There was a service dog on my flight from Sacramento to Chicago on Tuesday, a miniature Australian Shepherd with brown, white, and black fur. His owner was a man with disabilities I could detect but not define. There were certain limitations in his movements, mannerisms that implied a condition that inhibits his ability to move through the world in the breezy way so many others do and don’t think about, don’t have to think about.
The Shepherd had permission to sit on his owner’s lap and I was sitting across from his owner. This means the travel gods were smiling on me that day because how can you have a bad flight when there’s an I’m-gonna-squeeze-you-you-so-cute puppy across the aisle? On top of that, I had a coupon for a free adult beverage because at this point I’m putting Southwest Airlines employees’ kids through college and they give me drink coupons to say thanks. You’re welcome, guys. Merlot.
I know better than to try and pet a stranger’s dog without asking and I certainly know not to reach for a service dog without permission. But when we were delayed on the runway for another ten minutes and everyone was sitting around bored, I figured it would be okay to ask if I could pet the dog.
“Yes, you can pet him,” the man said, friendly, his speech staccato. “His name is Cody.”
I put my hand out gently for Cody to sniff it and then, having been accepted, I petted that sweet creature and felt every tense cell in my body melt. I don’t love all dogs — I’m mightily afraid of most big dogs, in fact — but there are magical dogs in this world. Cody was one of them. Mild. Kind. A honey of a animal. Which made it all the more painful to watch him as we took off.
The captain announced we were next up for departure and the engines started revving. Cody began to pant. He whipped his head around, scared at the noises: the fans, the announcements, the wheels, the machinery in the belly of the beast. I never realized just how noisy it is when a plane begins to take off; it’s loud in there. Cody’s brow displayed intense fear. He never whined, but he shook and shook, trembling so hard his owner had to hold him tight to his chest to keep him safe.
My heart ached. I don’t know why it was so hard to see it, but when Cody plunged his head into the crook of his owner’s arm to hide, to make it go away, there were tears in my eyes. Life is terrifying. Oh, it’s grand and it’s great but it’s terrifying — and that grand, great stuff can be as terrifying as the rest of it. The man told me later in the flight that Cody was attacked by pit bulls a couple years ago and was still traumatized by the event. He said Cody didn’t use to be so nervous.
Landing was tough, too. But when we deplaned, a little girl of about six was at the gate where we came out and squealed with pure joy when she saw Cody. She ran up to the owner and asked if she could pet the dog. As I passed them to head toward baggage check, I saw the little girl love Cody completely and totally, smiling, welcoming him to terra firma with no idea how happy Cody was to see her.