CLEO – excerpt from my memoir “Walk” – Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. A story of resilience and hope.

I was sitting at my dining room table watching out the window. I saw the trainer leading her down our long-treed driveway. Stepping with quick proud steps, head held high, black button nose pointing straight ahead, and a fluffy apricot tail swooped up over her back. I wondered how she could be smart and at the same time be so beautiful. The doorbell rang. Trudy introduced herself and said, “This is Cleo, she is a backyard poodle and weighs eleven pounds.” Trudy asked me to show her around my house and then said she was leaving to let Cleo and I become acquainted. She said, “I’ll be back in the morning for our first full of the next five. It’ll be like boot-camp training teaching you how to work with Cleo.”

     Nine a.m. with Cleo at my side We answered the door. Trudy wide-eyed and surprised looked down at Cleo and said, “She looks different, relaxed, and happy. I can see she bonded with you overnight”

     Cleo was trained to respond to four signals: the doorbell, the telephone, the smoke alarm, and the alarm clock. Sometimes I heard those things, but sometimes I missed them because I’m hearing impaired, not deaf. Therefore, I had to pretend to be deaf at all times to those four sounds so Cleo could do her job of alerting me. I remember Trudy telling me, I had to trust Cleo. She constantly stayed by my side, and when she heard the telephone ring she’d stand up on her hind legs and put her paw on my knee. That was her signal to me that attention was needed. My response was, “Good girl, what is it?” She’d walk to the telephone or the doorbell, and I’d trust and follow her. I’d say good girl, and give her a doggy treat. When she heard the smoke alarm, her response was to tap me on the knee and then go into a down position. She’d lay there on her tummy with her front paws straight out in front. When I saw that behaviour, it signaled to me the fire alarm was ringing. I’d say, “Good Girl” and give her a treat, then we’d escape. When the alarm clock sounded in the morning she’d come bounding out of her kennel and jump up on the bed and onto my chest – I was awake! For the first time since my surgery, and becoming hearing impaired I was able to sleep soundly and not fear I’d be late for work. Signal dogs are small breeds, it wouldn’t be fun to have a German Shephard wake me by walking on my chest.

     Life for me changed in one fell swoop because of a brain tumour surgery leaving me hearing impaired, with slight cognitive damage, balance, and eye issues. Eleven months later, my twenty-plus-year marriage ended. It left me feeling scared, insecure, and lonely. When Cleo came to live with me, I was able to do life again, I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and trusted her.

     I stopped calling the kids in the middle of the night and asking them what it was they heard, I’d hear the sound, but had no idea if it was coming from in front of me, behind me, or beside me. Unilateral hearing is flat. At times, I’d wonder if I’d think I was running away from a break-and-enter when in fact I’d be so disoriented I would run smack dab into them.

     I lost my sense of connection to nature. I couldn’t hear the wind in the trees or the lap of the ocean on the shore, but with Cleo by my side, I relaxed my shoulders, felt my connection to her, took a big inhale, then an exhale, and trusted that all was well.

     Cleo was proud of herself when she was at work helping me. She traveled with me on trains, planes, and automobiles. When in public places, she always wore the yellow jacket that identified her as a working dog. She had legal access to all public places. However, much of the time I had to explain and often insist she was a professionally trained working dog. She, a poodle, didn’t look like an assistance dog nor did I, as a young attractive woman, didn’t look like I had a disability. Hearing loss is an invisible disability and poodles aren’t the run-of-the-mill working dogs.

     The photographer who came to the infant/toddler center in June to take photos of the children, for some unknown reason, was taken up with Cleo. He’d seen her many times over the years but had never had he been so mesmerized with her. He asked if he could take pictures of her. Yes, of course. Surprisingly, when I viewed the pictures, I could see a lump the size of a golf ball above her left eye. How ironic that she was diagnosed with a brain tumor on the left side of her head. I too had had a three-and-a-half-centimeter brain tumor on the left side of my head, taking the neurosurgeon fifteen and a half hours to remove it. Sadly, Cleo’s brain tumour was inoperable.  

     Christmas, my youngest son Johnny came home. Cleo loved him and would just about wiggle out of her skin when she saw him walking off the ferry. Instead of walking by my side as usual I carried her in my arms. She recognized him and smiled hello. No wiggles that time.

     Boxing Day, Christmas was over, my son had gone home. I woke in the morning, to find Cleo standing in a corner of the kitchen with her pretty little curly head hung low, she was ashamed. On the floor – stool with blood. I called the veterinarian and through my sobs, I whimpered, “I think it’s time to have Cleo put to sleep, but maybe it’s just a convenient time for me because I’m off work now.”

     He remembered what I’d said, and replied, “You, said when she lost her sense of dignity you would have her put down. It’s time.”

     I called a good friend and asked her if she would drive us to the vet and then to the doggy crematorium. I wrapped Cleo in her favorite grey and white weave blanket which my eldest son Brad had brought back for me as a gift from Mexico. Cleo would when she could, snuggle, and wrap herself into the blanket.

      I held her on her back close to my heart. When the needle went into her leg, she didn’t flinch. We looked deep into each other’s eyes. Her eyes told me she trusted me and my eyes told her I loved her. I will always miss her and remember her with heartfelt gratitude and love. Cleo was my best friend, companion, helper, restorer of confidence and trust for twelve years. We were a match made in heaven.

     I remember when ‘boot camp training week’ was over I asked Trudy a difficult question. I said, “I cannot imagine when she is with me twenty-four seven how I will deal with her death?”

     Her response was, “You’ll deal with that when it happens”.  When it happened, I went to bed and covered my head for days. My head ached in need of a cup of coffee and for my best friend and companion, my pal Cleo.

     When I got out of bed, I phoned my daughter and said, “Could you please take me to the S.P.C.A.? I want a cat.” I’d said during Cleo’s last months that when she was gone, I was going to get a cat.

     Friends would say, “You don’t want a cat, you love dogs”. True, but I couldn’t look at a dog for years after Cleo’s death, you would have thought I hated dogs, but I loved her so much I just couldn’t bear the memory. I wanted a cat, not a dog. Cleo could not be replaced.

      My daughter and I walked down the aisle of cat cages. I took a grey tabby out, “No not this one, I put him back. Next, a pretty black fluffy girl resisted me stroking her back. Nope, not her. Then, a white cat huddled and hid in the back corner of her cage. I dragged her out and she cuddled into my arms, and then I read her name tag. It said, “My name is Angel. I’m an inside cat. My owner is sick, and had to give me up.” She did not go back into her cage, home we went.

       A strange coincidence, or perhaps not a coincidence at all, but rather the mysterious working of the universe. Cleo’s name was Angel before she was given to Pacific Assistance Dogs Society. They thought Angel didn’t suit a working dog so they changed her name to Cleo, saying a working dog’s name should start with a consonant and end with a vowel. The vowel at the end of a name allows it to be drawn out, like O, O, O, O.

     My heart was pounding as I carried ‘Angel Cat’ in my arms to the counter and signed her adoption papers. I was crying and shaking with emotion.

      Never before had I been a cat person, we always had cats in our home because my son Doug and my husband loved cats. I was a dog lover, and always had a dog, but I loved my ‘Angel Cat’, a white fluffy loving girl who every day together we’d have our afternoon nap on the couch. She’d laid on my chest, nuzzled into my neck, and purred my grief away.

     I walked on one step at a time.     Resilience is a gene I inherited from my mother.