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Heathered Memories: Remembrances of My Second Leader Dog

April 18, 2018


NOTE:  During this third week of National Poetry Month, I, on April 15 (Sunday), marked two decades since I received my second Leader Dog, Heather.  To honor her, I chose to write a long poem in free verse.  The following stanzas give vignettes of our years together–April 15, 1998 through July 1, 2010.  Born on September 22, 1996, Heather  was raised by Jeffry and Nancy Sever–long-time puppy-raisers for Leader Dogs for the Blind (Rochester, Michigan).  Once again, I give abundant thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Sever, as well as all at Leader Dog School.


Perhaps, during these final two weeks of National Poetry Month, you may also consider free verse to relate a memory or series of memories.  Poetry offers the writer a creative opportunity to capture and save glimpses of the past when one may not wish to devote the time to a lengthy prose piece or a full-length book manuscript.  Some poems may be more aptly compared to snapshots, rather than to an entire full-length film feature.  I hope that your reading my “snapshots” of Heather will inspire you to capture some moments from your own life or the life of an ancestor in free verse or another poetic form.  (This entire document is 1284 words.)



Heathered Memories:


Remembrances of My Second Leader Dog


by Alice Jane-Marie Massa





Through these decades

of guide-dog-dreams-come-true,

On this April 15, twenty years later,

I think of how and when you came to me:

you were my strong bridge-builder,

the guide dog who took me

from one phase of life

to another.

Only with patience did I discover

that you were the right guide dog

for overwhelming times.


* * *


After two of the greatest losses of my life–

my dad and my first guide dog–

after I had to switch from one jet

that had just made an emergency landing

to another to meet

my second Leader Dog–

I welcomed into my drastically changed life

a creamy-colored, Yellow Lab,

who, weighing in at 63 pounds,

ran into my life

with the grand energy

that lifted her soul and mine

for over a decade.

Unlike my first meeting

with my three other Leader Dogs,

Heather checked me out quickly

and then turned her nose

to examine her new surroundings.

Muscular, sturdy, and strong–

Heather, received on Tax Day,

was somewhat taxing for me,

the not-as-strong handler,

for the first 18 months

of our long journey together.


How did I survive those early months  with Heather?

Dogged determination and an ability

to walk faster and even run

that I could do then,

but certainly could not do now.

Working diligently

to learn to handle Heather,

I ran toward a new stage in my life,

as I tried to leave some grieving behind.

Heather was the guide dog

to help me move onward with life.


Despite her hurried state,

Heather always lay and stayed

perfectly in place

in my classrooms.

At the end of the school day,

she was ready to demonstrate

her strength as we alternately

race-walked and ran home

in all types of Wisconsin weather.


Eventually, the biggest and strongest

of my four Leader Dogs

let me know

she would take guide work

very seriously and a little more slowly.

The first day I really believed

Heather did have a work ethic

was when, on a winter day,

she led me off the edge of the sidewalk

and around something.

A moment later,

a huge icicle fell on the spot

my guide avoided.

For me,

this moment was

frozen in time:

I trusted her,

as I had my Keller

and would later easily and more quickly

trust Zoe and Willow.


Three years later,

my large and long Lab

was still full of energy;

but when we flew to Colorado

to visit my frail Mother,

Heather hurried to Mother’s bedside

and then ever so gently and calmly

lay her head on the bed

beside my mother.

I was amazed and grateful

to witness such intuitive warmth.


On April 7, 2000,

during a spring blizzard,

heading home after school,

exiting a bus at Kilbourn and Water

to walk the rest of the way home,

we headed up the hill,

alongside City Hall;

a slab of ice-incrusted snow

fell splat in front of us.

Heather, for once in her life,

bolted away from me.

With the loud snowplow scraping down Kilbourn,

I could not hear Heather.

Eternal moments later,

I called her to me;

suddenly, I felt that she was

already at my knee,

in perfect position–

blessedly at my side.

With “Heather, forward” and lots of praise,

she guided me masterfully and quickly

up the hill

and then several blocks more–

safely and gratefully home.


On Labor Day Weekend of 2000,

Heather, with no leash nor harness,

with no command for her to do so,

walked at my heel

and stayed stoically beside me

as I moved from the computer

in the dining room to the entry

when a homeless,

mentally ill man

entered my townhouse.

Heather, who had loved everyone

who had ever come through our door,

never barked nor growled,

but did not display her friendly Lab demeanor.

After my stern command to leave,

the intruder apologized profusely

and then left without incident,

left me with my constant companion–

ever faithfully at my side.


In July of 2001,

Heather was beside me

at my mother’s graveside.

As with my three other guides,

Heather was there

as part of the family.


Three nights after 9-11,

Heather was at my side

when a frightening accident

occurred outside my townhouse.

The Flight-for-Life helicopter’s

making numerous attempts

to land in the high wind

awakened us

and awakened me,

as we walked down the stairs,

to realizing once again

that Heather was and would be

so much more than a guide.


Lying stately at my feet,

Heather enjoyed,

along with me,

a performance by Maya Angelou,

theatrical musicals,

meetings, classes, and conferences,

symphony concerts, and church services.

