Wednesday, September 9, 2009

walking with an old dog

Solo is ten years old, and the only old dog I’ve ever lived with. Fly is actually older than Solo, but she seems younger than Solo as she’s in better shape and still hurtling through the world. Solo, by contrast, is a long-retired prizefighter, grave and mellow and carrying the scars of his previous lives within a burly and slowly failing body. The aftermath of an old injury, incurred before I knew him, ruined his right hip, and the ways he has altered his gait over the years to compensate for his hip have corrupted his back. When he was young, when I first knew him, Solo was fast and strong and inexorable, and I kind of thought of him as the Incredible Hulk: intellectually brilliant, mentally unstable, and physically indestructible. But now he is stiff and damaged and deliberate, although his physical presence still evokes a feeling of threat and power, like the big hands and swollen knuckles of an old man who remembers how to tie on a pair of boxing gloves.

I like taking Solo for walks alone now, without the other two dogs, now that we have the luxury of a yard and everyone doesn’t have to go every time we go out. Walking Solo is a particular pleasure because Solo has never been allowed to run ahead of me on walks – it isn’t wise, as his reputation for bad-assedness is not undeserved – so he has always walked right beside me, and I can just reach down a smidge with my hand as I walk and touch his soft, rumpled ears. It’s almost as good as holding hands. No, actually, it’s probably better.

When we walk it’s like old times, before the other two dogs came along, except that the walks we take are different now. When Solo was young, he and I looked for big, open expanses that lent themselves to long throws, places where he could run flat out, and where I could see in all directions in case anyone else came along. Now that he is old, and slow, and doesn’t worry so much about passers-by anymore, we take pointless meandering walks through cluttered landscapes, where there is a lot to poke your nose into and plenty of sign to sniff. Solo shuffles along and reads every single tree, signs a lot of them, and I don’t prod him to hurry and catch up because without the other two shooting off ahead of us, there’s no need. We don’t play ball much anymore, because I am afraid I will break him if I do. Our walks are more interesting now. I stop and look around. I watch squirrels chase each other through the branches. I peek up at the sky through the trees, and sometimes I see eagles.

Solo loves to go with us when we gather chanterelles deep in the forest, because we’re all going nose to the ground, searching, doing just what he does. I’ll look up from a promising spot under the pine needles, and Solo will be there, smiling at me, waving his gallant tail gently. “Isn’t this great!” I like taking him to look for mushrooms because there are never any other people out there and we can go where we please. Sometimes I walk him in a cemetery on campus that is in the process of being overgrown and forgotten (most of the residents there died during the early 1900s), and we encounter other cemetery walkers there. When we do, I alter our trajectory a little so that Solo doesn’t have to encounter them, just in case. There was a time when I would have been ashamed of doing this, because it is an admission that even after almost ten years together I have failed to fix him and that Solo still has his demons. But you know what, I don’t care about that anymore. Solo has nothing left to prove to me or anyone else.

One of the luxuries of getting old is that people finally accept you for exactly what you are. I don’t know if it’s because people are more tolerant of the aged out of respect, or because people just don’t expect anything of the aged because they think the aged are too old to change. Either way, I have stopped worrying about all of the things that Solo is not. I have always loved him for exactly who he is, but I no longer look ahead to some indistinct point in the future when he will be better than he is now. I just enjoy him. Solo acts as though he understands literally everything I say; I would not be surprised if he actually does. I believe that this level of connection is something that comes only after you have been with a dog for a long time, and when that dog is old.

It will be very difficult to watch Solo fail in the years to come, as I know he will, but we are enjoying the last evening light together, that glorious golden light that comes just before sunset, late in summer, just as the days are beginning to shorten. May it be a very long summer evening, and a very, very slow sunset.