I am writing this now so that when the day comes when my light dims, my memories begin to fade, I can be reminded once again of this exquisite but all too brief time I spent walking with Lucy.
I looked over my shoulder at a very large chocolate Labrador Retriever sitting in the back seat of Karen’s car. Lucy looked back at me, neither afraid nor aggressive, almost stoical but with a hint of warmth in her rich brown eyes, clearly evaluating me, waiting to see if I were to be trusted. I reached around, scratched behind her ears and under her chin and got only a polite response. Deciding there was no threat she lay back down as we drove off. I wasn’t at all sure she cared much whether I was there or not.
The next time I met her she was rounding the corner of the garage at her apartment home. When she saw me she tossed her head like an ingenue flicking hair out of her eyes, gave a little hop lifting her front quarters slightly off the ground and broke into the sinuous, waddling, full body wiggle of a trot she used when she was happy to see you. She lumbered over and jammed her snout into my crotch. I bent over, scratched her back and patted her butt. We were fine. She liked me and it was going to be all right. A month or so later she had moved into my place.
Lucy was a big girl. Too big. She weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred and fifty pounds while her ideal weight, according to the vet, should have been around ninety pounds. Lucy was what they call an English Chocolate Lab, the type with a naturally heavy, barrel-chested body and shorter legs than the typical American Lab. Because she had spent a number of years living in an apartment and not getting enough exercise she had put on too much weight so one of the first things we did was begin a walking program. I had no idea at the time how important our daily walks would become, how they would become the center around which nearly every morning of the following three years would be built, and how they would engage me in one of the most gentle, quiet, subtle and important relationships of my life.
She didn’t have a lot of endurance those first days so our walks were fairly perfunctory; one lap around the short half of our block was about all she could handle and since it was summer, and hot, and she wore a rich, heavy, dark brown coat still full of last winter’s sheddings, she rapidly soaked in the heat of the morning sun and was soon panting away trying to cool down. By the time we got home she was ready for a large slurping of water from her favorite watering spot, the family toilet, before going into her bedroom to snooze away a good share of the day waiting for Karen to get home. But even on these first walks, I began to notice that there was more to her than first met the eye.
By nature, Lucy was a trusting, gentle, eager to please and generally compliant dog, even with strangers. She was extremely curious and highly intelligent. She also had a stubborn streak that, when so moved, was difficult to overcome, especially with one hundred and fifty pounds of dog dead weight on her end of the leash when she decided she wasn’t ready to go yet.
I hadn’t had a dog in the house for years. My pets had been cats. Sandy, my ex-wife and housemate through some twenty or so years before her death, (yeah, I know, it’s complicated) had been an absolute cat fanatic so cats were pretty much all I knew until Lucy came along. Sure, I had seen plenty of the neighbors walking their dogs. It all seemed pretty basic: dress for the weather, grab the leash and a couple of plastic bags, hook up the dog and off you go for a brisk turn about the neighborhood. Exercise for the dog; exercise for me; all good. That was my model, my dog walking paradigm so to speak. But it wasn’t Lucy’s.
Lucy’s was more that of “Hey, wanna go for a really slow walk and stop and sniff all the vertical stuff along the way?” She was out to “smell the flowers,” or fence posts, or telephone poles, or tires, or shrubs, or, more accurately, to smell whatever had been deposited on them over the last twenty-four hours. Such investigations I was to find out, were not be rushed. A good thorough aromatic analysis had its own clock; one that had to be honored.
Sandy’s mother was a dog trainer, a good one by all reports, and I had, for all those years been exposed to her version of having a dog, or in her case, many dogs. It seemed too highly organized, too structured, too confining for my tastes. Dogs were taught to heel, to sit, to stay … whatever, and every night they were confined to their cages where, I was assured, they liked to be because they felt safe in their home. Me, I have always been more of the “fly, be free” type when it comes to pets. I didn’t have any particular need to be in charge and I always enjoyed watching them just as they were. They could choose how they wanted to relate to me.
Most animals can be trained, even re-trained and, as it turned out, I was no exception. In our first month, we gradually lengthened the walks to the point where Lucy was capable of completing a circuit of the whole block rather than just the short loop. (I should point out that our “block” was really three blocks long — the city never finished putting through two of the streets — so our circuit was actually a loop eight normal city blocks in total length when you count up and back and the two end lengths. She was getting fitter while I was getting educated.
