I have often wondered, when they plant my tombstone; if the polished granite will be etched with the words “he led his life at the end of a leash.” That is not to say that I led a life tethered, but rather experienced the joys of the twice daily walks with my dog. It seems that events and situations confront me that most people would look right past. I give thanks every day that I am blessed with the ability to find the deeper meaning in what many would call ordinary.
Roaming through my hound Xena’s favorite morning park, we came upon a group of adolescents seated in a shaded circle. Normally a group like this would not raise my curiosity, but there seemed to be an extraordinary number of adults supervising the group. As we came closer, it suddenly struck me that I was looking at an assembly of “special needs” children. That justified the excessive number of adults present.
I have never been terribly keen on labels, in that they are so limiting and invariably lead to imposed stereotypes. As an executive, I started my career with a personnel department. That evolved into human resources, people recruitment, and talent management. In our effort to be ridiculously correct, we even renamed the area “human asset development.” Let’s face it, these are the people with life and death prerogative over whether you get hired, fired, or promoted. Still, the stark nature of this business unit meant that we had to somehow soften the taste of what could be a bitter pill.
The same analogy holds true for those once referred to as “mentally handicapped.” I am as sensitive as the next guy, perhaps even more so; but I tire of the efforts expended to come up with even more politically correct labels for groups of people. Special needs, mentally challenged, disabled, retarded, disadvantaged, and slow were the terms that swam laps in my mind as we came nearer to the group.
Xena is a gentle canine giant and loves nothing more than the attention of people. Unfortunately, she is also ninety plus pounds of muscular hound. She has absolutely no sense of her size and strength. It was quickly becoming apparent that she wanted to mingle with this group of children. A worried look, from who I assume was the adult in charge, signalled to me that I had better bring Xena back away from his charges.
Then the totally unexpected happened! A girl from the group, perhaps in her early teens by my estimation, jumped to her feet and began quickly walking towards the two of us. Slightly panicked, I commanded Xena to sit. I yelled out to the adults that she was a very friendly dog. One of the grown ups caught up to the straying girl and took her hand firmly. Although still a little distant, I could tell that a reprimand was taking place. In an attempt to defuse the situation, and seeing Xena wagging her tail briskly; I invited the two of them to come over to us.
The girl came towards us, with her adult supervisor still clutching her hand. As they neared, I could see that the young lady was the victim of Down’s Syndrome. Nonetheless, she had a big smile on her face as she stopped in front of her canine objective. The word “doggie” squeaked out between her lips. She immediately dropped to her knees and wrapped her arms tightly around Xena’s muscular neck!
At that very moment, I do not know who was more terrified; the counselor or me. I know that my hound has the most pleasant disposition imaginable, but the loving outburst from the girl might have startled her. The male attendant was certainly envisioning how he would explain an emergency room visit to his superiors. To our mutual relief, Xena nuzzled in towards the girl and began licking her face. The tandem sound of deep exhalation echoed between us.
The handicapped girl’s eyes had been closed tightly when she first hugged Xena. Now they opened widely as she began to laugh; the result of my hound’s tongue tickling her face. For just the briefest of moments, I witnessed the overwhelming power of pure love. Those eyes, which otherwise would have been fixed in a distant gaze, were alive and dancing. This was joy for the sake of joy; happiness for the sake of happiness. There was no condition, no expectation; just the brilliant light of love. The girl was not alone either; my dog had the same look in her watery brown eyes!
After a few moments, the girl relented to her counselor’s wishes and let go of Xena’s neck. Human and canine gave each other one more look of affection. We continued our excursion in the park. As I looked back on the young lady, a smile crossed my face. For somebody who was challenged, she had taught me a life lesson. The only label she needed was “human” and it was I who was the challenged one by thinking any other way!