2004 by Amy Munnell
Learning to live with a service dog has produced several story ideas. Kia has literally changed my life. This essay shows her most significant role in my life.
The chrome doors slid open with a sigh. Inside the fluorescent light tried to brighten the dark paneling of the box. Kia peered at the doors, head cocked, waiting for someone to step out. On the University of Georgia campus, the building sat empty except for the occasional grad student heading for the library across the lobby.
I watched the doors close. I had been ready, or at least I thought so, but I had not moved an inch. I'll do it this time, I promised.
"Kia, go touch," I urged, positioning the red dot of a laser pointer on the up arrow. My black labrador reared back and scraped her front paws over the arrow buttons, focusing her efforts on the red dot.
"That's my good girl!" I said as the upper button lit up, and the doors parted.
My deep breaths contrasted Kia's rapid pants. My fingers played on the joystick of my wheelchair, but I didn't move. The doors close again.
"Next time," I said, letting Kia slurp a treat from my hand.
I had walked her several blocks from my house to practice elevator buttons. It was early July in Georgia, thick with heat and humidity. Kia's tired, I rationalized. We'll try again next week.
"All done, good girl! We're all done."
Kia and I had been together a year in the summer of 1998. A service dog, she had been trained by Canine Partners for Life (CPL) to walk along beside my wheelchair, pick up what I dropped, open doors and a host of other tasks. When I had applied with CPL, I wrote about the one thing I wanted to do with my new partner: ride an elevator by myself.
It had been more than fifteen years since I rolled on to an elevator alone. I was a college sophomore in 1982, the pre-Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) days. Then an elevator equaled access under the law, even if the buttons were four feet or more off the ground. I got by with friends or strangers punching the button I needed as I rolled my wheelchair on board.
On the last day of fall quarter, late in the afternoon, I found a small group from my class in the hallway after I turned in my test.
"Could you help me with the elevator?" I asked.
"No problem," one said as we moved toward the doors. They opened instantly with a push of the down arrow, and I drove my wheelchair on board.
A girl tapped the ground floor button as we chatted about our plans for the holidays. Someone leaned against the doors, holding them open until they buzzed a protest. We said our goodbyes through the narrowing gap, then I was alone inside.
The floor didn't drop. No motor ground into gear. I looked up at the buttons, a good foot above my head. The one for the ground floor, my floor, was dark.
My first thought went to my dad waiting outside. He wouldn't know how to find me. Earlier he had let me off and in the door, then I hurried off to my exam. I knew where the elevator was, and plenty of people were around to help me then. Now there was nobody.
"Someone will come," I thought aloud as I pulled my back scratcher from the side of my chair. Maybe I could reach the buttons, at least the door-open button.
I pulled under the metal panel on the wall and lifted my stick toward the lowest row of buttons. Unable to lift my elbow from my armrest, I touched one, but the end of the stick only skidded along the smooth plastic surface. I couldn't push it in.
No one came. It was after 5:00 on a Friday afternoon, the last day of exams. No one would come. Everyone was gone.
I turned and put my back against the wall, then tried to raise the stick over my head, the carved fingers aimed at the buttons. They didn't touch anything, not even the wall.
Five minutes turned to ten as I maneuvered my chair into every possible position. I tried both ends of the stick. They slipped off the slick button. I wedged a pencil's point into the hole at the bottom of my scratcher, thinking the eraser and the angle would give me enough leverage to push a button. The pencil didn't stay, bouncing to the floor when I caught it on the protruding alarm button.
My panic rising, I called for help, each plea louder and faster than the one before. No one's here, my brain kept saying. No one can hear you.
My calls turned to cries then to screams. I beat my stick on the door, not caring about the pale white scratches each stroke made in the closed doors.
"Help me!" my voice cracked into a whisper as I fought tears. Surely someone would hear the pounding, but nobody came.
My pounding whittled the wooden stick's end, leaving tan flecks on my knees and feet, but I kept up the attack. Suddenly my stomach lurched, and the gears rumbled into motion. I was moving. The numbers at the top of the door blinked in succession, "2", then "1", then "B."
The doors parted, and the startled custodian jerked his cart aside when he saw me, my stick in hand, my face flushed, and my glasses the only thing keeping the tears in check.
"I was stuck. My dad is waiting," I explained, hurrying past him. He had already padlocked the door.
"Can you let me out?" I asked without turning.
In the parking lot, Daddy stood by the van, the lift already unfolded and on the ground. I couldn't look at him either. I ducked my head and mumbled that I had trouble with the elevator. We rode home in silence.
In 1990 ADA passed, and elevators soon had buttons within reach of my hand or my stick, but I never rode the box alone. In July 1997, I arrived at the CPL campus for three weeks of training with my new partner, Kia. On a field trip to the mall, I watched as the seven dogs in my class punched elevator buttons on command.
