Mom, I want a dog. My then six-and-a-half year old son Cole loved pirates and firemen and Gilbert and Sullivan and history. He also had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair…and he wanted a dog. Having lost my golden retriever to cancer a few years’ prior, I was resolute in my non-dog household status. I couldn’t handle a disabled child and a dog, I reasoned. But Cole would not be deterred. So in November of 2004, we found ourselves training in Oceanside. On graduation day, our dog’s puppy raisers flew in from Texas to present us with the leash; showing us the most concrete lesson in unconditional giving I have ever witnessed. I sobbed from a place I did not know existed. We came home and embarked on the quiet life of a boy and his dog.
Which lasted about a week.
That’s when we went to a playdate at Shane’s Inspiration, a universally accessible park. During their Good News Time , Cole told the crowd all about getting his new dog. Tears flowed, noses honked. A representative from Shane’s recruited Cole on the spot. With Ilia at his side, Cole narrated the presentation that still runs on their website today. And then they sent us an e-mail: would we please share Cole and Ilia’s story with The Learning Channel? Not wanting to turn down a request from the people who’d built the only park where my son could play, I complied. It took about half an hour to get a response. Cole and Ilia were featured on TLC’s My Life As A Child, which aired in February of 2007. After doing some volunteer work with the Pasadena Ronald McDonald House, the phone rang again: Would Cole and Ilia like to ride on the Ronald McDonald House float in the 2007 Rose Parade? Then Canine Companions for Independence phoned: Would Cole and Ilia mind doing a public service announcement? It’s a national ad campaign, they said. The two will be on TV, billboards and buses.
But amid all the flurry and excitement, real life continued unfolding. Cole soldiered on gamely through endless therapies, Ilia always by his side to encourage, soothe and inspire. But we soon realized that he was going to need surgery. He was not keen on this at first. But when we explained that it would allow him to someday walk Ilia on his own, he cradled his dog’s head every night and whispered: I will walk you Ilia, I will walk you. Immediately following surgery, Cole’s painful screams tore at my heart. The agony came in waves. I was holding him and trying to will it all away but an odd, distant sound keep needling at my occluded consciousness. I finally looked up, and there was Ilia. In an extraordinary act of defiance, he had popped up out of his down command and was standing there, tail spinning, ears perked and eyes wide. When my gaze met his, he grunted his irritation at what was clearly my impenetrable obtuseness. I stepped aside. In a flash, he bounded up and began licking Cole furiously. The pain vaporized. The following day, Cole took his first steps with his heels touching the ground, Ilia by his side. Afterward, we laid him back on the bed to ease the intense pain behind his knees. We put Ilia on the bed too, but instead of going up near Cole’s shoulders, he stopped and placed his head on Cole’s knees. Terrified, I asked Cole if I should move him. “No, mom”, he said with stunning calmness. “It actually feels really good”. Ilia kept his head there for two days; something he has not done before or since.
While Cole recovered at the Ronald McDonald House in New Jersey, Ilia continued to spread the love. There was one little boy with a spastic arm and hand who would reach out completely…just to get his hands on that glossy black fur. There were half a dozen autistic children who at first were terrified of Ilia but then became hypnotized by his gentleness. Soon, they were gathering around him; ten little hands at once. They were so excited that they began using their words: ear! tail! nose! paw! Teary-eyed parents stood watching. In all, Ilia had traveled a total of 7,000 miles on six different planes to be by Cole’s side for the surgery. After we arrived home, another call: the ASPCA. I was about to tell the nice lady that we couldn’t donate at this time when she asked if we owned Ilia. Marveling at their marketing prowess, I confirmed this. She then told me they’d been contacted by the Ronald McDonald House. From their story, she said, they’d decided to make Ilia their 2008 Dog of the Year. Could they fly us back to New York for the award ceremony? At the Rockefeller Center the elevator whisked us to the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor. We were humbled by the other honorees; then tearfully accepted our award and flew home, dizzy with gratitude and puffed with love for all who had been so gracious to us.
And that was that. Until the phone rang.
It was the nice people at Southern California Honda, calling to tell us that we were finalists for the Honda Helpful Awards (each year they give a car to three people who work actively to support their community.) Because we’d done so much volunteering for Canine Companions, Shane’s Inspiration and the Ronald McDonald House, a friend had secretly submitted us for a Honda Element. Cameras came back to the house. After watching the resulting video, the Honda people decided that what we actually needed was a fully-adapted Honda Odyssey van.
So they gave us one.
Now: how could this journey possibly get any better? One day, Cole will walk Ilia by himself. No walker, no parents. No cameras, no press. Just a boy and his dog, because Ilia has made Cole want that more than anything. And that’s how I know the best is yet to come.
Published in the book “Two Plus Four Equals One”