Heart & Coal

Heart & Coal

By: John Lock

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, March 20, 2011)

Author’s Note:

Anything can be a character. Coal isn’t just a dog, man’s best friend. To her, he’s closer than a best friend. Your best friend isn’t always there, always helping, always listening. She shelters him from the verbal abuse he sometimes gets, just because someone doesn’t think a dog belongs in a Subway. He shelters her on dark night trips across campus. That kind of bond isn’t easy to get across on paper.

– John Lock

“Watch this,” Bridget Evans says. “Sit. Stay.”

Bridget wheels away around the corner, down the aisle at the Halloween store. Bridget is smiling; she knows what her dog Coal is thinking.

Where is she going? What if she needs me? Coal’s eyes are smiling as they follow her.

When the 21-year-old University of Illinois student disappears around the corner, he stares intently at the spot. After a couple seconds, his tongue hides in his mouth and he looks quizzically at the empty space.

Maybe I should go find her. But she said to stay. But what if she needs me? His eyes, mouth and head droop together below his shoulders, and he starts to whimper, softly at first, then progressively louder.

When Bridget appears around the corner with a smile on her face, Coal’s smile returns to match hers.

“Come on!” she says, and Coal bounds to her. After 11 years together, Bridget believes she always knows exactly what Coal is thinking.

Yay! She needs me!

Bridget always wanted a dog. Well, she never remembers not wanting a dog. She hoped she would get a collie, like Lassie, but she really wanted whatever dog was in front of her. Bridget’s parents, Dave and Mary, had dogs growing up, but never in their adult lives. They had thought about getting a dog for their three children in Orland Park, a Chicago suburb.

But Bridget, the youngest, complicated things. She was born with spina bifida, a spine disorder that affects the limbs. Bridget can use her legs, but they don’t always do what she tells them to do. She uses crutches for short walks and her wheelchair for long ones.

She spent a lot of her youth in the hospital, and a dog wasn’t practical. When Bridget was 6, Mary started looking into getting what’s called a service dog. The concept for service animals was young then, but animals were already being trained to help the disabled, not just the blind.

Since Bridget was small and frail, a dog could pull her long distances and even evacuate her from a building if the fire alarm went off. But the dogs cost $50,000.

Coal grew to 90 pounds, much heavier than tiny Bridget. He could jump 6 feet high from a standstill to look people in the eye. He stopped letting Bridget hug him; she hugged him so often and so hard he learned to love rubs and hate hugs. Bridget regularly took him around to visit all the neighbors, and Coal endeared himself to everyone, even the next-door neighbors who hated dogs.

Dave and Mary knew that Bridget might need Coal to be not just a black Lab, but a working dog in high school and college.

Colleen, Bridget’s primary care nurse, suggested a new organization that gave away trained dogs for free — MidAmerica Service Dogs, run by Jack Giambrone.

Mary told Jack that they had a dog they wanted to train under his supervision — Coal. Jack didn’t like the idea. MidAmerica was only a few years old, and he had always trained the dogs and then matched them with an owner. He was pretty good at matchmaking, too. He would pick the right dog for Bridget, he promised. They just had to get rid of Coal because a working dog and a play dog can’t live in the same house. The work dog will pick up bad habits and expect to get spoiled. And Coal was too rambunctious for hard work. After all, he could jump 6 feet in the air and look Jack in the eye. But he relented.

“Bridget was really determined, and, gosh, I liked her, so we gave it a try,” he says. It took a year of hard work, but Coal became a certified service dog. He earned the red vest that switched on a new side of his personality. When Bridget put his vest on, he became a working dog, and he loved having a purpose.

“No matter how quiet you were, and no matter how far away he was,” Mary says, “as soon as you lifted the vest he would come running and walk right into it, and he would change his posture and he would be proud.” He would pull Bridget in her wheelchair, turn on lights, go to a movie theater or restaurant calmly, and pick up pens Bridget had dropped. He even learned to stop jumping when he had that vest on, although without it, he would still jump 6 feet in the air to look in the kitchen and let people know he wanted inside.

Bridget took Coal to school for the first time on the first day of her junior year of high school. Coal was well-behaved; he had been a certified training dog for more than two years but hadn’t gone to school with Bridget before because Bridget was determined to go on her own. During their first few days together at school, they were like a new dance couple feeling each other out, making sure one didn’t step on the other’s toes.

Within a week, they were gliding around the school, and the teachers who had been worried about having a dog in class realized they had been wrong.

