harley and included him in all of my writing, and now, a part of me is gone. I sometimes find myself talking to my cane, or reaching down, only to remember that Harley is absent. I cannot describe the sorrow, the emptiness, and the loss I feel.

People ask when I will get another dog. I don't want another dog. I hope I can manage without one. I cannot imagine training another dog, teaching him what he needs to know, loving him, and losing him again.

TWO
LETTER TO A CARING VET

Dear Dr. Lortz: It is hard for me to find the words to express my sadness and loneliness at having to put Harley down. When I visited him the last day, he was in a horrible state. I think the radiation did him in. He could hardly walk, and was crying out nonstop. It broke my heart in two, and I thought I was going to pass out.

All the vet did was talk about the massive doses of steroids she had administered, his six other medications, and her hope that his leg might heal; if it failed to heal, she said, maybe she could remove it, and part of his pelvis, too. If that happened, she advised, I should be able to help him walk by putting a sling underneath him. I was too upset to try to explain that, living alone, this would be beyond my abilities.

Harley's continual cries made me decide that I had to relieve him from his suffering, and I made the dreaded decision. When I called on Saturday, the doctor told me that the reports had come in, that multiple myeloma was the cause, and that Harley would have had to be treated with chemo and steroids.

I am at a loss to understand why things went downhill so quickly. When I brought him in, he could walk. Had his condition stabilized I would have taken him home, but every time I visited, he was worse.

I want to tell you that your kindness, concern, and compassion meant a great deal to me. When you filled in for my regular vet, you seemed far more responsive than she had been. I wish Harley could have been in your care, because you combine all the necessary characteristics for being a truly caring, competent vet. I will never forget your kindness. If I ever get another dog, I hope you will be a big part of his life. Most gratefully yours, Bob

THREE
LIFE AFTER HARLEY

The alternative to a guide dog is a cane. You have all seen canes in use, but sighted people rarely understand how a cane is used.

Nothing more than a long stick with a tip, a cane is swung from right to left in an arc, protecting each step the user takes. You step with your left foot and swing the cane to the right, then step with your right foot and swing the cane to the left, always keeping the tip close to the ground. Some drag the cane; I use a kind of combined tap-and-drag because I find it gives me better information.

In order for the cane to let you know about things like steps, drop-offs, and uneven sidewalks, you must walk slowly and make a sufficient arc. Failure to cover your entire body can lead to a bad fall. In familiar places I feel relaxed with a cane, but in strange surroundings I am slow and tense. Street crossings are especially hazardous, because you must maintain a straight line without buildings or curbs to follow.

What makes using a cane frustrating, especially in a big city like New York, is that often when you ask for help crossing a street, people just walk on without answering. Pedestrians often fail to watch where they are going, and can easily knock the cane out of your grip or step on it with enough force to break it.

All of these drawbacks might make a dog seem preferable to a cane, but as wonderful as a dog is, and as much freedom as it gives you, using a dog presents its own problems. The dog's welfare always comes first, and traveling demands detailed planning. Sometimes you have to fight to get into public places. Your dog can become ill, and when a blind person lives alone, that can be frightening. Had the delivery man not told me, I would never have realized how sick poor Harley was. And cleaning up after a sick dog is difficult.

Having to choose between dog or cane seems cruel. I know that some blind people manage well with canes, but I am convinced nobody with a cane enjoys the fluidity of movement and the ease of travel that someone using a properly matched guide dog can feel. I miss the freedom Harley gave me. I miss walking almost like a sighted person, with just enough pull on the harness for me to follow. I miss all the decisions Harley made for me; now I bang obstacles constantly with my cane.

I've written about a gay convention I went to in New Orleans and how isolated I felt there. Had Harley not been with me, I would have been truly alone. People tend to approach you more easily when you have a dog. Nobody wants to talk to a cane, and people are shy about interacting with a blind person who is tapping his cane and having a hard time of it.

I've written this so that sighted readers might begin to understand what it is to lose a guide dog, and to appreciate how difficult it can be to use a cane, but also how painful it is to make the decision to get another dog.

I know that many of you who have read my articles will understand what this loss means to me. And, please, if you see a blind person with a cane, ask if you can help. If your offer is rejected, don't feel insulted, but know that you've done the right thing by offering.

I can manage with my cane, but what I miss most is Harley as a friend, a dog that came to lick me in the mornings, whose antics made me laugh when I was feeling lonely.

©2003 Robert Feinstein

 

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Robert Feinstein lives in Brooklyn, NY. He welcomes e-mail (harlynn@panix.com) and telephone friendships. Bob has written frequently for BENT.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/March 2003