Jay Copp 2015-02-10 20:22:18
Blindness sapped the joy from a young Canadian woman until lovable dog guides helped turn her life around. So I’ve asked Beverley Berger to show me what her life with a dog guide is like and I’m apparently about to be the reason she fractures her leg or worse. She and Jasper, her friendly but aging Labrador retriever, are out for a stroll in her quiet neighborhood in a small town 30 miles outside Toronto. It’s a perfect summer day, which is why a boy about 10 is on his bike, riding fast heedlessly like a typical lad his age. He’s on the sidewalk and veering straight toward Beverley and Jasper. What is the proper protocol here? Do I step in front of her? Tell her to take a quick sideways step? She’s 62 but slender, athletic-looking and, from what I’ve learned so far, quite capable of making quick, good decisions. I don’t want to panic her. Or be paternalistic. So, trying to not to sound alarmed, I quietly tell her, “There’s a boy on his bike coming at us.” I wave my arm slightly at the boy, who grins madly as he whizzes by me, Jasper and Beverley. Jasper does not flinch. I think I catch a small smile cross Beverley’s face as she continues walking. Earlier today she had told me she can sometimes orient herself, determine she’s entering another room at home or elsewhere, by a slight change in the air flow. The boy on the bike must have created a tornado-like wave. I find myself equally protective of her at each intersection, even as Jasper dutifully stops at crossroads. If a car is approaching, Beverley usually can hear it and Jasper knows to wait as well. Turning drivers, if they notice she is blind, inevitably abruptly stop and wait for her to cross. She waits for them. It’s like a reverse game of chicken. She may speed up the courtesy dance by waving them through, but she and Jasper patiently let the cars go first. We come to the library. Jasper knows dozens of words. “I think it’s usually the tone of my voice,” Beverley explains. We’re still on the sidewalk, about a dozen feet from the door. “TURN RIGHT. TO THE DOOR,” she tells him. Presto, Jasper escorts Beverley to the library door. She nimbly unhooks his leather harness, takes it off and hands him a biscuit. A working dog, Jasper would never eat while in harness. Across the street is the post office. Village residents must pick up their mail. That’s a chore Beverley often does, both as an excuse to get some exercise and to share household duties with John, her husband of 40 years. The “street” is a busy highway with cars and semi-trucks traveling at breakneck speed. I’m befuddled. “How do you manage to cross that street?” She replies, “There’s a light I press.” On our way back to her home real trouble looms. A sandy-haired woman in her 50s is walking two dogs on leashes. I can see a block away that one is a handful. He strains at the leash. She and her dogs are headed straight for us. As she draws near the boxer remains set on mayhem. He barks and pulls at the leash with powerful thrusts. The woman stops moving forward as we approach and steps to the side. She is on the parkway three or four feet from us. It’s hard to read her face. Is she troubled about what may happen? Or is she annoyed that she gave ground while struggling to control two dogs and yet this other woman with a single dog continues to occupy the middle of the sidewalk? It’s possible she does not even know Beverley is blind. Beverley is looking ahead and she strides with the grace of a sighted person. I had warned Beverley a woman with a nasty dog was approaching. What do I say now? I am torn. Would I be out of line for speaking up, implying she can’t handle this on her own? What if she misinterprets my advice and moves toward the danger? For a few seconds the outcome appears in doubt. The boxer lunges viciously toward Jasper, coming within inches of his handsome face. Utterly calm, Jasper stands stock-still. Finally, the danger passes. We move away. “That woman should have apologized,” I say. At the library, Beverley had told me that she and Jasper, like other owners and dog guides, can handle most situations. Problems occur because of poor or misinformed decisions made by people they encounter. “It’s the people, not the dog,” she repeats to me. It’s the people. Before you meet someone like Beverley, you wonder how the blind cope. You wonder if their lives are seriously flawed or somehow lesser this or lesser that. You want to protect them. Maybe you pity them. Beverley Berger, in no small part thanks to Jasper, a gift of Canadian Lions, is doing just fine, thank you. She is a remarkable person in many ways, regardless of her sight capabilities. A story on Beverley can’t but help include her blindness, but it’s her relationship with Jasper that is far more interesting and ultimately more significant. We’re on the porch of the Berger home. It’s a comfortable, spotless, well-appointed home full of pottery, paintings and knickknacks. It’s a home my wife or mother would comment on, in the car after we leave, “that’s a beautiful home.” Beverley is a classic homemaker. She made some of the pottery including a finely detailed beaver with real beaver teeth, a gift from a friend. She also is adept at knitting and rug hooking, and her colorful handicrafts adorn the