I had to say goodbye to a dear autism warrior last week. Ginger was an old and wise, somewhat crazy, German Wire-haired Pointer. She was not, as some people liked to say, “easy on the eyes.” She had a rumpled mustache (not the most feminine feature) and yellowish eyes that tended to scare strangers and small children. Someone once told me she looked like a schnauzer with a thyroid problem; I thought she resembled a character from Dr. Seuss or the Muppet family. Aside from her appearance, she was a remarkable dog, living a healthy 15 years and two months as opposed to her expected life span of nine years. The fact that she did it flanked by two boys with severe autism is a miracle. This is not a “Marley & Me” story. If anything, Ginger was the antithesis of Marley, a calm, obedient, and loyal friend who provided love and support to our family through some of its darkest days.
We adopted Ginger in the late summer of 1994 from an attorney and his family in Houston. My husband John and I were attending graduate school there, and my oldest son, J.W., was just getting ready to turn 1 year old. I was six months pregnant at the time. For some bizarre reason John and I thought it would be a great idea to have two babies and a puppy in the house, sort of a “let’s get it all over with at once” mentality. Had we waited another year or two, I’m sure we would have decided otherwise.
Ginger was one of a litter of eleven, the runt and the only female remaining when we responded to the ad in the paper. The house where she was born was pure chaos, with five kids, two adult dogs and the six remaining puppies. When we went to look at them, Ginger practically jumped into John’s arms and gave us both a “please get me out of here” look that melted us. I remember the mom of the house being fascinated with J.W., who was walking quite well by then and toddling around her house. They warned us that Ginger would probably miss her siblings and mother and cry for the first few nights - - the exact opposite was true. She seemed so relieved and happy to be coming back with us; she took to her house immediately and never made a peep. She was home.
Some of the most incriminating footage I have documenting J.W.’s regression is of him playing with Ginger when he was about 14 months old. He is running and laughing, playing peek-a-boo with her in her house (completely spontaneously). He independently picks up her leash and mimics hooking her up to it (he can’t quite work the clasp but gleefully knows what it is for and chases her with it).
Now nearly fifteen years later, J.W. has yet to get back to that level of spontaneous functioning. I mind terribly that he hasn’t, but Ginger never did. She accepted and loved him and his younger brother, Joshua, through all of the screaming, crying, biting, hitting, and hair pulling. She accepted it all with an occasional yelp, and only retaliated once. Josh was about six years old when his short fuse (the shortest known to man) went off and he bit Ginger on her back. It came out of nowhere and she, by shear reflex, snapped back and left one small puncture mark on his nose. The shocked look on his face was priceless and I remember trying so hard to withhold my laughter (so much for the behavior plan that day). I never needed to scold Ginger – she was sick about the whole incident, staying in her house for hours afterward and moping around the rest of that week. She never bit him again (and vice versa).
John spent quite a bit of time training Ginger when she was a puppy, and she was a phenomenal bird dog. She provided John with a great escape through hunting, and they shared a bond that I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to partake in. She was simply a great pointer and retriever as well as the most obedient and mild mannered dog I have known (let alone owned). I can recall conversations where we talked about Ginger and bragged about her like she was our child. Afterward I would feel sad because we never seemed to have much to talk about regarding the boys’ progress. Sure we’d always recite the ever optimistic statements about how they were “coming along,” but the specifics were usually too complicated or insignificant for the casual acquaintance, so the conversation would ultimately turn to Ginger. She was easy to talk about and easy to have around.
On bad days, when I was cursing God and feeling sorry for myself for the struggles our boys were going through, I always had to concede that at least he gave us Ginger. Yes, she was our consolation prize after losing the daily double of autism.
She was more than just a bright spot we found solace in; she was a true friend and protector to the boys, especially J.W. She was the first one they both shared with, becoming a connoisseur of all things GF/CF handed or thrown to her. We can remember J.W. sitting on the couch with a small bowl of GF crackers, handing Ginger one as she approached. When John or I would ask for one, he would matter-of-factly shake his head “no” and pull them in closer. We were not worthy.
We used to think maybe the boys just gave her their food to get rid of her, because she did beg from them incessantly at times. About five years ago after Ginger had surgery, we noticed J.W. placing a GF animal cookie and cracker next to her head while she slept. Even the day before she died, Josh had rolled her three grapes that sat next to her bed (yes, she ate grapes, but only if they gave them to her).
Ginger started life as an “outside dog” due to my asthma, but over the years moved herself inside to her prime location on the main floor between the dining room and living room, away from the upstairs bedrooms. Of course no training or gate was required, she knew the upstairs was not her place and rarely ventured up there. That is until J.W. started having seizures about four years ago. I remember waking in the night to hear the soft jingle of her collar as she came up the stairs. Then I’d hear the click click of her toenails on his laminate floor. She would pause a while, sniffing him to make sure he was OK. Then she would turn around and go back down to her own bed. The visits stopped once we got his seizures under relative control with meds, but she was always nearby when he had one or was not feeling well.
I think she lived so long because she knew we needed her. She was there to frantically alert me the first time J.W. scaled and hopped over our backyard fence. She was there through the hours and years of home ABA therapy, always a willing participant. She was there through all of the sleepless nights and gastrointestinal episodes. She was there when John was deployed to the Middle East during 9/11, protecting us and making me feel safe then, and again when he went to Iraq a few years later. She was there to fetch the newspaper from the driveway for me every morning for twelve years.
Now that she is gone, as I reflect back on these years, I have to admit things are better now than they have ever been. While the boys are still profoundly affected, they have come a very long way. We will continue to do all we can to heal and recover them, but we are proud of the healthier and happier young men they have become. We definitely have a sense of having made it “over the hump” on this crazy autism journey. Ginger played a huge part in getting us to this point and we will be forever grateful. Goodbye Ginger-girl, and thank you. We’ll see you on the other side.
Michelle Linn is the mother of two boys with severe autism, ages 14 and 15. She is the President of Alpine Autism Center, a non-profit in Southern Colorado providing intensive behavioral intervention, advocacy, and information. She is a military spouse and is employed as an Air Force Civil Engineer.