Category Archives: Walking the Dog

An Easter Joyride for a Senior Citizen Dog

For the past few years, it’s been an Easter season custom to pile our family collection of big stuffed bunnies into my VW convertible with Kiko for a photo shoot. It’s a tradition inspired by the Halloween joyrides that my dog enjoys with Slim, our skeleton friend. Naturally, a ride must follow the photo session, or Kiko is crushingly, achingly, disappointed. I wasn’t sure I’d bother with the Bunny/Beetle pics this year. With the persistence of the chilly weather, there was no need to rush. And there was this: in recent months, my elderly Shiba Inu clearly derives increasingly less pleasure from his once-favorite activity, a cruise in the car.

Gone are the days when my little dog would snap out of a deep sleep at the most tentative metallic jingle of keys, when he’d pop up with eager enthusiasm at the question, “Wanna take a ride?” Kiko has, since puppyhood, been too coolly aloof to display marked interest in the things that stir the hearts of most dogs, such as the arrival home of a pack member, a ringing doorbell, or feeding time. But a car ride was something else. It used to spark an excitement that even he couldn’t contain. I loved seeing him bursting with anticipatory joy. What a feeling that this beautiful furry creature was willing to put his complete and wholehearted trust in me! That absolute trust one tends to find only in a dog, or a child. Wherever you go, I’ll go! I don’t care where, just let me go with you!

As he ages, Kiko is apparently losing that old sense of trust, in me, and in everything in general. I guess this isn’t surprising, because his world isn’t what it used to be. Only through sleep does he appear able to attain a state resembling contentment. Fortunately he sleeps for many hours at a time. At fourteen and eight months, his compact little body must be achy, as he moves slower and with growing stiffness, especially on stairs. It takes more pacing in circles to get comfortable in any of his beds. His eyesight is less clear, his hearing less acute. He has trouble negotiating his way through our house. This doesn’t stop him from wandering tentatively, restlessly, from room to room, as though searching for something he never finds. Doors are particularly problematic: where are they, and on which side do they open? We may find him staring into a corner when indicating a desire to go out.

I still occasionally invite Kiko to ride along with me when I’m going on a quick errand. Sometimes, after several repeated attempts to get his attention, I glimpse a flicker of his former eagerness. He meets my gaze and works his way to his feet. He used to jump with easy confidence into my Beetle and up into the relatively low seat. Now he’s hesitant, uncertain at the prospect of entering the vehicle. He wants to climb in by himself, but he can’t quite remember how. When I attempt to pick him up, he struggles. Kiko used to settle quickly in the seat, facing forward, as though ready to take in the scenery. Or, on sunny days, with the top down, he often curled up, fox-like, rested his head on the center console and soon drifted off to sleep. Now, more and more, he’s anxious. Should he sit, should he stand? No position seems to offer comfort or security.

A dog’s life moves ever so quickly through the stages. There’s a fleeting infancy, a long period of toddlerhood, a few brief teenage years, and then, suddenly, old age. My feisty baby boy has become a tottering grandfatherly figure.

But, on a pleasant day, with old friends, even an elderly grandfather can still enjoy a ride in the car. Kiko showed me that he still does, as well.

The Lambs of March, Devoured by the Lions

In my last post I wrote of the lions and lambs of March sharing the field of play, taking turns. There’s been none of that good sportsmanship for the past few days. The lions seemed to have slaughtered and devoured the lambs.

The recent frigid weather rightfully belongs to January. Temperatures fall to the teens in the early morning hours and creep up to only just above freezing in the afternoons. Sharp winds gust with what feels like a vindictive malice, making it even colder. If you have to be outside, it’s best to move briskly. I think this, wistfully and often, as I stand, holding the leash attached to my sluggish senior dog. He may pace restlessly in the house, but once out of doors, Kiko tends to remain resolutely immobile, transfixed, his nose firmly planted in the grass, lost in a host of smells. A recent injury has slowed my fourteen and a half-year old dog even further. Our “walks” cover far less distance these days, but they’re more frequent, and we’re outside nearly as long.

The two tall central daffodils seem to be deep in conversation.

Gazing out from sheltered comfort, the landscape often has the appearance of early spring perfection. Daffodils nod their sturdy golden heads amidst green sword-like foliage.

The cherry trees were coaxed toward peak bloom last week by a couple of almost summery days. Their blossoms form luminous clouds of pale pink in the bright sunshine.

But a clear blue sky shifts in an instant to a burnished and ominous steel gray.

Clouds race in, seeming to herald an approaching apocalypse.

