Ah, the arrival of the beautiful and terrible day!
Lomax and I had been to a "pre-turn-in party" the night before with several other puppy raisers, which was of great value; it always helps to be with other sympathetic souls when you're in the throes of emotional distress. In addition to the blessings of food and drink and puppy-free-for-all playtime in the yard, I received many lovely cards with notes containing words of comfort, encouragement and wisdom. My area group is a community of people committed to an act of service, and committed to mutual support of others who are engaged in that service. What also stems from that is friendship.
I had been told many things about turn-in day, some good, some...well, quite frankly, horrifying. And I had reached the point where I was preparing myself for the absolute worst, but maybe that was a good place from which to start.
All things considered, I slept well on Friday night. The alarm was set for early so I'd have plenty of time to spend with my boy before Liam and his people came to pick us up. After breakfast, we took one last walk around the neighborhood, where I took his photo in front of a house with a lovely English garden. Afterward, we had a nice game of "Kong ball" in the parking garage -- one of his favorite things -- and came upstairs to play with his favorite toys. And as an extra-special treat, he was allowed to go into my roommate Amy's bedroom, which had always been off-limits to him. It didn't take much convincing -- Lomax had always been fascinated with Amy's room, and would sit patiently at her door while she was working at her computer, staring little holes in the back of her head in the vain hope that she would relent.
Liam and his people (I suppose we can just call them Matt & Amy) came up to the apartment, and we let the boys have one last brotherly frolic. Because it's my tradition that all the puppies I puppysit get their photos taken with Woody -- the mannequin in our living room, long story -- we of course had to have a session with him before piling into the car for the (too long, and yet not nearly long enough) trip up to GDA.
I'd rarely been just a passenger in a vehicle with Lomax; I was usually the driver. So while we were on the freeway, with that feeling of our inevitable, imminent separation in the pit of my stomach, I spent as much time looking at him and petting him and holding his little face in my hands as I possibly could. He has always been adorable, beautiful to look at, but I could hardly bear it now. I wanted to burn the image and the feel of him into my memory, I could not touch him enough, and yet, doing so felt like the final acceptance of the idea that I would not be able to do so again.
We parked. We steeled ourselves for the moment. I put on his bow tie.
That's right -- Mr. Personality was NOT going to arrive at school on such an auspicious occasion without making the proper impression. I wanted everyone to know exactly with whom they were dealing...and it seemed to be a big hit. Everyone noticed and commented. Lomax, always the one to bring the party with him, no doubt relished the attention as he always does.
We turned in our jackets and our paperwork, received our certificates of appreciation for puppy raising, then took seats in the dining area and waited for lunch. I ate surprisingly well; I was actually hungry, and the food (many thanks to the generous folks at the North Woods Inn in Covina) was actually delicious. My roommate, who doesn't give herself nearly enough credit for being funny, dubbed it "The World's Saddest Barbecue."
Staff members from the GDA puppy department expressed their appreciation and gave us the rundown of what our dogs would be doing for the next several months: two weeks of health examinations, followed by a gradually building schedule of walks and harness work. They went out of their way to reassure us that our puppies would receive the best and most loving kennel and vet staff care, have a great time living in community with the other dogs, and never be pushed beyond what they wanted to do. We also heard from GDA employee Lorri Bernson, who is herself a guide dog user. Lorri and her mom, who also spoke, provided everyone with packs of Kleenex and bags of chocolates, tied with a note: "Thank you for the difference that you've made."
We had a break for photos. This is usually a time when you might find littermates you haven't seen since the day you picked up your tiny puppy a year and a half beforehand. Unfortunately, since there have been career-changes and early turn-ins and (more happily!) breeder evaluations in our litter, Liam and Lomax were the only "L" representatives on the day. So we took our own family photo, then posed for some shots of all five of the South Bay Group dogs headed for their bright futures (left to right: Patton, Nevada, Liam, Lomax, Mahina). Then it was time for the walk down to the kennels.
Louise, head of the puppy department, grouped us together in the shade while she read aloud the names of the dogs who would be paired in each kennel. Our wait wasn't long. Just a few names in, she called...Lomax and Liam.