When she was a senior, Bridget took Coal along for college visits, and Coal chose the University of Illinois. She had been to other universities, but when she got to the campus in Urbana, and Coal saw the massive Quad, Bridget let him go. He ran all over, and came back.

I like this one.

Bridget leans on a pair of crutches at the front of a room in Huff Hall with Coal . She has grown into a petite, pretty young woman. Her straight black hair falls to her shoulders, which hold up a very smiley face. She is wearing a T-shirt instead of her usual cardigan. Her wheelchair is behind her. She thinks her chair needs a personality, so she has wrapped the silver metal in pink tape. Coal hasn’t changed much since he grew to his full 90 pounds. He is still strong and sleek, and his coat is still jet black, with only a few grays around his mouth that have been there since he was 4.

Bridget has finished presenting an informational meeting on service dogs. MidAmerica is trying to get Illinois students to train dogs as service dogs for a year before handing them off to people on the waiting list for a service animal.

Bridget still believes she knows what Coal would say if he could talk. Like the time her 3-year-old chocolate Lab, Hero, sat in Coal’s seat in the car.

OK, no big deal. We can just share, Coal told Hero. OK, we’ve been sharing for a little while, I’ll just take a little more space. After all, this is my seat. OK, you know what would be easier? If you would just go to your assigned seat, Hero, we could both be comfortable.

And that’s how Coal got his seat.

In Huff Hall, Coal is in the working mode of his dual personality. As always, when his red service dog vest is on, he’s calm and obedient, like now. When the vest comes off, even at age 11, he’s still playful.

He finds a happy medium when Bridget says “Go!” as her favorite professor, Steve Notaro, walks in to see how the presentation went. Coal looks at Bridget and looks at Notaro and looks back at Bridget and wags his tail.

“Go!” she repeats, and Coal bounds to Notaro, who lathers him in praise. Most days, Notaro gives Coal a Pup-Peroni before the start of the Applied Heath Sciences class Bridget takes with him. Even when Notaro forgets the treat, Coal wags his tail the first few times Notaro walks to Coal’s side of the room during his lecture. When Coal finally gives up, he snores through the rest of the lecture. Applied Health Sciences doesn’t interest Coal.

Someone wants a picture of Coal and the other service dogs. Two of the dogs are 7-month-olds, and they have trouble settling down. Coal sits calmly at Bridget’s side.

I’m too old for that kind of energy. They’ll learn to be as well-behaved as me.

“I just want to point out that my dog is perfect,” Bridget says. “People always want Coal . They think it’s a pet shop and they’re like, ‘I want that one!’ And I’m like, ‘No! He’s mine!'”

Bridget’s friend Amelia Wallrich is visiting Bridget’s apartment when Coal’s vest comes off, and he goes to Amelia to get his back rubbed.

“We went to the Halloween store, and I made Coal sit and stay,” Bridget says of her earlier trip with Coal. “And I walked between some aisles and Coal ‘s like, WHERE’S BRIDGET?! I called him, and he did his pounce to me, like, Oh my god!”

Bridget’s time with Coal is coming to an end. Coal will retire after Bridget graduates in May, and he will spend his retirement at Dave and Mary’s house. Hero will take Coal’s place as Bridget’s primary dog. “Don’t tell Hero, but Coal will always be my favorite.”

There is a pause, and the silence is broken by Coal’s loud panting.

“Is your dog out of shape or something?” Amelia asks.

Bridget interprets: “He’s like, OK, I respect you now. This toy is mine! I will lay on top of it all day! He’s still a dog, playing with his toys. We could go on and on all day, couldn’t we, Coal? Right, Coal? Coal, come here.”

I’m tired, Bridget, Coal says. I’ll give you my paw if you rub it a little. Coal lifts his front right paw as if he is going to shake Bridget’s hand. She takes his paw and rubs up and down his arm. He loves it. When she stops, Coal wanders back over to Amelia, who scratches his back again. Bridget decides Amelia isn’t pleasing Coal’s high standards for back rubs.

“You’re not doing a good job. He just gave you a look.”

Please, just do it right or don’t do it at all.

“He’ll only tolerate that for a few minutes, then he’s like, GET OFF ME!”

Bridget knows it will be different with Hero, and she doesn’t want to think about it. Coal is in good shape and he’s going to live forever, she tells herself.

Amelia is really digging into Coal’s back now, but he’s saying, Ooh,-you’re-so-close.

“He wants it lower,” Bridget says.

Amelia scratches lower, and Coal’s head pops up with a huge smile, panting with contentment, looking at Bridget.

“See? I know what he’s thinking,” Bridget says.

“I got you,” she tells him.

I got you, he tells her back.

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