On August 13, Patterson and I were driven two hours away to the Nashville airport, where we caught a flight to the Newark airport. Then the most engaging and kindest driver it was possible to meet drove us and another writer to Milanville, Pennsylvania, for our 4-day workshop with The Highlights Foundation. Pat and I settled in to our accessible cabin and then went to meet everyone else.
“It’s okay, buddy,” I said to him that morning as we went through airport security, when they took off his leash and had him walk through the metal detector with me nearby.
“It’s okay,” I said to him as he lay at my feet when I got to my seat on the plane, and when I rubbed his ears during takeoff and landing. He astonished everyone, including me, with his poise and conduct through a host of travel-related tasks. He’d flown before–once as an 8-week old puppy making the trip from Canine Companions for Independence in Santa Rosa, California to Atlanta to live with his puppy raisers, and once on a vacation to Michigan as a puppy in training. This was the first for us as a team.
After all the writers introduced themselves on the first night and talked a little about the projects they’d be revising during the retreat, I introduced Patterson. I so appreciated the opportunity to say a few words about him as a working dog and his impact on my independence, and to ask that everybody just check with us before petting him, to make sure he wasn’t in the middle of a command first. He is so good, and so loving, that people naturally want to touch him and extol his virtues. Not only were the writers and the retreat faculty respectful, making it the single best public experience he and I have had in our partnership–they were immensely helpful, volunteering to walk, toilet, and exercise him on the beautiful grounds. He was on leash except when we were in the cabin, but he had frequent breaks and adoring attention from so many people, especially the kitchen staff, who went over and above every expectation.
I learned a lot about what I wanted my novel to be, about how to distill my bond with Patterson for readers ages 7-10, and how to approach revision of some of the most problematic aspects of what I’d written. But I also learned that the way I talked to Patterson was a good way to talk to myself: to put the difficulties I encounter into perspective and find a way through them, together.
Because everyone was determined to include us, we got to go on a walk across some less-than-wheelchair-friendly terrain. We got to experience what the other writers experienced. It’s impossible to say how much that meant to me, but this picture of a faculty member carrying my reluctant Patterson across a metal bridge as I said, “It’s okay, buddy” is the closest I can get.
See Patterson under the table in this photo of me and another writer using revision techniques we learned in that day’s workshop? Throughout the 4 days, several attendees said, “I forgot he was even there!” and “I thought you’d been together for years!”, both of which are the highest compliments that a relatively new service dog team can receive. I didn’t need to worry that he wasn’t playing enough in our downtime, or that he might disrupt the other writers (but I was never afraid that he would). I knew that when I needed him, my buddy was right there. And it was all okay.