I had been dating my partner for 9 years and I wasn’t happy. And I suspect, neither was he. How do I know this? Because we’d started talking about adopting another animal. We had two sweet cats, both of whom we had adopted during times of intense struggle.
So, one sunny January day in 2012, I found myself at a run-down, poorly funded, over-capacity animal shelter in a small town about 45 minutes from my home. I initially had my heart set on a pretty white Boxer staying at the shelter but after having met her, I knew she wasn’t my girl; we didn’t click. Someone else was waiting for me; I just needed to find her.
By that point it was 4:50 on a Sunday afternoon and the shelter was closing in 10 minutes. We had to choose our dog. My partner was the first to notice Penelope in her too-small cage that day, and I will always be grateful for that. I wanted a running buddy so I jogged with her down the street, and we chatted with the staff about her background.
They said that Penelope wasn’t house trained (turned out not to be true) and had been returned to the shelter three times. With our hearts in our throats, my partner and I looked at each other and agreed that we were all for the underdog. So I bent down to get her take on the situation: “Do you want to come home with us, Penelope?” She reached up, gently placed her front paws on my shoulders and rested her head against my arm. I was done for.
Penelope is sweet. I know that everyone says their dog is special, but there is a rare gentleness in my girl. People just love her. Despite the tough life I suspect she’s endured, she doesn’t have a bitter bone in her body. She’s no pushover, but she makes friends easily.
She has this keen ability to lean in to me for the perfect cuddle, instantly making me feel like everything is going to be okay. When a friend cries in her company, she walks over to them and rests her head on their knees, looking up at them with her big brown eyes. Seeing the peace that she brings to people, I even looked into having her certified as a therapy dog, though it didn’t work out.
Over the course of the next several months, I fell more and more in love with this dog. I started to notice that her eyesight wasn’t perfect, but she could get around just fine so I wasn’t too concerned. My favourite activity in the world was to take her out on woodland adventures, running around with her ball and going for swims, lying in the grass with her and staring up at the clouds.
That fall, my life crumbled. My beloved career in the non-profit sector came crashing down on me after I’d inadvertently become involved in some gross office politics. I nearly lost my job and watched painfully as my dear boss and close friends fell to pieces around me every day.
At the same time, it became harder and harder to ignore the creeping suspicion that my relationship was emotionally abusive and all wrong for me. Over the years I had tried leaving him, many times, but had lacked the courage to make it stick. It wasn’t always bad, so it was easy to rationalize.
Meanwhile, my kitties, long time best buds and allies, had suddenly become aggressive toward each other, and I would spend most nights trying to keep them from going at each other, out for blood. My youngest cat got sick and had to spend a week with the vet. He recovered nicely, but not before I had accumulated a giant vet bill that did not at all fit my budget. Life had become heavy. Anxiety and depression started to take hold for the first time in my 31 years, but I hadn’t yet recognized it for what it was.
Then, one chilly, dark November evening, I decided to take Penelope out for a jog. Looking back, it was a comedy masterpiece: I wasn’t wearing my glasses that night and we both proceeded to bump into every garbage can and trip over most curbs. I knew something felt wrong, but convinced myself she was just having a bad day. The next evening, after Penelope fell down half a flight of stairs on her way outside, my partner and I looked at each other and finally acknowledged that something was terribly wrong.
Our three year old dog was blind.
I cried for the four days leading up to her vet appointment. My mind was going in every direction; I couldn’t look at her without feeling deep despair. This sweet girl had had a hard enough life, she had finally found a loving home that would give her the sense of security she so deserved and now I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.
She was the only thing in my life that was keeping me from slipping into a maze of anxiety and depression. I was doing the heavy lifting financially, how on earth would I pay for the vet bills for a blind dog?
Once it was confirmed that her vision was completely gone, the vet sent us to a specialist two hours away. Penelope and I took the drive on our own, and I was pulled over for driving dangerously fast. When the police officer asked what the rush was, all I could muster was "My dog is blind." When he saw the stricken look on my face, he answered with “Slow down and have a nice day,” and thankfully sent me on my way.
At the specialist appointment, the vet began to describe the four genetic defaults in her left eye and the three other problems with her right. I learned that one of her conditions is glaucoma, which is related to pressure in the eye, so Penelope probably had a constant killer headache even though she never let on. Knowing that she was not only blind, but in pain, my heart felt like it was going to burst. And then, on the way out, Penelope met another blind dog. And while they couldn’t see each other, they clearly connected.
And so, on the dark, snowy drive home that night after paying a bill I couldn’t afford, I made a decision: if Penelope could walk around and do her thing, make friends and continue to be sweet and affectionate, then it was on me to get over my misery and move forward.
Following the example of my blind dog, I did just that.
I stopped crying that night and the next day we started working on the basics. Up, down, slow, stop. She learned to maneuver the slippery stairs in our building, taking a little more care going down. Off-leash, she took a few hits, but quickly learned to slow her gait becoming more cautious and measured with her steps.
She even learned how to play fetch. I would throw the ball, she would do one full spin by my side while waiting to hear it land, then take off after it at full speed. Sometimes, she would find it right away. If not, she would do “s” shapes to track it with her nose, find it, and come running back to me triumphantly looking for love and praise.
It’s now less than a year later, and I walk around most days feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. You see, inspired by Penelope's bravery, I finally gathered the courage to make some fundamental changes in my life. I left my toxic relationship of 10 years. And this time I didn’t take him back.
Also, I stopped lying to my family about what my life really looked like, being honest to them (and to myself) about what I’d been through. I moved into my own apartment with a sweet little outdoor space. I left the poisonous work environment that had once filled my life with purpose but had since deteriorated my sense of confidence, switching to a workplace where my colleagues rarely cry. I ran my first half-marathon and even finished in the top half. I have reinvested in my close friendships while also expanding my social circle. I’m even dating a sweet man who makes me laugh every day.
I walked away from my ex with one sweet kitty, one blind dog and my freedom.
And Penelope’s doing well. People that we meet on the street are often surprised to learn that she can’t see them. We play catch at the park by my home every morning and most nights. She walks off-leash, jogs with me, swims for sticks and plays with other pups. She still keeps my cat in line, charging at him if he’s scratching the couch, except now she occasionally runs into the side table in her eagerness to get to him.
As in anything, it’s not all tied up in a neat bow. My former partner still shows up at my apartment and calls inappropriately, but every day I am grateful that he is no longer my daily reality. And, a few months ago Penelope’s glaucoma got out of control again. I promptly cried my face off, then took a day off work, rented a car, and rushed her back to her specialist. She won’t have to lose her eyes yet, but it is something I will have to consider. I'm still working on wrapping my head around that one.
But overall, Penelope is a happy girl. And guess what: For the first time in my adult life, so am I.