Matt Cavallo's wife, Jocelyn, became a friend of mine through our local MOMS club. We had some fun experiences together, and her boys, Mason and Colby, are sweethearts. I was always happy for my kids to play with them. I thought Jocelyn was a cool cat. Totally real, funny and fun, and over-the-top nice without the sickening sweetness. But I didn't realize how cool she really was until after she called me to her home to take care of the family dog, Teddy.
The consultation was the first time I'd been to her home. She showed me where all the dog stuff was, and we talked about how Teddy would be for me on walks, which would be very important during our visits. She explained to me how Teddy was used to being walked twice a day by her husband, Matt, whom I'd actually never met. "Teddy is really Matt's dog," Jocelyn explained. "We all love Teddy, but Matt is super attached to him, and he's probably nervous about having someone come in to take care of Teddy while we're away, but we totally trust you."
Most people who take the time and money to hire a professional pet sitter are pretty devoted to their pets, but this seemed different. I didn't want to pry, so I took what she said at face value and reassured her that Teddy would be fine. "Please let Matt know that I'll take great care of Teddy, and I will walk him twice a day, like he's used to."
I think Jocelyn felt like she needed to provide me with further explanation. "I don't know if I told you, but Matt has MS," she blurted.
"Wow." What could I say? "I...had no idea. Is he...okay?"
"Yes, he's okay. I mean, as much as you can be with MS..." Jocelyn went on to tell me a small portion of Matt's story just as Matt pulled into the driveway, home for lunch. "He actually wrote a book about it," she concluded before he made it into the house. It's called 'The Dog Story,' if you're interested." I gathered that there was more to Matt's relationship with Teddy. And, yes, I was interested.
After just hearing the news about Matt, I was a bit nervous as to what to expect, knowing he'd be coming in any second. I mean, he could drive, so he must be somewhat functional, right? Matt came in and Jocelyn introduced us. I don't know what, exactly, I expected, but Matt looked totally normal. Not at all like what MS looked like in my imagination. He was friendly, yet slightly aloof, probably trying to play it cool in the face of this stranger who would care for Teddy in a few short weeks. Matt made himself a sandwich, and I excused myself so he and Jocelyn could enjoy their time together.
I took care of Teddy shortly thereafter, and we got along famously. He was happy to see me, fun to walk, and well behaved. Matt survived the ordeal.
I purchased a Kindle copy of Matt's book, "The Dog Story: A Journey into a New Life With Multiple Sclerosis," and before beginning, I sent Matt an email letting him know I was setting out. He responded warmly, saying "I hope you enjoy it. It can be difficult to read in parts, especially since you know Jocelyn."
I began, and a couple of hours later, I sent Matt another message: "OMG. I can't put it down. Your writing style is so approachable, and your story is really compelling." Matt responded humbly with a simple "thank you."
It's true. I couldn't put it down. I know that's totally chiché. Maybe a small part of my interest was the fact that I had a personal relationship with these people. After all, rarely do we get to hear such raw, unveiled stories from people we haven't known our whole lives. But it wasn't just about hearing the dirt on people I knew. Anyone who reads this book will feel as if they intimately know Matt and Joceyln. I thought a story about a MS diagnosis would be a total downer, but Matt is funny, and somehow he makes you happy through a very sad story. I felt the impact he conveyed as he shared his story, but I never felt sorry for him. The journey to his diagnosis was rough, but Matt is almost as strong as his wife, and (spoiler alert), together, they have made a wonderful life, despite Matt's tragic disease.
Although Teddy's picture adorns the cover of Matt's book, I kept waiting for him to make an appearance as I read. I had to wait a long time.
I contacted Matt after I'd finished the book and asked if I could interview him for the well minded blog. He was happy to oblige.
WM: Matt, I read "The Dog Story" about your journey to a diagnosis. While, initially, it doesn't seem to be a book about a dog, I walked away with the feeling that while your childhood dog helped you find your identity growing up, Teddy has helped you find your identity to live your best life with MS. Is that the message you intended?