living room. Brownies are cooking in the oven. “Ooh, I’ve got some chocolate goo on my arms,” she says, wiping off the residue. She’s lived in the same house for 36 years, and, sometimes putting her hand out before her, she walks confidently and quickly from room to room. “I’ve had some mishaps. It’s usually when I have a talk to give. I’ll walk in with a big gash above my nose,” she says. Still, uncannily, she knows exactly where things are. She points to the wall on her left when referring to a family photo. Describing the farming roots of the community, she gestures beyond the windows to the spacious fields of grain. “I guess I’m very inquisitive. I ask a lot of questions. I talk to John a lot,” she says. She owns a few gadgets to help her with everyday life. A software program reads her email aloud. She loves to cook, and she uses a talking kitchen scale. “He has a great British accent,” she says gleefully. She treasures her audio books; she favors science and travel. Canada offers free tuition for those over 65, and she toys with the idea of soon pursuing a degree in linguistics. Beverley has an open, expressive face. The glamor of youth, certainly once part of her features, has retreated at her age. But her face still emits a glint and spark, the visage of someone not beaten down by the years. Jasper, out of his harness, lies at her feet. Beverley talks a mile a minute. “When he’s out of his uniform, he’s just a dog. He wants to run around and chase a Frisbee. He’s a softie. He has a good heart. I’ve also been told he’s very handsome. But he gets the job done when I need him. So I get the best of both worlds,” she says. Her fourth dog guide, Jasper, is 10. She’s had him since 2006. There’s a certain bittersweet tone to Beverley when she talks about her companion. “He’s slowing down, just like people do. He’s starting to cut corners,” she says. On our walk, Jasper had periodically veered to the side to sniff and other times to relieve himself. “I let him get away with that. I have too much respect for him,” she says. In a few months he will retire. But he won’t leave home. John, 82, will become Jasper’s caretaker and de facto owner. “I think he’d rather have me leave than Jasper!” cracks Beverley. So the Bergers, as has happened before, will once again become a blended family: a retired dog guide, a new dog guide and two adults. Beverley has come a long way since her first dog guide. Back then, she used a cane after losing her sight at age 30. The cane was a far easier tool to master. “It was very difficult for me at first [with a dog]. With a cane you orient yourself spatially. It’s a lot like radar,” she says. “The number one rule is to follow the dog. It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult. “It’s a trust issue. Will your dog see the manhole cover? You have to learn they don’t stop to be a tourist. They stop for a reason. It takes time to make it work. You work as a team. It’s like any relationship. You have to get to know each other.” Learning to handle a guide dog was one thing. Beverley also had to learn how to accept her fate. Becoming blind devastated her. “I was very angry, bitter. I didn’t handle it well. I was not a very nice person. I was very curt. If some- one tried to be nice to me, I was so angry. I thought they felt sorry for me, and that’s the last thing I wanted. “It was like a five-step grieving process for me. When you lose something precious like vision, it’s like losing a loved one. People who have been blind their whole lives don’t feel the same way. I’ve had people tell me, ‘It’s great you’ve had vision because you know what blue is like.’ Well, I know what I’m missing.” Beverley lost sight in one eye and then the other. Her first retina detached when she was 17. Her desperate parents sent her to the Mayo Clinic. She underwent the same crisis 13 years later. “I missed the boat when it came to retinas,” she says wryly. She had multiple surgeries in Boston and Philadelphia. Finally, she put a stop to the fruitless medical procedures. Her eye ordeals happened not only early in her life but early in the science and treatment of her eye condition. “That was like the Stone Age then. It was a little before the computers and laser treatments,” she says. As embittered as she was, Beverley could not sit in the corner and cry. She and John had been married for a decade before her blindness. He was often on the road working in the film industry. She had to take care of their 4-year-old daughter, Stephanie. Life is not a fairy tale. When mommy or daddy is sick or impaired, young children don’t rally behind them. They get frustrated when their needs are not met. “Kids are selfish. That’s just the way they are. It impacted her life. She wanted to know why I couldn’t take her to McDonald’s or her friend’s house.” Yet her bitter pill also proved to be beneficial. “I have to give credit to Stephanie for motivating me. When her attitude was, why can’t you do this or do that, I thought, I’ll show you, you little brat. That’s just my personality.” One advantage Beverley had in raising Stephanie was that the whole community seemed willing to be her eyes and ears. “Once she [Stephanie] was smoking by the hockey rink. I’d say within 30 minutes of it I got two phone calls. They said, ‘We know you can’t see …’ Everyone took a protective role. She really hated that for a while.” So Beverley learned how to take care of Stephanie without vision and how to keep up the home. Next Beverley had to learn to embrace life again, to regain her independence, to get out of the house and become a full participant in society. It took a few years, but in 1989, seven years into her blindness, the Nobleton Lions approached her about a dog guide. “They didn’t want to be presumptuous. Not every blind person wants a dog. