Cholula celebrated Christmas by chasing three squirrels and a fox and, when not hiding upstairs, hovering at the interior doorways of my family in laws’ house until skating across the floors as if they might shatter. Pundit celebrated by staying close to the family–especially at meal times–and by winning at tug with his bestest old lab friend by letting her drag him across the yard until his persistence beat her (now) superior strength. We are so happy to have them with us for the holiday.
I took this picture of Pundit just about 3 years ago, on our first walk after my c-section for my son, baby number three. It was a clear, cold winter day in D.C., and when I reached the woods—not far from our house, but quite a bit farther than I’d walked since my son was born—it was easy to trust that the expansiveness I felt from about getting out of the house with two dogs and a baby under my own power was going to grow, that this was the first of many walks we would take, and that although my days had momentarily shrunk to nursing, baby, sleeping, and caring for my two young girls, this wouldn’t always be so. And Pundit, as happy to be out with me as I was with him—Pundit, who’d once swam alongside me up Potomac River rapids as I ferried them in my kayak—yes, I’d once had the time and freedom to do such things—reflected that confidence right back at me—a perfect mirror of that momentary promising joy.
That was back when we still had Ubi, who must have been 17 or so. Pundit was 10 at the time, and we still thought of him as our young dog. While Ubi dawdled along with us on walks, rarely leaving our side, Pundit would charge down any ravine after a stick or a tennis ball over and over again, never revealing that he was even a second past his prime until a stiffness in his walk later that day would remind us that 10 is, what, 70 in people years?
In many ways, these three years have taken their toll on Pundit. As my son has grown from a helpless baby to a talkative, energetic little boy who can run and hop and do a hand stand, Pundit’s physical abilities have dwindled dramatically. Whereas once I could not jog fast enough to break him into a run—he would simply move smoothly beside me in a fast walk—now I almost never take him jogging because he just pulls back, begging me to slow down. I’ll throw him a ball once in a while for old times sake, and he’ll chase it and bring back, but I know his legs can’t take that kind of back and forth anymore, and so I don’t offer him the chase very often, because he won’t stop until he has crippled himself for days. And not only has he had to adjust to one more kid in the house (not especially difficult for Mr. P), he lost his beloved Ubi and then had to deal with Cholula’s entry into his life (difficult) and who knows what he would have to say about that.
But here he is, still Pundit, more grizzled for sure, and a little balder around the eyes, which are duller with cataracts than they were three years ago But still happy to walk out in the woods, full of enthusiasm for what I and the day have brought him. Recently, with a new Rimadyl regime helping him walk, he even jogged a couple of miles with him me and Cholula, stopping often to sniff but picking up his pace again more easily again than he has for a while. He demands his dinner every day, and right on time, and when a recent influx of balloons into the house for my son’s birthday didn’t terrorize him like they used to, I was reminded of how Ubi, who had been petrified to walk through any half open door that might brush against her whiskers—she would yowl until we came and opened it wider for her—at the end of her life used her head as a battering ram to push through any opening of any size.
It is so painful for those of us who love dogs to watch them age more quickly than we do. But they can help reveal to us how to age gracefully, and with heart.
Exercise—and with vigor—as long as you are able
Leave your house eager for each new adventure, and return eager for each homecoming.
Embrace each meal.
Greet your loved ones with joy after each and every parting, no matter how short
Seek out the sun spots.
Check on each member of your family. And then check on them again.
Accept the love you are offered.
Shed useless fears.
Be bossy, now and then.
Sleep deeply and in the most comfortable spot you can find.
This fall, Cholula’s deer nature, identified by Kevin Behan when he met her, has been on full display, along with the falling leaves, now brown, curled, and crisp, the clear, cool days and chilly rains, the inexorably diminishing hours of daylight. In photos of her in the woods, I’ve been struck at how she melts into autumn’s landscapes. In the midst of the leaves and dappled light, the dappled dog gazing out over the horizon or sitting perfectly still in our yard is not fully among us, she is just about as invisible as the two bucks she flushed from the woods across the creek one day while we were running together.
At other times, she has literally disappeared, leaping over fallen logs down and across ravines while the other dogs off leash in the same woods wander around each other and their people companionably. At these moments, there is nothing to do but wait until she comes back, and come back she always does, eventually, her body so supple and graceful as she leaps back up the ravine with the same speed and certainty she took off with, a huntress perfectly attuned to her landscape. She seems to simultaneously embody the deer and the huntress at these moments, and yet when she races up to me and pushes enthusiastically into me, it is as if she is re-entering a force field of domesticity and her wildness falls from her as if it was a dream. Sometimes she returns stinky and I have to bathe her before letting her in the house. If it is my husband she has run from, I get a lecture about my terrible dog, and what good is a dog who—okay, granted, no longer presents much danger to other dogs, but who runs off without a backwards glance or a hint of remorse, who loses herself to the woods.
We don’t let her off leash for these adventures very often—once a week or so. And after her latest, we agreed to stop letting her off leash at all while I try to get through the training I still need to do before getting her to come when called. I haven’t tried to get her to come when called yet, because we haven’t gotten there. She’s got a great heel and a good sit and stay. We are working on the down. I hope to get to the come by New Year’s.
When I run with her, I don’t let her off the leash at all. We enter the woods together, and run side by side, longer than I’ve run comfortably for years, five or so miles. She’s not a perfect running companion—in the beginning of each run, I still often struggle to get her in tune with my gait rather than pulling on the leash, which is disheartening after all this time—and occasionally a squirrel or deer will cause her to veer wildly off course, once straight across my legs, which resulted in me flying over her and landing on my chin.
But there are moments these days, on pretty much every run, where we disappear together. Where, instead of being on a run, we simply are the run, she and I, as one. That’s what it feels like from the inside. From the outside I imagine it looks like a woman is running happily with what at some moments appears to be a dog and at other moments might just be a shadow thrown across the path by the few remaining leaves rustling on the trees.