"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Toby Turns Twelve

It’s a perfect fall afternoon. The time of year when Toby blends into the big leaf maple leaves and fallen fir needles covering the path. The time of year when sloshing through those leaves ignites inner children who delight in both the sound and the fragrance. The sun shines sideways into our faces, and the breezes bring leaves dancing around us. We’ve been doing this walk together, Toby and I, for going on twelve years. 

I stop while Toby sniffs at coyote scat on the ground, and absorb the moment. I feel deep gratitude for all of this: Toby, the wild blue air, the gentle warmth of a soft autumn sun, the flicker calling in the distance. And the fragrance that is both death: the leaves and needles beneath my feet; and life: the moist earth already holding next season’s possibilities. I breathe it all in. I embed it in my heart, knowing I will need to draw on its beauty and truth sometime in the fairly near future. 

Toby is turning 12, and the opportunities for days like this are dwindling.

When we first came down to this wild area, Toby was still a puppy. I brought him to the river so he could swim for the first time. It was early spring and the river was in flood. He took to the water like the retriever he is, bounding in and out of the river’s edge. At some point he went a bit too far out, ignoring my calls, and the current caught him. I watched him paddle hard toward the bank as I ran to catch him, terrified I’d lose him. He reached shore, fairly unruffled, and we headed back home. That moment would be a hallmark of our relationship. Toby has an independent streak that will not bend to demands, but he will always honor our connection, just not always as quickly as I’d like. 

Because our walk route is a campground and mostly undeveloped, I could allow him to roam free. In the early days I called him back repeatedly, just to make sure I didn’t lose him. Over time we developed a rhythm. He would run ahead, or off to the side, exploring, sniffing, chasing. If I was out of sight for too long, he’d come back looking for me. A few times I called him back and had to wait an uncomfortably long time before he returned. But he always did, and so I would often become so absorbed in my own walk experience I would lose track of him without worry.

We always ended up at the river. A beach that’s private property, but almost always empty. In the early years he would swim for sticks endlessly, ready to rush back into the water the minute a stick had been retrieved. He dove for rocks, digging in the water to find the perfect one, then submerging his head completely to bring it up and carry it to shore. I stood in the shade of a huge big leaf maple reveling in his exuberance, and absorbing his joy.

He chased everything: robins, rabbits, shadows. Deer were his favorite, although once they spotted Toby, all that was left for him to chase was a lingering scent. Owls would lift off in front of him and he’d take off barking, running circles certain he’d find one until something else caught his attention. Our route is a two-mile loop that he did twice or three times that distance in his pell-mell joy-filled chases. 

There were a number of coyote encounters. One season it was an older male that was claiming territory. Toby chased him a couple of times, until I started keeping him close as we passed through that part of the camp. We eventually changed our route completely in the early summers when it became clear that year’s pups were out and the mom was on patrol. Much of Toby’s marking on our walk involves him reclaiming coyote territory for himself.

We walk year around, and every season brings its own gifts. The river has been a constant and ever-changing companion. 

Winter is high water and bare branches, kinglets peeping invisibly in the trees, winter wrens singing their tiny hearts out along the trail. Spring is flooding, cottonwood greens so vivid they vibrate, the shell of a robin’s egg found on the path. Summer is a singing river, the water low enough to dance over the rocks, an abundance of flowers and berries and greens of every shade, an abundance of bird life: owls, towhees, kingfishers, dippers, mergansers. 

Fall, my favorite season, and Toby’s birth season, is low water and salmon spawning, then high water from the seasonal rains. Storybook blue skies against evergreen greens, vine maple reds, big leaf maple yellows, and diamond studded spider webs festooning everything. Mushrooms of every size and shape, often with tiny tooth marks at the edges. My eagle sitting in the snag across the river, or lifting off from the bank where he’s been dining on salmon. 

Being witness to these seasonal gifts is possible because of Toby, and made so much richer in his company. 

We are both in the autumn of our lives, although he will reach winter far sooner than I. At 12, he is 84 in people years. For a while earlier this year I grieved the dog he’s left behind. The one with endless energy and able body and sharp eyesight. The dog who insisted on a ball being thrown so he could fly to catch it and bring it back to be thrown again. All joy and play and exuberant life. 

I have learned to love and treasure the old dog he’s become. I’ve never had an old dog before, so never experienced the losses and gifts that come with this territory. 

His face is almost completely white. His body is covered with lipomas. His back legs are weaker and joints are stiffer, so sometimes he’s unsteady. Chases last a few yards now. Ball throwing is a happy memory – when I threw the ball while working in the yard a few days ago, he didn’t even look at it. He barks more because he can’t see who’s at the door, or in the driveway. Sometimes he just seems confused. 

He’s also so much sweeter, leaning his head into my lap for comfort and ear scratches often. He still dances for his dinner, and begs for treats. He still plays with his toys, but for much shorter stretches. He doesn’t like it when one of us is gone, preferring to have both members of his pack with him at all times. He still gets excited when I get ready to walk. 

The change in our walks has been the hardest for me to adjust to, and amazingly, one of the biggest gifts of my life right now. 

We used to do the two-mile loop every day, be home in 30 minutes, and he’d want to stay outside and play. The weather had no impact on his desire to walk, or his joy in the time outside. I walked a brisk pace to keep up with him, pausing at the river while he swam for sticks, or to watch the deer and owls he flushed, but otherwise taking in my surroundings with a quick eye. Often a good portion of the walk would pass with me in my head processing problems. It never felt like I was missing anything. It actually felt like those walks were the best of everything: time with a joy-filled pup, immersed in an ever-changing canvas of life, moving in harmony with my body and my surroundings. 

Now I never know what to expect. We don’t walk every day because he needs time to recover. Some walks are short because he’s plodding along, clearly not enjoying the experience. Sometimes, coming up the hill from the camp, he’ll stop and lean on me for a few minutes of petting and comfort before moving on. For a while this summer our walks were so short I thought we might be nearing the end of them. I took him to our spot on the river one day and he went in, but I had to help him out over the rocks, holding up his hips so he could regain his footing. I was sure we were done with the river. 

But then autumn arrived, and he seemed to come to life in a way I haven’t seen for months. He started trotting more, heading down parts of the trail we hadn’t done for a while. He led me to the river, walked into it, swam around, got a rock, and headed back up the trail – all without a hitch. He’s chased the owl, and deer, although the pursuit is much shorter. 

He’s never out of my sight on our walks now. I follow him, and talk to him fairly constantly to let him know I’m there. He will stop and look for me if he can’t hear me. What was once a brisk stride is now a slow stroll. At first I resisted the change of pace. Slow felt foreign and uncomfortable, and left me with no way not to see Toby aging before my eyes.  That started to shift the day he went back into the river. I realized that I don’t know how much time he has left. I don’t know from one day to the next how he’ll be. What I do know is that every day with him going forward is an extraordinary gift. 

And so our walks have become long slow rambles of gratitude and absorbing the changes of the seasons more completely. While I stand and wait for him to sniff some new treasure I feel the sun on my face, and hear my eagle call in the sky, and see one single golden leaf spiraling down. I breathe deeply, and marvel at the glory that is Toby, my constant companion for the last twelve years. My teacher. My playmate. My comfort. My guide into old age. 

Happy Birthday, sweet boy. Your yearly ice cream treat awaits. Your humans love you as completely as human hearts can, but don’t come close to the love we receive from you.