She was only about four or five years old. Her bouncy, glossy brown ponytails were slightly askew, possibly because Dad had been the one to try to smooth them into place. He led her into the quiet gym and she knew exactly what to do. She immediately ran straight toward the small kid zone in the back of the facility.
“Slow down!” her father called out protectively as he quickly followed her to be sure she settled in with the toys before he started his workout.
Even after she was well into whatever story-line her imagination was spinning, Dad kept a close watch on her, glancing back repeatedly between each set of weights. While it was obvious the small girl was safe-beyond me, there was just one other woman working out on a Monday evening-I understood his watchful concern.
The little girl, who was chatting away with an imaginary friend as she played, was wearing a tiny pair of pink glasses and had a patch completely covering her right eye. I knew this look. I once was this little girl.
My body kept moving through my workout, but my mind hit rewind to a place in time about 52 years ago. Surprisingly, I remember it clearly. I was only two years old and my mother was bringing groceries into our house when she stopped and took a long, hard look at me. “Stop doing that,” she said as she lifted me to sit on the kitchen counter in front of her. “Stop crossing your eyes.”
She thought it was some terrible trick that perhaps my older sisters had encouraged. She thought I was doing it on purpose. My next words were the last words she thought she’d hear, and certainly words she did not want to hear.
There are a lot of technical terms that swirl around this condition. Crossed eyes are technically called strabismus. When it occurs in a very young child, it is often accompanied by an amblyopic or “lazy” eye, as the child’s brain works to sort out the double vision and learns to rely on just one, dominant eye. Both issues, as in my case, can be caused by extreme farsightedness and, best case scenario, can be corrected non-surgically with prescription glasses and therapy.
It wasn’t that simple for me. My strabismus had to be corrected through surgery on the muscles that controlled my eyes.
In addition to a clear memory of the day my eyes decided to make my condition undeniably apparent, I remember the day I had my surgery. I remember being in a hospital crib with high bars on the sides. My parents said I was like a little monkey in the bed, so I giggled and gave my best impersonation.
I remember a family friend, who would also serve as my anesthesiologist, coming to carry me to surgery so I wouldn’t be afraid. Then, to aid in my recovery, came the giant eye patch over my right eye and the tiny pair of glasses-mine were pale blue. Finally, there was the therapy that, in my memory, was pure torture.
Because I was so tiny, I had to sit on my mom’s lap to peer into a screen on a machine that was too big to be a comfortable fit for me. It was my job to tell the lady sitting opposite us, my therapist, when the circle on the screen moved inside the square. I had knobs I turned to try to make it happen, but I was so young and so frustrated that most sessions just ended with me dissolving into tears. Two to three year old Nancy was not amused.
Through all of the stressful memories, I also have a really great one: Folly. Folly was a large, flatulent basset hound-our beloved family dog. She was always described as a sweet soul; patient, lumbering, and sturdy on stubby legs, her giant, silky ears nearly dragging the floor. Her steady demeanor served her, and me, quite well. Folly stepped in to provide therapy of the canine kind as she quite unintentionally became a toddler’s seeing eye dog.
My post surgery world was still askew and that made being a newcomer to the sport of walking an even more unstable proposition. But according to stories told through the years, Folly came to my rescue. Little flashes of memory provide glimpses of a long, curved tail at just the right height. I can see myself extending a chubby hand to grasp that tail as if it were a handle on a harness, and somehow dear Folly accepted her new “job” with good nature.
My mother always swore that Folly was my furry guardian angel. Folly kept me entertained, staying by my side, leading me carefully around the house, day after day, for weeks that turned into months.
Is this how a crazy dog woman was born? Was Folly my initiation into the clan of the dog-obsessed? It’s hard to say. I tend to believe my love for animals is hard-wired in my DNA, but I certainly credit Folly for nurturing it at an early age.
From that point on, dogs were a magnet for me. I had a deep connection with every family dog we had, and wanted to take in every stray dog that wandered into our neighborhood. Now, that early spark has been fanned into a full-blown passion; a way of life, and a livelihood as well. If everything does indeed happen for a reason, then my eyes apparently crossed to allow me to actually see my path forward more clearly.
I’m very grateful to Folly for allowing me to cling to her when I really needed a friend. I only have one photo of that dear, odoriferous hound, but I carry her image in my heart and I hope I have repaid her kindness to tiny, wobbly me by becoming the best crazy dog lady I can possibly be.
As I left the weights for the cardio half of my workout, I stopped to talk with the diligent dad for a moment. I found that his daughter did, in fact, have the same issues I had as a youngster. She too had surgery and was now going through therapy. I told him about my journey and I could see him looking carefully into my eyes, confirming for himself that they were straight and normal. He asked how long I had worn my glasses and a few other questions. I answered reassuringly. Then, as I was moving away, I looked back and asked if his daughter had a dog.
“Oh yes, she loves our dog. They’re always together.”
I smiled and told him my childhood dog had been important to me as well. I couldn’t help but laugh a little as I hopped on the nearest treadmill. Oh Dad, I thought, there is no way I can prepare you for what is likely to come next. I hope you really like dogs too.
As I plugged my headphones in, I glanced back at the sweet little girl in the hot pink glasses. “Welcome to the clan, little one,” I whispered. “Welcome.”