The brass rings on their leather harnesses jangled as they reared back, and some jumped, to reach. Even Kia, the smallest dog in the class, enthusiastically pawed at the metal panel of buttons.
"They'll get better with practice," the trainers explained. "Eventually, they'll hit the one you want on the first try. You just have to practice."
I treated my shiny black partner with a piece of a Milk Bone. "Good try, Kia! You'll get it. Good try!"
At home, Kia and I practiced at the mall or anywhere we could find an elevator. Still, I had someone with me to tap above the button, focusing my dog's attention, but Kia always went for the hand instead. I had to try it alone.
Armed with a laser pointer, Kia and I headed for the Graduate Studies building on the south end of the university campus, far from the elevator that held me captive years ago. Her nails wouldn't damage the brick around the button panels. We could walk the mile to the building alone, and on weekends, would not disturb the students in the building.
We had been practicing the outer buttons since late May. Two months later, Kia was ready to try the inside ones. I thought I was too.
"Kia, go touch," I said as we pulled up to the arrow buttons. I aimed the laser pointer at one then the other to get us both warmed up for our next challenge inside. Kia hit them each time.
Finally, even I had to admit she was ready. A hurried graduate student arrived as I targeted the up arrow. Eyeing Kia, she tapped the button first, and when the door opened, looked back at me expectantly.
"No thank you. We're practicing," I said and waited for the doors to close and the motors to echo in the empty lobby.
"Kia, go touch." She moaned, but reared back and smacked the arrow on her first try. Trying not to think, I hurried Kia into the box as soon as it opened.
Careful maneuvering in the cramped space brought us around to face the now-closed door. The panels of buttons sat low and on both sides of the entrance. I heard my breath letting loose with a soft near-whistle. If she couldn't hit them, I could.
I pointed to the "3" button. We'd go up one floor and right back down. Quick and easy. "Kia, go touch."
Again came a vocal sigh as she reared back and dragged the column of numbers. The alarm rang briefly and I jumped.
"Try again. Go touch." This time the red dot targeted on the top number, the one easiest for her to hit. It will still be quick and easy, I thought. She hit it and the elevator lurched upward.
"That's my good girl! What a good girl!" She ignored my vigorous patting for the treats in my lap. I gave her two and kept petting. Please let the doors open.
They did and I debated getting out, but I let them close.
"Ok, last time. Kia, go touch." I pointed the dot on the "2", the street-level floor. Kia panted and made a stab, hitting the top button, then the alarm again.
"Try again Kia. Go touch." Tired, she nuzzled my hand. Her snout was wet from her panting, her chin foamy with spit. We had spent fifteen minutes on the outside buttons after walking the mile from home. I knew I had pushed her hard enough, but we had to get out of here.
"Ok, I'll do this one," I said, grabbing my stick from the side of my chair. I bit my lip as I moved into position. Please let it work.
The stick slipped on the plastic cover. It took more pressure than I had thought. Cursing, I pulled my chair forward, then slid next to the button panel. The red alarm button sat no more than a centimeter from the chair's joystick box. I could hit it in a second if needed. Would anybody hear me?
Kia sniffed at the crack in the door, then my knee before raising her eyes to mine. Her pants echoed off the dark walls.
"It's ok. I can do it this time," I said aloud for my benefit as much as Kia's. "I just have to hit it straight."
I held the stick like a pool cue and took my shot. Again, the tip slid off. I couldn't get the right leverage. Suddenly hot under those fluorescent lights, I wiped my hands, slick from treating Kia, on my shorts, streaking the khaki. I made another unsuccessful stab, then eyed the red button. She had already hit it twice and no one came.
She nosed my knee again, then bumped my hand on to her head. I scratched the base of her ear.
"I can't do it, girl." Her tail thumped against the side of my chair. "Can you try again?"
I pulled back from the buttons and lined Kia up. Training the red dot once again on the button, I told her to go touch.
She looked at the light, then me. "Please, Kia. Go touch."
She reared back and raked her paw along the buttons. The "2" stood dark against the creamy light...so the "4" and "6." We both sighed with the motion of descent.
As we stepped off the elevator, the coolness of the lobby's air-conditioning swept over my sweaty scalp. Kia nuzzled my hand. I gave her all the treats left in my lap, rubbing her head as she munched.
"All done, my good girl!" All done.
Amy Munnell is a freelance writer from Athens, GA.
Her essays have appeared in several editions of the Chocolate for a
Woman's Soul series and in From the Heart II: More Stories of Love
and Friendship. Kia, now nine years old, is still punching elevator
buttons and performing other tasks as Amy's service dog.
(Messages are forwarded by The
So, when you write to an author, please type his/her name
in the subject line of the message.)