Do you ever think of death, Bernie?


And what do you feel when you think about it?

That it’s okay. It’ll be fewer headaches.

Like what headaches, Bernie?

Well, I think I should be doing things.

Are people asking you to do things?

No, people aren’t. But I think that if I’m alive maybe I should be doing more.

You could be walking me, suggests Stanley from the rug.

Bernie’s not listening; he’s too busy eating a slice of Carvel birthday ice cream cake shaped like a football. New England is crazy about its Patriots in this playoffs season and Bernie is no exception, though inside he retains a big affection for the New York Giants. Crowd-sized trays of lasagna and macaroni are sold everywhere, not to mention wings in a half-dozen different sauces along with ribs, as though everybody is hosting parties over the weekend.

We’re not, but when Bernie asked for an ice cream birthday cake I bought one shaped like a football. Chocolate/vanilla ice cream inside, chocolate crumbs outside with whipped cream to mark the seams.

It’s just the two of us cutting into it, with Stanley ever ready for dishwashing duty. Bernie didn’t want a party, didn’t want a fuss. This is not an important birthday, he told me.

What’s an unimportant birthday?

When I spent my 48th birthday at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Roshi Joan Halifax and other Zen teachers, Joan told me that on my birthday I should always call my mother to thank her for all the pain and struggle she went through to give birth, giving me life. I’ve tried to remember to do that every year. I am lucky, because my mother is still alive to hear those words of gratitude.

Bernie lost his mother when he was 7, so there’s no one he could call to say thank you. Instead we’re cutting into a football-shaped ice cream cake and discussing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and especially how long they can keep on winning, because though the team is a machine and Tom eats healthier than anybody, everything has an end.

Earlier this day I walked Stanley on the road. He pulled impatiently on the leash while I paused to examine a fallen tree that lay across the snowy white meadow.

Hold your horses, Stanley.

Why are you dawdling?

I’m examining the tree roots. Take a look, Stan, a tree fell and died, but new critters arrive to take shelter inside and under the tree, entire new colonies of things.

What a dumb reason to walk slowly.

Hey, you also slow down when you find interesting things to sniff.

Tree roots are not interesting unless someone peed on them. Did someone pee on the tree?

I don’t know, Stanley, I can’t smell it.

How do you walk around the woods without smelling pee? How do you learn anything in your life if you can’t smell pee?

I use my eyes—

You’re nearsighted.

I use my brain.

Forget your brain!

Hey, Mr. Dog, you’re at least half blind and all deaf!

But I smell pee! And you don’t! Poor girl, it’s not your fault you’re less intelligent.