It was on a lovely spring day in 1993 and I was sitting in my room at Guide Dogs of America guide dog school in Sylmar, Calif. I was wondering, "What kind of dog will I receive?"
Suddenly my name was called to come to the recreation room. I sat in a chair waiting for my new partner when in walked a trainer and this beautiful 21-month-old yellow Labrador retriever named Decker. Oh! He was so sweet and precious. I had not been told that when you bring a guide dog into your life, you begin a journey; a journey that brings you more love and devotion than you have ever known, yet it also tests your strength and courage.
Decker was donated to the school by a breeder of Golden Mandigo Labrador Retrievers. He came from a lineage of international champions. His large round black eyes were loving, knowing and wise. He came into my life, somehow bringing shape to what seemed a distorted existence. He opened the door so that I might step, gingerly at first, but with growing certainty into the world. For years with gentleness and caution he walked just ahead of me on my left side guiding my steps, protecting my body from every sort of obstacle. He was my comfort.
Decker was my first guide. With extreme limited vision and having had little mobility training, I put him through a lot. I know that your first guide dog is a learning experience. I am still learning after 11 years! For 11 years, this loving Labby brightened my life, kept me safe and always made me laugh. His vibrant, always happy, ready-to-play personality did not allow me to be idle. He would lie quietly during meetings but was ready with toy in mouth when given permission to play. He worked flawlessly, he risked his life and guided me around obstacles I never knew about; we flew thousands of miles and walked thousands more. He saw my accomplishments and helped me through the tough times; he listened to my hopes and dreams and was there during my tears.
Decker was always up for any new challenge, and he was always eager to learn. He could work long hours or sleep quietly next to me as I worked. I keep thinking how lucky I was to have a dog like Decker in my life. Decker has taught me patience and how to stay calm in stressful situations. He taught me about loyalty and we shared a fierce bond. He was a joy and a challenge, and I would not change a single thing about him.
My journey with Decker taught me many things about life, about myself and most of all, about love. I came away changed forever, for one soul cannot touch another without leaving its mark.
Animals must have souls. Anyone who has experienced their pure unconditional love could do little but come to that conclusion. My heart hurts with the love I had for him and brings tears to my eyes. I loved him so much. And all I gave to him was mirrored right back for me. He gave me my life back, walked me through hardship after hardship, and kept me from giving up. I was no longer alone in battling my disability. He transformed my life. When the journey is done, I will not be just a better person but the person my guide dog always knew me to be.
This journey is not without pain, but pain is part of loving. I knew as surely as the sun sets, one day my dear Decker would follow a trail I could not yet go down. I have to find the strength and love to let him go. A guide dog's time on earth is far too short - especially for those who love them. We borrow them, really, just for a while, and during these brief years they are generous enough to give us all their love, every inch of their spirit and heart, until one day there is nothing left.
Too soon his honey-colored muzzle turned to pale shades of cream and white, making more noticeable the strawberry blonde of his ears as soft as silk purses. He was a faithful guide as long as he was able. Then, retired, he napped lazily, content in his role as king - for everything about him was royal. His otter tail, slightly feathered, would thump rhythmically at my coming and my going.
In August 2002, I retired Decker. In June 2003, I went to Guide Dogs of America again and received Flora, a black Labrador. Flora and I had in-home training because my health would not allow me to travel and be away from home for three weeks. I kept Decker as a family pet and made a vow that I would take care of him for the remainder of his natural life. Flora and Decker got along great. Of course, he was the boss - for he would see that he and Flora got their doggy treats. Decker was free of responsibility; free of stress and free to play.
My friend, my partner, my hero, my eyes, my heart, my independence! I will never hear those words again without extreme sadness because my partnership has been severed. It's hard to believe he's physically gone because he is such a strong physical memory. I said good-bye to you June 7. Thank you, dear and beloved Decker. I love you. He was my friend, my guide - but more than that he was my heart.
He was 12 years 10 months old. He is without pain and illness that bothered him most of his life. He is running and playing with the animals that have gone before him and will be waiting for me when it is my time to cross over. I held him in my arms as he began his new life, a life of no more pain or suffering, a life with joy and peace, life with all of God's animals.
I will always be grateful to him and to Guide Dogs of America in Sylmar, Calif., and his puppy raisers and God for sending darling Decker into my life. His memories stand forever. He is beside me still. I told him how much I loved him and how much I appreciated what he had done for me and what a privilege and honor it was to have had him as part of my life. I told him that I would always think of him and tell others what a great gentleman he was.
Decker won many awards during his lifetime for his remarkable achievements as a guide dog, companion and hero. Together he and I drafted and lobbied for several laws that will protect the safety of guide dogs and the rights of guide dog handlers to live normal lives in society and in the state of Nevada.
He conducted himself with dignity wherever we went and represented Guide Dogs of America with flawless behavior. Guide dogs give their hearts and souls to make independence a reachable goal; to men and women who are blind, they gave them back their lives.
Decker, I said good-bye to you - you died as you lived - with dignity surrounded by love.
Mary Yoshisato is a Carson City resident.