Lessons From My Dogs,
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
—T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four Quartets
When did Sasha’s face turn white? her hearing all but gone. Olive returns limping and lopsided from the fields where once she hunted her rodents all day long. Still, she waves her tail proudly. And Isabelle scared me badly when her one front leg became so weak she couldn’t walk to the water bowl. She’s mending now, but not her old self. Perhaps a new normal for her and me, and so we adjust to what is.
Those of us who've loved an animal have also watched that beloved companion change before our eyes, and strangely change becomes our one dependable constant. Three of my four dogs are now seniors, or geriatrics I should say, since that is the term given this golden-years group. Only Sparkle tosses the toy, and runs and hunts with boundless energy, her young self a pest when we seek rest, yet always that vibrant spark of joy for which we're all secretly grateful.
What lies at the end of my seniors’ changing days is another paradoxical constant in any life that’s ever been. Death. Sometimes in the face of loss, I’ve experienced epiphanies that seem to flow from darkness as if the light is better seen against the dark. But more often, we walk back and forth from sunlight to shade, and swim with the gray in between. Change for me, like for many, comes in small increments, noticeable sometimes only in contrast.
For years, I’d walk the dogs up a field bordering my neighbor’s long, snaking drive. For years his cows kept the grass and shrubs mowed and gave us bovine beauty and intrigue. But one day my neighbor sold his cows. In time the grasses, vines and trees grew up, hampering and changing our walks, but providing such great cover for the birds and other critters, I couldn’t really complain. We’d walk, the dogs sniffing scents of rabbits, deer and coyotes. I knew the land—the rocks and trees, and I loved the land—the rocks and trees.
Then one day, it all changed again. My neighbor decided the trees were worth more as lumber to build more human houses, rather than shelter for the birds and squirrel homes. The first time I walked up the field, I didn’t know the damage, yet I felt a strange and sudden sadness I couldn’t explain. Only when I had turned to walk by my friends, the tall, straight poplars did I stop still and in my horror see that these majestic trees were no more. Further on I found beautiful dogwoods plowed over and left, my heart crying out with each.
There was an old apple tree where my mother and I had spread our quilt and sat beneath the blossoms picnicking. It’s gone now, as are the little dogs who sat beside us patiently awaiting their own bites: Lauren, Flash and my mother’s Tippy. All the wise old trees with whom I’d stand talking, asking their advice, all felled—deemed better as timber and cash.
My life has changed, too. Now, as we walk—often just Sparkle and me—we adopt a pace and way of being that can take in all of this change. A life of quiet peace, where timetables are ignored in favor of the moment, meandering walks outdoors, sometimes just sitting and listening to the wind. A life of joy in being, with the realization that we haven't control over much, except maybe our thoughts and how we choose to react.
I look to the seasons, one changing into the next with time-honored regularity. Yet, I know even this enduring sense and reassurance is a deception, for all of us: the birds I now watch, my dogs and I, even the trees thought would last my lifetime. . . we’ll all be gone, replaced I hope by more like us with gentle hearts, and not by machines and A.I., or ruthless men who enact violence as a means to their end.
In the U.S. we tend to think we'll find a cure for everything and live to be a hundred, and yet we live lives that will end like everyone before us and probably (there’s no knowing what Elon Musk will do) everyone after. I think the Europeans and animals often know otherwise. Europeans, because they’ve lived through so much death, the cycle of life with its end point is part of life. And animals because, well, animals are just innately wise—interconnected as part of Mother Earth, the cosmos and the universe.
I look around and there's a sense of solidity everywhere—the rocks and trees—when in fact even this is illusory. We're here for a blip of time, the world barely registering us when we leave. Except, I think, through love. And I want to remember the love of just one ordinary day. I don't want to wake up one day and find Sparkle old, and me unable to remember her young, vibrant self. And I don't want to wake and say, “If I could just see Sasha one more time…if I could feel her scramble onto me as I try to read, or watch Olive proudly grab her toy, or hear Isabelle express her joy of food,” when I’ve had them here beside me all these years as I go through the busy steps that are life. I breathe in, feeling the breeze touch my skin and when I do I feel all those I’ve loved who’ve gone on before me. I see quiet dark eyes and I welcome the ghosts.
But alas, it's spring. Enough of death, it's time for rebirth. Delicate flutes pipe across the fields as the birds rejoice in spring. There's an orchestra of chirping birds that overlaps, fugue-like, with the rippling creek.
Here’s Sasha now. And Olive and Isabelle and Sparkle. Time to stop, and look upon them not one last time, but one good time, focused and present, and this time, really see them.