I felt like I was on The Price is Right, so enthusiastic was the whooping of those who knew our boys. Liam and Lomax, come on dowwwwwwn!!!! This was the biggest gift of the day for me -- the brothers would be roommates. Any concerns I had about my little man's comfort and happiness were instantly alleviated. The Fabulous L Boys, The Brothers Tongue, The Little Bachelors...they've played together and spent time at "Camp GDA" together frequently over the last ten months. On our way into the lads' new home, I dropped a "slightly used" (certified pre-owned?) Nylabone ring into the toy collection bucket for the enjoyment of all.
There it was: number 26, hung with nametags and what would soon be our boys' new working collars. Lomax had absolutely no qualms about his new digs. The instant that Liam shot through the doggy door to the outside section of the kennel, Lomax was wiggling furiously and straining against my attempts at removing his training collar. I let him zoom on through. Surely he was thinking, "I finally have a YARD! And I can go there any time I WANT!"
Two other South Bay dogs, Nevada and Mahina, are neighbors on either side, and Patton is just down the row. So (with the exception of an...ahem, outspoken poodle a couple of kennels down) it looks like a pretty sweet neighborhood!
This, of course, is where the tears came. The GDA staff is very patient and understanding, and allows us to spend as much time as we need to with our pups before we say goodbye, but no one's ever truly ready. Amy and I (and Matt & Amy, and Nevada's raiser Katie) went in and out of the kennels, hugging and kissing and talking to the dogs, taking pictures and trying to make sense of it all. Lomax, of course, was far too busy running around with Liam and jumping up to greet his next-door neighbors to hold still for a proper hug (what else is new?), but Amy and I did our best. After most of the others had gone and things had settled down a bit, Amy and I went back into the kennel to say a prayer for "our boys" and the people whose lives they will touch. As a Christian, it's my belief that nothing I "own" is truly mine -- everything has been given to me by God, entrusted to my stewardship, but everything still belongs to Him. This, too, has made turn-in day easier: my giving Lomax back to his rightful owner, every single day.
The boys were still running around as we left, zooming in and out of the doggy door (Lomax squatting hilariously on the way through, because he's not used to such things), but my little man jumped up to watch as I went. He smiled, and I blew him a kiss: "Be good, Moof! I love you!"
On the way out, I greeted Jessie, who was getting a ride home from GDA with the family who turned in Nevada. She wiggled and snorted and licked my ear, and "moofed" at me...which was surely a message Lomax asked her to pass along.
There was a traditional post-turn-in gathering at Chili's for food and drink which, to my delight, was populated with several other South Bay raisers and their pups. Everyone asked how I was doing -- despite my three-plus years of involvement, this was my first turn-in -- and offered me the company of their dogs to help soften the blow of the empty kennel and ubiquitous yellow dog hair awaiting me at home.
I will be raising again, but am going to take a few months' break just to puppysit while I re-prepare myself to take on the challenge of a seven-week-old Labrador. It will be nice, and probably necessary, to remind myself that every dog is different and special and uniquely wonderful, despite the fact that there will never be another Lomax. At the moment, I can't imagine how that could be. But for now, Ike -- a sweet 15-month-old Labradoodle with beautiful eyelashes, about whom you will be hearing more as he is a more frequent guest in weeks to come -- is an excellent cuddler and slurper of salty tears.
On the whole, the day wasn't as bad as I was expecting, and there were moments of great relief and gladness. The sadness comes and goes, but I find joy in knowing my little man is in good hands and beginning a very exciting journey that will end happily, whatever decision he makes.
Besides, the sadness is only on my part -- I'm sure Lomax is having the time of his life. And I'd bet my life savings that he's the last one tired at the end of each day.
Thank you all (blog readers, fellow puppy raisers, South Bay Group friends, family) for your support and encouragement! Your comments and notes have meant so much. I will keep you posted as to Lomax's progress so you may celebrate each step with me, and I'm bound to keep blogging for sure. Stay tuned....