A few days ago, during a break in the rain, Tim and I took Harry and Aussie to the woods. It had been a while since Aussie’s latest escapade and I was hopeful that she would stay with the pack.
Fat chance. A deer’s white tail gleamed in the dark trees as it ran across the path up ahead and down the slope towards the creek. Both dogs ran after it. We heard some excited barking as we followed them down the embankment towards the creek rushing white water, but by then they’d rushed up the other side and were gone. Way, way gone.
We waited and waited, my spirit low, mind full of accusations: You know that May is a bad month to let the dogs go free, what with the new animals and smells, what were you thinking of?
“Harry will come back first,” I told Tim, trying to reassure myself. “He always comes back first.” He was the one I worried about because he didn’t have Aussie’s nose. Aussie, I felt, could find her way home from Alaska.
Sure enough, 25 minutes later, a brown bundle rushed down the slope. Gone for a moment, then at our feet, muzzle white with spittle, panting so hard he could barely raise his head. “Where’s Aussie?” I asked him. “Harry, where’s Aussie?” But Harry was so happily beat he just lay down on his belly and shut his eyes.
“Maybe we should go,” I told Tim. “Aussie could take a couple of hours before she shows up.”
“She always finds you, right?” said Tim.
We turned to go back, but I looked over my shoulder one more time up the slope and there she was, a black shape hurling down at warp speed. She splashed through the white water and rushed up to where we were.
So many things going on at the same time: relief, anger, joy, a bedlam of emotions. This is no way to train dogs, to make sure they’re safe, teach them the rules of the game. But—the life in them, the black radiance in their eyes that proclaimed This is us! This is who we are! Running not just after prey but for the joy of running, full of spittle and passion! I could almost see the throb of heart and lung, foam at the edges of their lips, chests bobbing back and forth. Later they would go through the bathroom trash and take out teeth floss and used Q-tips and tissues, get into all kinds of domestic mischief, but they’d had their mad dash down the slope and through the creek that was their world, their forest green, their young life.
You shouldn’t have gotten them so young, people told me. They were both pups. You’re 69, your husband just died, why adopt dogs who need so much and cause trouble? One even told me to return Harry.
But I prefer to look at it differently: What was I really looking for, I wonder. Beyond dogs, there was something I wanted and needed at this time, I knew it intuitively and gave it the name dogs, but what was it? What is it now? Bernie always said there’s no such thing as mistakes, so what was I looking for? What do I still need?
Harry’s just over a year old, spontaneous, affectionate, still responding out of a narrow range with anxiety on one side and eagerness on the other. Aussie’s half a year older, still trying to work out who I am and who she is. More independent and aloof than Harry, she never jumps up on the bed when I’m there. She thumps her tail first thing in the morning when she sees me, asking for a belly rub, but when I lavish her with affection she turns away, as if saying Get a hold of yourself.
But there is something between Aussie and me, I can tell. She’s the one Bernie and I both chose at the shelter, he sitting in his wheelchair and observing her from a distance because she was so afraid of him. She will always carry a little bit of him for me. Will I get to see the full arc of her life as it unfolds ahead of me?
I want to be on the other side when she grows up and see what became of the dog that sat nervously in her cage, watching him. She’s like a teen-ager now, challenging me, trying out the rules and boundaries, working out relations with Harry and with me. I’d like to see the end of the story, or at least much of it. I’d like to see how she grows, what emerges on the other side of all those trials and efforts.
I think the reason I got them so young, against all advice, is that I still want to see the arc of life, the arc of love, with a question mark that stays open to the very end: What are you going to be like as you grow? What am I going to be like as I grow? What will we be together?