MC: That is a great observation, Kristen. I definitely believe that Teddy has not only helped me cope with my diagnosis, but has also helped me live my best life. The title of the book is a bit misleading. "The Dog Story" is not the story of a dog, rather it refers to how I got my dog. A major theme throughout the book is timing. Getting a dog was a debate my wife, Jocelyn, and I had over and over again during the beginning of our relationship and into the early years of our marriage. While I am a dog person and have had a dog my entire life, she never really connected with dogs. To her the timing was never right. We had major life events like getting married, graduating from college or moving to Boston, and a dog was not in those plans.
Then, in the midst of those plans, I had this major health event where I lost the functionality of my legs and got diagnosed with MS. A month after my diagnosis was my 29th birthday. On that birthday, I was handed a present, and it was a book. When I tore the wrapping paper off, looking back at me was a book about dog breeds with a soft-coat wheaten terrier on the cover. I opened the inside cover and there was a handwritten note, saying that a litter had been born, and I was getting a male from the litter.
At that moment, my heart dropped. Now the timing was right to get a dog? I could barely walk on my own and had just been diagnosed with a chronic illness. How was I going to walk and take care of a dog? I wanted to thank Jocelyn and tell her that while I really appreciated the present, that I couldn't possibly raise a dog at this time.
Then, I realized that the timing could not have been more right. At that point in my life, I needed a dog more than ever. Getting Teddy was a major turning point in me starting a new chapter of my life as a man with a chronic illness. I promised Jocelyn that day that no matter what was happening with my MS, that I would walk the dog twice a day. It's been eight years now and I've kept that promise.
WM: Can you tell me more about your relationship with Teddy?
MC: Teddy is more than my best friend. He is more like a caregiver. He has been in my life for almost nine years now, through the good times and bad. He knows when I'm feeling sick and comforts me. He also nudges me and keeps me honest with our daily walks. On the days when I just don't feel like getting up and doing anything, his cold, wet nose prods me out the door.
WM: So Teddy is really important to your quality of life.
MC: Teddy is a great motivator. He keeps me going. I think that he has played a big factor into why I have sustained such a great quality of life despite living with MS.
WM: What is your routine like with Teddy?
MC: My routine with Teddy is the same as it was when I made the promise over eight years ago. I walk him twice a day whether I feel like I can or not. The only difference is that we have two boys now so I now schedule Teddy's walks around the kids' schedule and activities.
WM: How important is regular exercise for you? Would you say Teddy helps you more in the physical sense or the emotional sense?
MC: Teddy helps me both physically and emotionally. Physically he keeps me moving and emotionally he understands my bad days. Exercise is important, but often times I am too fatigued to move. That is where having to take care of Teddy really pushes me to keep walking.
WM: Do you believe in the healing power of animals?
MC: Yes, I do believe in the healing power of animals. While they can't speak our language, they can communicate and sense our emotions. I was in a deep depression when I was first diagnosed, and it wasn't until I got Teddy that I was able to pull myself out of it.
WM: I understand that you have been traveling a lot lately as a motivational speaker. How do you keep motivated when you can't walk Teddy, and how does he do while you're away?
MC: Traveling had been hard on me. I would like to take him with me whenever I go. I am always trying to make sure he can't see me pack my suitcase. Jocelyn thinks I infer way too many human traits on him and that he is fine when I'm away. The truth is that I am the one that is not fine with being gone. I need to keep my promise.
WM: Have you considered the possibility of Teddy becoming a service dog for you?
MC: I have, but Jocelyn is pretty sure he would flunk out of the training school! He is also an unneutered male who marks everything, so I'm am not sure how well-behaved he would be in public places. He is definitely lovable but lacks some of the social refinements you would expect from a service dog.
WM: Do you have any plans for any more books?
MC: Jocelyn and I just completed our second book, "Seven Steps to Living Well With a Chronic Illness." It's a self-help book for people seeking guidance for living well despite being diagnosed with a chronic illness. Some of the topics covered in the book include tips on navigating the health care system, emotional and physical healing, and, of course, the healing power of a companion animal. The book is due out this spring.
I, for one, can't imagine a better couple to tell the story about living well under dire circumstances. Matt and Jocelyn are upbeat, positive people who continue to conquer their life's challenges every day.
Matt has generously offered to send a personalized, signed copy of his book to a well minded reader. Regardless of whether your life has been touched by a chronic illness, Matt's story is an inspiring look at overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles, made better with the help of a dog.
Please enter this very special giveaway.
Connect with Matt at mattcavallo.com.