If it is in fact true that one year in the life of a dog is equivalent to seven years in the life of a human, my dogs, Penelope and Odysseus, and I are now about the same age. That would be a good thing, I suppose, were it not for the fact that all three of us limp along most days showing signs of aging. Could it be that these dogs will teach me grace?
They are border collies, these two, with strong herding instincts and a dedication to my wife and to me that astonishes. They have our lives organized in ways we never would have imagined. Most mornings, I leave before everyone is awake. If they see me eating in the kitchen, they know it’s a lazy day, and that there will be a walk. Ody sits and stares at me, following me wherever I go, eyes darting toward the door. If I try to leave the house when they are awake, but before a walk, Odysseus will plant himself behind my car, and hug the ground, as if to say “You’re not leaving without me.”
Each evening, both run to greet me at the door. Odysseus runs out to the car, but only after the engine is turned off. I get a kiss, and he then trots toward the door of the house. Penelope, in the meanwhile, stays at the door’s threshold, barking her fool head off. She’s indignant that I am spending time with her brother, and not her. She then runs to the couch, and barks until I come to pet her, grunting as though she is trying to say: “Where have you been all day?” I swear she sighs with pleasure. “It’s about time,” she says with her eyes.
Penelope is a close student of my ways. When she hears my silverware fall to my plate and my chair moving back from the table, she comes running over to see me. And here’s the rub: For years, she’d leap into my lap, like water flowing uphill. But now she sometimes waits to be lifted. It appears she’s not always up to the leap. She’s got aches and pains, you see, from a lifetime dedicated to the proposition: “Why walk when you can run?”
So I lift her, gently, and she flops over on her back for a tummy rub, looking at my wife as if to tell her that her presence is no longer necessary. Penny is all attitude. We like to say she put the grrrr in girl.
Ody, by contrast, although much larger, and Penny’s protector against all things real and imagined, is the gentle one. He’s given to flopping over on the floor, legs stretched out, tongue poking from between his lips, with a faraway look of contentment.
Did I tell you I am crazy about these dogs?
Most evenings, as Ody lies at my feet, and Penny snuggles, always, with great determination, into my lap, I am reduced simply to thanking them. That’s a great gift, this sense of simple gratitude. They have given me so much, and give all they have each day. Their dedication stuns me.
Penny’s had more trips to the veterinarian than I can recall. She’s had surgery at Tufts in Boston. She’s had eye surgery. She’s a bump, bruise and whimper waiting to happen. Ody, by contrast, has been the steady, cautious one. So when I saw Ody limp the other day, I was surprised. I went to him to check his paw, his joints, the long bones in his leg, his hip, his back. I could find no sign of injury. Neither did the veterinarian. He was fine for a few days, and then, one night, when it was time for one last trip outside, he lifted a sore leg as he trotted toward the door. It broke my heart to see this. I want him to tell me what’s wrong. After he’d done his business outside, he was fine, no limp, and simply trotted in with his cheerful determination to please.
I realized that Ody and I were a lot alike – we’re both just getting old, in terms of our respective life spans. Lord knows I’ve got enough aches and pains of my own now. I move a little slower than I did a decade ago.
I think it was Michel de Montaigne who once said that to philosophize is to learn to die. Little did I know when I signed on to be a member of Ody’s and Penny’s pack that they’d soon enough teach me to age. We three hobble together happily; I suspect I am the only one of us to brood about the fleeting nature of time.
These dogs are a gift from God, I say -- and I am an agnostic. They teach me gratitude, and counsel contentment in small things. I am luckier than I deserve to be to have them in my life. I will take each day they give with a grateful heart.