When I left for work one morning several years ago, I never expected to drive home in the evening with a three-legged dog in the passenger seat beside me. As I flicked my turn signal on, I reached over to pat the head of the miniature poodle I’d just adopted. With shaggy white hair covering his eyes, he looked more like a mop than a dog. I’d first seen his picture during my lunch break from my job as a teacher, as I scrolled through my phone and opened an email from a nearby animal shelter. The dog’s picture — open mouth, big round eyes, a missing left front paw — appeared over and over again in my mind throughout the workday. “I’ll just stop by to see what he looks like,” I told myself.
When the employee at the shelter placed the dog from the picture in my arms, he wriggled around until his body was upright and his chest was against mine. He wrapped his legs around my neck as if I were a life raft in the middle of the ocean and he was terrified of letting go. “He’s been adopted a few times, but they keep bringing him back,” the employee told me. The weight of all the rejection I’d experienced in the past four years seemed to crush me all at once. I brushed aside the dog’s hair to look into his eyes. A silent agreement passed between us. We would never reject each other.
“He’s been adopted a few times, but they keep bringing him back,” the employee told me. The weight of all the rejection I’d experienced in the past four years seemed to crush me all at once.
Four years earlier, I had been diagnosed with a chronic illness, lupus. At just 21 years old, crippling fatigue crept into my life, then refused to leave. Just showing up to my college classes felt like scaling a mountain. I’d collapse into bed each night, too exhausted to brush my hair or remove my makeup, then wake up the next morning feeling as if I hadn’t slept at all. Brunette clumps fell out if I ran a hand through my hair. I struggled with brain fog so severe I could barely finish a sentence without losing my train of thought. But as sick as I was, I couldn’t find a doctor to believe me.
Many young women like me who have chronic illnesses seek help from doctors only to be dismissed or not believed. Knowing I was seriously ill, yet being told by my doctors that I was just homesick or that my illness was all in my head, was the ultimate rejection. I visited seven doctors before finally being diagnosed with lupus. By then, I had survived two years of such a severe lupus flare that I had developed life-threatening inflammation in my brain.
Becoming disabled invited other forms of rejection I had never experienced as a healthy person. Rejection was a family member staring at me blankly and then walking away on a shopping trip when I said I needed to sit and rest. It was watching TV shows about healthy people with normal problems and feeling like an alien. It was the guilt of not being able to work the hours that society expects of someone my age.
Although I wouldn’t be able to put my thoughts into words until years later, I adopted a disabled dog because I could no longer live with the loneliness of being the only disabled one in my life.
On his first walk the day after I adopted him, the dog hesitated, confused by his leash. Then he lifted his nose to sniff the air, wagged his tail and hopped forward along the sidewalk with enthusiasm. His limp sent his ears flapping as if they were wings. I thought of Wilbur Wright, one of the inventors of the airplane. The next day, I ordered a collar and tags with the name Wilbur printed on them.
Unlike my invisible disability, Wilbur’s disability was obvious. In addition to his amputated leg, scars crisscrossed his back. He tested positive for heartworms when I adopted him. But Wilbur’s deepest scars lingered far beneath his skin. During our first few years together, he hopped after me as I walked from room to room in my house, afraid to let me out of his sight. If a door shut between him and me, he would cry and scratch the paint off until I opened it. His favorite place was sitting upright in my lap, his legs wrapped around my neck in a doggie hug.
The parts of our disabilities that made others reject us made Wilbur and me perfect for each other. When the fatigue of my illness forced me to spend the day stuck in bed, Wilbur snuggled beside me, overjoyed to have someone to hug all day long. Due to his limp, Wilbur walked at a pace that didn’t tire me out.
The parts of our disabilities that made others reject us made Wilbur and me perfect for each other.
Because of the rejection I experienced after becoming disabled, I hid my disability from others as if it were a shameful secret. I stopped reaching out for help when I needed it. But Wilbur never shied away from asking for whatever he needed. He jumped into my lap to demand a hug whenever he needed one. He hopped up to strangers, poking their hands with his nose until they patted his head. If this scrappy three-legged dog could inspire such love from others, maybe I was worthy of love, too.
Like Wilbur, I’ve started asking for what I need. I’ve stopped forcing myself to work more hours than I can physically handle. I now speak and write openly about my disability. I surround myself with friends who show they care by sitting with me when I need to rest. I insist that doctors listen to me, and I’ve learned it’s OK to walk out of my appointment if they don’t.
Eight years after I first brought Wilbur home, he still loves to snuggle and give hugs. He often relaxes on the couch while I write or cook dinner in a different room. He no longer cries or scratches any doors between us. Self-doubt and fear of rejection still creep into my thoughts from time to time. But fortunately, I know just who to turn to when I need a hug.