Daily walks over the Milwaukee drawbridges,

trips to Colorado and Minnesota,

travels to Indiana,

a ride around the Indy 500 track with me,

visits at museums–

oh, all the places we went.

One of the most remarkable recollections

was at Lincoln’s home in Springfield,

where I held Heather’s harness in one hand

and felt the railing

that President Lincoln once touched

with my other hand

as Leader Dog Heather

aptly guided me

up the stairs.

What freedom

comes with a good guide dog!


Arthritis, old age

gradually slowed

the pace of my once powerful and proud Lab.

Instead of always taking the stairs,

we took the elevators

more and more at the college;

rather than running part way home,

we walked more slowly

and eventually took cabs more and more often.


After exactly ten years

of working beside me at MATC,

I proclaimed that Heather was

sadly, but officially semi-retired.

Somehow, she endured through another year

to welcome Leader Dog Zoe

into our home

in June of 2009.


For thirteen months,

I had all that a guide dog handler

could ever want:

a retired guide dog

happily accepting and befriending

a gentle, loving,

understanding, and respectful

young Leader Dog–

Heather’s heir apparent–


What a joy

and blessing to have the two together!


On July 1, 2010,

when Heather passed

from this guiding world,

Zoe was here

to share my grief

and lovingly respect

the path that Heather had made

for her successor.


With tears,

I remember so much–

but never enough–

of all they did for me,

gave to me

with their gifted guiding

and forever love.



With thanks to you for reading my long, poetic tribute to Heather,

Alice and Leader Dog Willow


April 18, 2018, Wednesday



From → Uncategorized

  1. Sue McKendry permalink

    Alice–this wonderful tribute to Heather really touched me–a very good example of free verse and how effective the phrases can be.

    When we visited Lincoln’s home in Springfield, IL and the park ranger guiding the tour told us to go ahead and use the banister while we climbed to the second floor, I remembered your words about your visit there and the freedom a guide dog provides. It seemed to go so perfectly with the visit to the home of the Great Emancipator. Reading this post brought it all back. I did share with the ranger that day what you had written after your visit.

    What would we do without words to evoke memories, both happy and sad?
    Thanks for the memories–Sue

    • Good sunny morning!  Sue–Your comments and your remembrances of your visit of the Lincoln’s Springfield Home are much appreciated.  Eventually, I hope to add many more stanzas to this poem:  my goal is to add more stanzas that reflect Heather’s point-of-view and her “free” times, as well as more about her retirement years which will reveal the sweet relationship that she and Zoe shared.

      Counting down to real spring!

      Take care–Alice and Willow

  2. Dear Alice,
    What a beautiful tribute to a dedicated and beloved Leader Dog–your Heather! When I remember Heather, three images come to mind. The first one is of Heather sitting on our back patio next to a pot of colorful summer flowers enjoying the Colorado sunshine. She was a bright-eyed and eager young dog. The second image is of Heather curled up on her bed underneath your desk at MATC. Heather was so faithful in guiding you to, from, and around MATC for many years. She waited patiently for you during your class and office time. The third and most touching image is the photo taken soon after Zoe joined you and Heather. Zoe and you are outside in front of your townhome ready to begin a walk. Behind you, looking through the living room window is Heather who is closely watching her successor, yet seemingly ready to hand over the harness. We have often referred to this photo as the “changing of the guard.” In many ways, it was.
    God Bless Heather for being all that a Leader Dog should be to you and so much more!
    Love to you and wonderful Willow,

    • Hi, Mary–Special thanks for sharing your three memories of Heather.  In regard to the touching photo which you took–your third perspective–I have no doubt in my mind that Heather was just checking up on Zoe:  I do believe that Heather was fully ready to pass the harness to another Leader Dog.  What a remarkable time that you were able to capture in an extraordinary photo!

      Best always, Alice and Willow (who follows well in the path of all three of my previous Leader Dogs)

  3. Fran Rayce permalink

    Hi Alice,

    What a wonderful tribute to your wonderful Heather. Your choice of free verse is perfect. I can see and hear the two of you in your words as you move through the years. Thank you for sharing the life and personality of your friend and guide.


    • Hi, Fran–Thanks so much for your very nice comment on this post!  Also, I do appreciate your mentioning the choice of free verse.

      Looking forward to reading more of your free verse–Alice

  4. Carole permalink

    Alice, you have many beautiful memories to cherish! I will forever remember the special time that I spent with Heather while you and Zoe were preparing for a new life together, as well as the day that Heather welcomed Zoe home.

    • Hello, Carole–Many thanks for your comments and forever thanks for your “puppysitting” Heather while Zoe and I were training together at Leader Dog School!  What a cousin!

          That stormy and rainy day in June of 2009 when I arrived back home with my third Leader Dog Zoe is heavily and warmly engraved in my memory.  What an extraordinary time when the two Leader Dogs met for the first time!  Through the years, you and I have shared some special and memorable times.

      Enjoy the Mothers’ Day weekend–A & W

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