Bitter gales and icy rainstorms whip through suddenly and repeatedly, doing their best to drive all delicate petals into the ground. On Saturday, my daughter and I attended a local high school production of Annie. After the show, we watched from the glass-enclosed cafeteria as a light drizzle began falling on a courtyard planted with small, lovely cherry trees. The falling petals looked like snowflakes. As the intensity of the rain increased, we looked out onto a blizzard-like scene. And then, as though for a definitive finale, there was a prolonged and pounding hailstorm.

Just another March lion, strutting his stuff. Take that, you pathetic lambs!

Our world, like this month, has far too many lions.

Foggy Morning, Foggy Memories

Out with Kiko on a recent damp, cold, foggy morning was like being immersed in a grisaille landscape painting. The world was drained of all color. Branches were inky black against a silvery sky, and distant trees were soft smudges of gray.

I was reminded of the few months I spent in Cambridge, England as a grad student while researching my dissertation. I remembered standing on the bridge over the River Cam, watching the form of King’s College Chapel slowly materialize through the mist, and realizing that those blurry shapes nearby were cows grazing on the Backs. I recalled the sharp, bone-numbing chill of the wind that blew across the Fens. I will never forget that intense cold of a Cambridge November, which overwhelmed the meager heating system in my rented room in an old house on Panton Street.

That part of my past is so distant now that sometimes it seems like it no longer belongs to me. Perhaps it’s even more remote because of its contrast with the predominantly home-bound sameness of the last two covid years. Did I really live for a year in England in my twenties? Did I travel in Britain and Europe, examining Gothic illuminated manuscripts in ancient libraries, having adventures and staying in seedy, ramshackle no-star hotels? Was that young woman really me? I have photos to prove it, as well as assorted associated memories. But some experiences, no doubt, cannot be recalled; they’re gone for good. Others can be only glimpsed; they’re in the process of dissolution. And with every passing year, they become more tenuous, wispy and ghost-like, threatened by the fog of time.

I’m resolving to reclaim that past before it’s lost. This winter I’ll look back on those photos and re-read my dog-eared travel notes. I’ll need help to make sense of them, because my own haphazard archives will be insufficient. I appeal now to those friends who adventured with me during that long-ago year in England. Let’s reminisce and compare memories; together we’ll reassemble portions of some of those old days piece by piece. They’re too precious to be forgotten. There will be missing pieces, of course. And missing companions. Sadly, not all of us have survived. All the more reason to start the process as soon as possible.

A Snowy Start for 2022

The first two days of 2022, here in Northern Virginia, like those at the close of ’21, were damp, gray and mild, with temperatures reaching the mid-60s. There was talk of snow to come, but it seemed highly unlikely. The pattern of dull, sunless days had been established; it was hard to conceive of it ever changing.

But just as predicted, snow began falling in the early-morning darkness of January 3rd, accumulating quickly.  It coated the bleak landscape with glistening white frosting that piled up, and up, elegantly and artfully.

Our yard and house soon acquired the Christmas-card aspect they had been missing all during December.

Kiko’s first steps in the snow were tentative and uncertain. Mine were, as well. The older we both get, the more actively I work to avoid a fall. Our morning walk was slow and halting, as I tried to keep him off the many icy spots on the road.

Once we made it back to the fresh snow near the house, he embraced it gleefully. Seeming to regain his youth, he pounced like a fox through the soft powder.

At sunrise and sunset, sky and snow tend to take on a luminous pink glow.

On the night of January 6th, our old house gleamed as white as the snow. Now that all twelve days of Christmas have come and gone, our exterior illumination is history. I’m always sad to hear that final click of the lights as they go dark, not to shine again for another eleven months. I’ll keep the decorated trees up for a while. Their soft light will be a much-needed comfort in the winter darkness to come. For now, the brightness of the snow, visible through the windows, provides some extra consolation.

I can’t help thinking about how much our daughter would have appreciated being at home for this particularly lovely snow. A few years ago, she would have reveled in the luxury of a few days off school, with time to savor the glories of the surrounding winter wonderland. But she returned to Maryland on Sunday, and awoke the next morning, as we did, to the blanket of white. We swapped snow pictures. Her days of simply cavorting in the snow on a weekday are largely in the past. The demands of the job were calling, a job not well-suited to remote working. Her car, in the uncovered garage, would have to be dug out. It’s too bad that no one thought to send her back to her apartment with a snow shovel. She used a dust pan instead.

But hey, I’m impressed. I didn’t know our girl owned a dust pan. Clearly, she’s an adult now.