My expectations for walking a dog were based on what I had been told and what I had seen others doing. I figured my biggest problem would be in holding her back. I had seen any number of svelte young women dressed in running gear out with their dogs racing down the sidewalk, their dogs leading the way, or bicyclists along the bike path with their dogs running tirelessly alongside. My first lesson that month was understanding the “Immovable Objects Law of Walking Large Dogs.”
Right now, I’d like everyone to try this experiment. Tie one end of a length of rope to the bumper of a parked car. Grab the other end tightly then turn and march smartly away without looking back. You may, if you wish, say something like “Let’s go, Lucy!” or “Come along now.”
Now tell me, what did you just learn?
We would eagerly set off down the sidewalk side by side until Lucy came to her first vertical mystery. She would stop to investigate and I, being ever so attentive, would stop too. I figured a few moments to check things out seemed perfectly acceptable. But after those few moments, I would become impatient and ready to move on. In my mind walking a dog was a physical activity that did not include much standing around. I would step off figuring that Lucy, being a well trained, obedient dog would turn and march along with me. That didn’t always happen. What did often happen was that I would come to the end of the lead only to have my shoulder nearly wrenched from its socket. Once I regained my balance I could see Lucy still deep in the midst of her investigations — not even a glance up to see what had just happened.
I had begun thinking that if I could get Lucy out on walks she and I would likely lose some weight as well as get into better physical condition and that, in turn, would lead to a better life. But sometime during the month, I realized that on nearly every walk I was getting impatient with her stops and that she would, over the length of the walk, gradually capitulate to my nagging and tugging and slowly plod along beside me stopping less and less frequently on our way home. Lucy had no interest in aerobics and I was wasn’t getting any exercise. I needed to reassess. Clearly, I had to separate the two activities. Lucy’s walk needed to be her walk. My workout had to be mine, and, “ne’er the twain shall meet.” So, by the end of the month, we had come to an understanding. Lucy’s walks were to be the highest priority for the morning (after coffee, of course), she could spend as much time as she wished in her investigations, she could choose the route, and she would never, never, ever be asked to jog or trot or any other activity that faintly hinted of physical exertion. I was no longer “walking the dog.” Lucy did, however, allow me to come along. And for the next three years, this is what we did nearly every morning.
Lucy was not a noisy dog. She was not one of those yappy, barking, growling, whining dogs. She was, for the most part, quiet, but her communication skills were consummate. For instance, if it was getting well into the morning and I hadn’t shown any signs of getting ready to go, she would come sit next to my chair and stare at me with those lovely large, rich brown eyes. How long can you ignore a dog that is staring at you? In my case not very long. It was unnerving but highly effective. So when I did get up to dress she would follow me into my room and supervise my dressing making sure I included my good walking shoes. She didn’t have a lot of patience with me having to tie the shoes, however. She was ready to go. She would belly flop to the floor and roll back and forth grunting and shaking her head playfully in anticipation until I had them tied and was on my feet heading toward the door. Admittedly, her approach to communication was not what you might expect from another human. Her’s was more of the “I know what I want. I know the words you use to describe what I want. When I sit close to you and stare at you, I want something. Guess. When you get it right, I will let you know.” For instance, in the evening Lucy liked her treats. When she felt the need, she would first go to Karen and sit and stare. Karen can concentrate really well. Better than I can. So, if Lucy didn’t get a quick response she would wheel around and come stare at me. That always got a response. Because Lucy really liked her food we would first ask if she wanted to go outside or if she needed to go pee hoping that would be the right answer. If it was, she would stand up and head toward whichever door suited her taste at the moment. If going outside was not what she wanted she would simply continue staring while I walked through the list of possibilities. “Do you want a carrot?” “Do you want a chew?” “Do you want a cookie?” “Do you want a treat?” When we got to the right choice she would stand, back up a few steps to make room, and then herd us toward the source of her desires. And if all else failed, a simple “show me,” would always get us started toward the target.
