By Jackie Tortoriello
One April afternoon a few days after my twenty-first birthday, my parents announced that they were ready to give me - their live-at-home, frazzled, college-student daughter - a belated birthday present.
Wheelchair-bound since birth, I propelled myself from my bedroom into the living room where my parents anxiously waited.
"Bring it on! Good things come to those who wait," I joked, as I closed my eyes and extended my hands waiting to feel the weight of a beautifully wrapped gift.
"Why are you holding out your hands?" my dad laughed. "Your gift isn't coming in a box this year."
"Huh?" I opened my eyes to study the glee stamped on both of their usually calm faces. "I know! It must be that handicapped-accessible van I've been praying for!"
"No, it's not a van, but it's almost as good," my mom chuckled. Then she said more seriously, "Jackie, we know you were devastated when Buck passed last year. We all were. He was a great dog. But we think our house has been void of doggy joy long enough. It's time to hear puppy noises again."
"So today, right now, in fact," my dad broke in, "we're going to a place where you'll be able to select the puppy of your choice."
"But," I stammered, but there was no time for protest as he scooped me out of my chair and into our car. My parents chatted to each other while I sat in the back, desperately trying to quell overwhelming waves of sadness.
Sadness because not so long ago, this trip would have seemed incomprehensible - a betrayal. After all, it had been only seven months since Buck lay on my cold bathroom floor drawing his last breaths. Seven months since I slid from my chair onto the floor, gently caressing his gray-streaked black-and-white fur, as his spirit passed from this world to the next. Sobbing, I vowed to him and to myself that I would never get another dog . . . but now here I was, about to break that promise.
Finally, my father turned to me and asked, "It'll be nice to hear the pitter-patter of paws again, won't it?"
"Yeah," I said flatly, trying to conjure up the excitement he'd expected. But I couldn't. Tears began to roll down my cheeks. I wiped them away quickly as my father, unaware of my tenuous emotional state, continued.
"When we get there, should we make a beeline to the shih tzu puppies? I know they're your favorites."
My favorite was Buck, I thought, not his breed. Buck, my constant companion, who climbed up on my lap and, like a salve, soothed my spastic, palsied muscles in a way that no drug ever could.
"Buck is irreplaceable!" I wanted to scream, but I held back, opting for something kinder. "Breeds don't really matter. It's their heart that counts. I'll look at them all." I paused, then continued as we pulled into the parking lot, "Who knows? I may not find any and walk out empty-handed." I wanted to prepare my parents for this possibility.
"I doubt that," Dad smiled at me, as he plopped me in my chair and headed toward the building, "but we'll see."
A chorus of barks and howls heralded our arrival, as a friendly employee offered to show us the available puppies. My parents accepted, but I lagged behind, gazing at the other dogs, shimmying and shaking, pleading to be released from their four-walled prisons. I smiled, but held myself in check, determined to keep my vow. Until . . .
Until I saw my father's face shining like the noonday sun. "Over here," he called to me.
Intrigued, my heart began to race, as I pushed toward the pen where my parents stood. Struggling to get a better look, I hoisted myself up, my legs tightening with the effort. There, nestled in the pen, were two angelic shih tzus. The male, a fluffy caramel and white pup, was gregarious and charged right at me. His smaller sister, a beautiful midnight-black-and-white puppy, was more demure, waiting for me to lean in a bit, before licking my nose. Aww, she looks like Buck, I said silently, my heart beginning to soften. Then suddenly, before I knew what was happening, my resolve toppled. I was hooked.
"Well, it looks like we won't be going home empty-handed," my mother said, as if voicing my thoughts.
"Wonderful." My father was pleased. "Which one?"
I was leaning toward the male; he was obviously the alpha and far more playful. Yet the girl was so tiny, her ebony eyes captivating and sweet.
I held them both, the male against the center of my chest, while the female lay curled in the warmth of my lap. It was nearly closing time as the male nibbled the ends of my hair, and the female slept serenely against my atrophied legs. Still, I was hopelessly undecided.
The employee, observing my deadlock, lowered his voice to a whisper and said, "Look, if I were you, I'd take the boy because the female's disabled. Her legs are deformed; she stands like a ballerina in first position."
Stunned at his insensitivity, my eyes widened. Hadn't he seen my legs or the wheelchair I sat in? I wondered.
Noticing my expression, the employee continued, "I don't mean to upset you, but she'll need constant care. And the last thing you probably need is another pile of doctor bills."
Wanting to prove him wrong, I placed her on her feet. Instantly, her two bowed legs scissored, as she strained to keep her balance. Yet, despite her valiant effort, her tiny disabled legs faltered and she tumbled onto her side.
"See her legs cross?" he said quietly. "She's our little ballerina dog."
My eyes glistened as I listened to her tiny panting. I knew her struggle far too well. I recalled those times when I had used all my strength to stand upright - and that glorious second when I stood tall - only to come crashing down. I wanted to take her, but the employee was right: could I really afford her care?
"Okay . . . I'll take him," I said sadly.
As we were saying our good-byes to the little female, she struggled back up. Her eyes bursting with determination, she pushed her brother out of the way and then carefully placed one foot in front of the other, as she began her slow, steady ascent across my lap and up my shirt. She wobbled and stumbled but didn't stop until she rested against my heart.
Laughing and crying at the same time, I whispered, "I hear you, ballerina dog. You're coming home with me." Contented, she closed her eyes, knowing her mission was complete. We would manage whatever care she needed; it would all work out.
"Excuse me, sir," I announced loudly, "there's been a change of plans. I'm taking Ballerina Dog."
Reprinted by permission of Jackie Tortoriello (c) 2004 from Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen, Marty Becker, D.V.M., Carol Kline and Amy D. Shojai. In order to protect the rights of the copyright holder, no portion of this publication may be reproduced without prior written consent. All rights reserved.