Monday, 14 July 2008

Ears at my feet.

Becoming deaf was a terrible shock for Sister Denise. Then Caldey came into her life.

Sister Denise divides her life into two distinct periods: life before Caldey and life since Caldey. "The truth is, I find it hard to remember what life was like before her," she says as she pats the Collie - Golden Retriever cross lying at her feet. "Becoming deaf was a terrible shock: it turned my life upside down." She stares into space and, slowly, the memories and frustrations of those years return to her. "I was thirty when I became deaf. My whole reference was taken from a hearing world. Suddenly I was thrown into a silent world. I could not lip read and did not know sign language." She picks up again: " I could no longer converse with people, hear the kettle whistling or wake up to an alarm clock. I couldn’t hear the cooker doorbell and was forever burning things….I remember pacing up and down the front window fearing I’d miss anyone who might call. Life became impossible. I became isolated, lonely and depressed."

But all that changed just as abruptly when, five years ago, Caldey, her trained hearing dog was presented to her. And now, seated comfortably in the living room of her convent residence in --north London, it is difficult to imagine this exuberant, articulate and outgoing nun, was once an unhappy recluse.

"Having Caldey has made such a big difference, it’s impossible to put it in words," enthuses Denise, in a light Irish accent, which gives away her country of origin. "Over the years we have we have really bonded and she has opened a whole new world to me". Caldey, head between paws, lies placidly as her owner recounts how the dog at her feet metamorphosed her entire life. "Beforehand, I dreaded going out. I was always tense meeting new people, terrified I would not be able to lip read what they were saying. Since Caldey, I have become a lot more relaxed, and I now find lip reading no problem. Also, because she wears a yellow jacket when we’re out, people realise I am deaf and are generally more patient and much friendlier."

Trained by the Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, Caldey, recognises different sounds in the house and alerts Denise by calling for her attention and then leading her to the source of the sound. A knock at the door immediately prompts her to her feet and, after finding Denise, she eagerly leads her to the door.

"In the morning, when as the alarm bell goes off, she springs into action and jumps on my bed to wake me up. If I am drowsy or unresponsive, she will persist and start licking my face: she’s far more effective than an ordinary alarm clock!" says Denise, laughing.

In addition, Caldey responds to the ‘ping’ of the microwave as well as the sound of the smoke alarm, and can fetch on command Sister Kathleen, who live in the house with Denise.
"Simply knowing that she’s around, always alert and listening out for sounds, gives me a sense of security and makes me feel relaxed." And, she attests, her hearing dog has, on a number of occasions, steered her away from real danger.

"We were out walking in the countryside one day when we turned down a narrow path. Caldey was "off duty" and I let her run around while I walked on my own. After a while, I noticed that she was not in sight, which was uncharacteristic of her because she’s normally either beside me or in front of me. When I went back to look for her, I saw her standing in the middle of the pathway, blocking a car that was coming down in my direction. Inside the car I could see an irate driver pressing on his horn, trying to shoo her away, but she would not budge. After explaining to him who, and what, Caldey was, he finally drove off, relieved. In this, she definitely worked on her own initiative and, by so doing, possibly diverted a nasty accident."

In the course of conversation, Caldey suddenly gets up and stretches her paw on Denise’s knees. Denise continues her flow of words, but her four-legged companion insists. "What is it?" Denise looks at her. Caldey, wagging her tail furiously, runs up the stairs, looking back to make sure that Denise is following, and then sits next to the fax machine as it spews out a written message from an acquaintance. "This", explains Denise proudly, "is something Caldey picked up on her own. When I applied for a hearing dog, I could not use the telephone, so they did not train her at the centre to respond to the sound of a telephone ring. However, we recently acquired a fax machine which I now use frequently. Caldey has seen me use it quite a bit and now lets me know whenever it rings."

It is somewhat difficult to remember that this vivacious woman, who works outdoors in jeans and goes camping in the mountains, is a nun. Sister Denise laughs at the observation. "It is true that we’re not what you might call ‘conventional nuns’, she chuckles, but as Sisters of Charity, our call is not to bring people to to God, but seek God in other people. With Caldey I am able to follow my call: I work outdoors in conservation work and with people in need."

As to her hearing disability, that, as she puts it, is a ‘blip’ in the grand design of things: a bump in the road. "As with many obstacles in life, if it’s too big you don’t try to remove it, but find a way around it. With Caldey’s help, I have managed to find a way around it." She adds as an after-thought: "Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that it’s always easy. Sometimes I get angry with God and ask him: are you listening or are you deaf?" A smile etches itself on her beaming face.

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