When Lucy ate she ate lying down. None of this fast food eating on the run nonsense for her. A meal was to be savored and the plate licked clean. Her feeding dish was a large black bowl with sharply vertical sides. When she had finished her meal, which she always did, and felt she hadn’t had enough she would use her paw — her paw was about the size of my hand — to tip the bowl on edge and she would lie there, often for hours, with one paw holding the bowl, waiting for one of us to notice and give her more. She would stay that way until she either got more food or until one of us told her that she could have no more for now. Then she would simply get up and go on to other things.
Every day for three years we looked forward to meeting Sylvia or Boomer or Hedley or Angel or Raven or Silkie the Cat on our daily outings as we gradually expanded our horizons to include longer jaunts down by the canal along the bike path or over into the Westmoreland student housing complex or across the “No Animals, No Bikes, No Trespassing” signs surrounding a nearby meadow. It was fun to watch Lucy’s strength and endurance grow in lock step with her self-confidence. She lost the extra fifty pounds from sheer, plodding, aggregate persistence. More and more she decided where, how and when we would walk. Lucy was never the leader at least in terms of wanting to walk in front but she was very clear in her mind as to the best route for any given day’s walk. It was up to me to figure it out. If we came to a corner and I picked the wrong direction from amongst left, right or across, she would simply stop. She wouldn’t look in the direction she wanted to go. She wouldn’t look at me. She would simply stop until I stepped in the right direction then she would follow quite happily along, knowing full well that she gave great directions. Later, near the end of our walks together, she must have truly found her confidence for she began wanting to randomly walk back and forth across the streets in mid-block, and then, in her most audacious act she decided that it would be really cool to just walk right down the middle of the street. Cars could use the sidewalks.
During my time with Lucy, I joined a writer’s group down at the local Senior Center. Our walks became my dog walking-writing meditation. While Lucy explored an olfactory universe inaccessible to me, I would mull over a piece I was working on or explore various ways to write our weekly assignment. The walks became my quiet time. We never walked with other dogs or people — happy to greet them along the way, yes, but our walks were not to be shared. I believe Lucy and I both wanted it that way. It was our time not community time.
Karen and I both knew that Lucy was getting old. We had even talked about how we would be lucky to have her through the coming year and most prophetically about a month ago Lucy began slowing down. She had had a continuing urinary problem that made her feel as though she had to go all the time even when she didn’t. The vets could never identify or solve the problem so we had her on anti-inflammatories to control the irritation and that had worked pretty well. She began to slowly lose her appetite and her strength. On our last few walks together she had only wanted to complete the original “short loop,” the one on which we had started our walks together three years ago. And then, on May 27, 2010 she stopped eating. That was a Thursday. By Saturday morning she could hardly rise. We knew that her time, our time, had finally come.
I have been through this too many times. Death or perhaps dying still makes me angry. It hurts. But perhaps not for so long as it once did. I have spent the thousands of dollars trying to save an old friend only to watch them waste away with no quality of life, no fire in their eyes, just tired, worn out resignation. I vowed I would never do that again. Quality of life not length is all that truly matters I believe.
I still hear her embarrassed, “sorry to wake you but I’ve really, really, really gotta go” yip in the middle of the night. I miss our sham rasslin’ matches where I would get down on the floor and for twenty seconds or so we would shadow box and head lock and grunt like wild boars before stopping to catch our breath and then do it over again for another twenty-second match — never any biting. She had the softest mouth I have ever known in a dog. In my office, I look over my shoulder to make sure I don’t scoot my chair back onto her. It is incomplete not to be able to share my morning peanut butter toast. In the middle of the night I notice when I get up to use the bathroom that the floor is dry. When we go grocery shopping it doesn’t seem right not to say “we’ll be right back!” or for her not to be there to greet us when we do get back. When I look she is not lying out in her yard by the pond, or exploring the back fence, or waiting on the front porch for Karen to come home from work or out under the tree just watching over the neighborhood. She loved her yard. There were no constraining fences but she never wandered. She knew her yard, her home, her sense of place, and she was happy.
I have only one regret. There was one corner on the outer edge of one our longest routes where Lucy would always want to cross the street and go up over the hill and into new, unexplored territory. I would never agree fearing that it would turn into too much of a walk for her and end up wearing her out and causing her arthritic shoulders to act up unnecessarily. I wish that just once, I had done it. She didn’t worry about how hard it would be to get home. She just wanted to go where she hadn’t gone before. I am going to try to remember that.
June, 2010 ©