Return of the Live Nativity

The animals were back, after last year’s absence, at our church’s live nativity this Christmas Eve.  Joining us again were a burro, a small ox, a sheep, a goat, and, of course, a camel.  Because of ongoing covid precautions, no human actors were featured in the tableau. . .

. . .except for camel’s handler.  Delilah was the camel on duty this year; her colleague Samson was engaged elsewhere.  She was as friendly and patient as we’ve come to expect her to be.  

Kiko enjoys the live nativity primarily for the multiplicity of smells it affords. The animals responsible for them are of less interest. Our dog rarely looks up, and the camel’s great height puts her well out of Kiko’s radar. He seems oblivious to her presence.

Delilah isn’t especially curious about Kiko, either, but she never seems to tire of posing for photos with a parade of curious onlookers. If encouraged, she offers a welcoming nuzzle.

The furry little donkey has a cuteness quotient that rivals any dog’s.

Evidently the group had a busy holiday schedule. The sheep was drowsy, and the goat was sleeping soundly, until Kiko got close and woke him. The goat was startled, and Kiko was even more so.

One family brought along their big white bunny, whom they eagerly introduced to Kiko. The rabbit didn’t appear enthusiastic about the meeting; his air was more akin to that of a sacrificial victim. Our dog had never seen a bunny before, and he wasn’t sure what to make of this new creature. Should he consider it an equal, as he does the sheep, goat and donkey? Or is it more like a squirrel, something to be pursued? After several encounters, he seemed possibly inclined to think it was the latter. At that point, we made sure he kept some distance from the bunny, who was, no doubt, relieved.

Delilah opens her mouth for a big yawn. Her shift is coming to a close; it’s nearly time to get back into the trailer for the next gig. She wishes everyone a lovely Christmas Eve and a merry Christmas!

On Winter Solstice, A Need for Christmas light

This shortest day of the year has been gray and bitterly cold here in the suburbs of our nation’s capital. I spent a good part of the afternoon out with my elderly dog, making halting progress around the perimeter of a grocery store parking lot.  One of the abiding pleasures of Kiko’s old age is a ride and a walk, followed by a snooze in the car while I shop.  Having underestimated the chilling effect of the breeze, and not expecting to be out for very long, I was inadequately dressed.  Every leaf and every square inch of sidewalk seemed to be calling out to my dog’s discerning nose.  He sniffed, and sniffed, and continued to sniff some more.  Yet there was no resolution.  Never a suggestion of a lifted leg, nor even the briefest of squats.  An unlimited number of intriguing smells, yet none deserving of Kiko’s unique canine signature.  We made our usual circuit and then continued on around the assisted living facility.  Still nothing, so I put him back in the car and headed into the grocery, my fingers numb, my patience tried, my temper short.  I knew that once we got home, Kiko would need another outing.    

Sure enough, as I was dealing with the groceries, Kiko strolled confidently into the kitchen and pawed at the door. On his placid, expressionless face, I read smug entitlement. I love this dog, I thought, but why? By then it was dark, and even colder, but I bundled up as if for an arctic expedition. Fortunately Kiko remembered the reason for the walk, and we were back quickly.

Back into the indoor warmth and the cheerful, comforting lights that currently adorn nearly every room of our house.

On this first day of winter, and on the short, dark days ahead, I’ve found that I need the soft, glowing lights of Christmas like I need food and water. Like my old dog needs his slow, rambling walks. The lights of Christmas are a heartening reminder that in our chaotic, angry, crazy world, God’s love endures.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

–The Gospel of John, 1:5

Still Here

September is here, and another summer has passed in a blur.  The view out every window in our house today is likewise blurry.  The panes are wet and foggy in the aftermath of last night’s ferocious storm.  As the remnants of Hurricane Ida passed through our area, I held my frightened dog as close as I could.  For the first time in all his fourteen years, Kiko put his head right beside mine on my pillow.  When he was younger, I might have said absolutely not: that’s too much doggie closeness.  But last night, his little body, which trembled violently with every pulse of lightning, felt thin, fragile, and frail.  My elastic, invincible puppy had long ago morphed into a senior dog.  Very recently, he’s become an old man, often stiff, uncertain and hesitant.  And in that middle-of-the-night angst that seizes me occasionally, my dog wasn’t the only one needing comfort.  The strobe-effect lightning, the crashing thunder and the pounding rain seemed like a frenetic, wailing choral expression of world-wide pain. 