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s like having a child. You have to care for them. You have to feed it and clean it. You have to stoop and scoop,” she says. Beverley spent 28 days learning how to work with a dog guide at the CNIB (once known as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind), amply supported by Lions. Her first dog was Totem. There was a slight hiccup. “He no speak English,” recalls Beverley with a smile. Totem was trained by a person who spoke French. She adjusted to that hurdle. A higher hurdle was integrating Totem into the family. Give a dog to a family, and a child will want to play with it. “It was rough time. The dog was not a family pet. They really resented that. I had to restrict how much attention they paid to the dog. I got pretty crabby: ‘Leave the dog alone!’” Over time, boundaries were established, and Beverley gradually expanded her boundaries. With her guide dogs she learned to navigate her neighborhood, take the train to Toronto and even get to the airport for plane trips. Jasper and his three predecessors opened up the world for her. They also pried open her heart. “I’m responsible for another living creature. You have to think beyond yourself. It gives you a purpose. It makes you realize the world is not such a bad place. “A dog gets me from Point A to Point B. I rely on him as a tool to do what I want to do. But he really cares about me. He wants me to be happy. When I’m sad, he feels that. He puts his paw on my leg or his head in my lap.” Being out and about with Jasper also is like wearing a name sticker that says, “Hi, glad to meet you.” Dog guides are a people magnet. “It’s different when you have a cane. People are afraid to say or do the wrong thing. You start to think, OK, I’m blind and people don’t want to be near me. You get these negative thoughts. That’s not a good way to live. “A dog is a great icebreaker. People come up and start talking to the dog. I have to respond for the dog. I was once in a pub at the airport and a guy sent over a gin and tonic for the dog!” Each dog has had its own personality. “You learn their little idiosyncrasies over time,” says Beverley. In particular, each has had its own bugaboo. “Totem loved large bodies of water. He almost took me water surfing twice.” Mason hated green garbage bags on garbage day–something about the bag blowing in the wind spooked him. Silly Kit stopped in his tracks when near a lawn tractor. Jasper? “He doesn’t like ladders,” she says. So the dogs have been with Beverley for 25 years through thick and thin. Stabs of anger and despair still pierce her. That’s when Jasper proves especially valuable. “When I feel the resentment creeping up on me, I try to push it away. Or I go for a walk. When something is bothering me the best way to reduce stress is physical activity.” The worst of times was when their second child, Daniel, suffered a detached retina at age 7 and lost sight in that eye. He had been born when Beverley was blind. Taking care of him was not nearly as difficult as watching him become legally blind. “That was the most wrenching thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I’m a mother. I was like, OK, God, if you want to wrestle, wrestle with me.” As he grew older, it took time for Daniel, now 30, to find himself, says his mom. He recently experienced the thrill of traveling through Europe for five months on his own. His marriage had ended before his trip; perhaps his disability was too much for the couple to overcome, she says. “I think 85 percent of relationships end when one of the partners gets a serious disability,” says Beverley, who credits John for not wavering in his commitment to her. “He never treated me any differently. If he had, I would have resented it. I wasn’t his blind wife. I was his wife. I have to thank John for standing by me. He was simply my husband–no more, no less.” John, who retired three years ago, is puttering about the house today. Stephanie, 36, is an advertising and marketing manager for John Deere. Daniel works for EB Games. Jasper stretches out on a rug in the porch. “It will be a difficult transition,” Beverley says of his impending retirement. “But after one hour outside now he crashes when we get home. When he was a young dog I’d give him a drink and it would be, what do we do now?” Jasper stirs and ambles over to Beverley. “He’s a mama’s boy,” she says, slipping off his harness, a task she has done thousands of time and soon will do for the last time. Jasper lies at her feet. “Now he’s just a dog.” Editor’s note: Beverley now has a new dog guide, Lotus, and Jasper has taken retirement in stride.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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