There is more than enough grief and suffering to go around, these days.   We’re eighteen months into a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc when it should be winding down.  Every snippet of news, every glimpse of a headline, attests to some novel catastrophe of global proportions.  Raging wildfires.  Sudden, unpredictable floods.  Another day, another mass shooting.  Young lives tragically lost in the very last gasp of our twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan, and so many lives in peril now because the war is over.  Everywhere, peace is more elusive and unlikely than ever.  If Edvard Munch were alive today, his most well-known work, The Scream, might be a long series of paintings.  All of these sad and frustrating thoughts swirled in my head as I cuddled my dog during the storm.    

With the morning light, dully yellow-gray as it was, the world never seems quite so hopeless.  My dog is still old, but he’s no longer shaking with fear.  Surviving a storm typically reinvigorates him temporarily.  The news is still mostly bad, of course.  And there is this significant transition to reckon with: our daughter has moved to Maryland and started her job. The summer flew by in a blur because there was so much to do as we anticipated and prepared for this major change.  We were busy.  And now that long-awaited change is here.  The new life phase that our daughter begins is brimming with purpose and meaning: a new address, the start of a career, a time to chart her own unique course, one no longer set by her parents.  And what of us, her mother and father, now true empty-nesters?  We’re elated for our daughter.  And anxious, as well.  We’ll be cheerleaders for her, certainly.  But what will we make of our new life phase?  Will we find ways to fill it with purpose and meaning?  That will be our challenge in the coming days.  That, and dealing with our elderly dog.    

Oh What a Beautiful Morning!

On the 5th of July, had my dog not needed walking, I might have missed the spectacular beauty of the morning.  There are days now when Kiko sleeps in, curled contentedly in his fluffy bed, oblivious to the sunlight flooding in around him.  But on Monday, he was up early and ready to step out.  Maybe he was feeling cocky after having finally realized that the terrible Fireworks Monster is not a big deal.  This year, he wasn’t traumatized as in the past by the crackles and booms of our neighborhood celebration. Gradual hearing loss may have its good points.  The noises seemed to make him marginally uneasy, but not nervous enough to pace the house in a restless search for consolation that is perpetually out of reach.  Instead, he remained settled in his bed even after the fireworks began to pop.  He seemed sufficiently relaxed so that I decided to join my family and friends for the show for the first time in years, instead of cocooning myself with my quaking dog in a curtained room with heavy blankets and a loud TV.  On our return, Kiko greeted us with what I interpreted as an air of studied nonchalance.  “I’m cool,” he seemed to say.  “But no thanks to you.  I know you left me alone.”      

For whatever reason, Kiko was up early the following day, with a particular pep in his step, and so I was up and out, also, in time to witness the sparkling glory of the post-Independence Day morning.  A golden haze suffused the air, and the sun’s rays were clearly visible, as in a child’s drawing.  Kiko found it annoying that I kept stopping to take photos, which can’t quite capture the radiance of the morning.  As we walked down our neighbor’s front walk after bringing the Washington Post to her door, the glowing light streaming through the trees resembled an image of the entrance to heaven.  In the unusually peaceful quiet of the holiday morning (no rushing traffic, no typical suburban summer sounds of lawn mowing, tree cutting, leaf blowing and power washing) it could be appreciated without distraction.

Kiko’s interest, as always, lay in scents instead of sights.  The fascinating smorgasbord of smells kept him briskly on the move as he led the way, with purpose, toward his favorite little park.  By that time, the shimmering mist was dissipating, but there among the woods, it lingered still.   

Kiko maintained a quick pace on our return.  My elderly, slowly meandering dog was temporarily replaced by his former puppy self.  When we reached the home stretch, he began to run.  My knees resisted, but I did my best to keep up. 

Once home, Kiko was soon cozily snuggled in his bed.  The dog who emerges revived and invigorated after a long night of fireworks certainly deserves his rest. 

For Brood X, Mission Accomplished

The cicadas of Brood X have fulfilled their mission.  They’ve done their part to further the species.  The seventeen-year cycle has begun again, and the proof is all around us.  It’s in the hanging patches of brown leaves appearing at the ends of tree branches, every day, in greater numbers.  The oaks seem to be especially popular as Brood X egg incubators. 

The reproductive success of Brood X is evident in the clumps of silver maple leaves that dot our front yard. 

A close look at the fallen branches reveals a series of incisions in the young bark.  These were made by the female cicada as she deposited her eggs, using a swordlike abdominal appendage called an ovipositor. While it’s often noted that cicadas do not harm humans or animals, this evidently depends on the mama-to-be not mistaking a living creature for a tree.  If I’m still around in the summer of 2038, I hope I remember not to sit or stand perfectly still outside for an extended period.  One female may lay as many as five hundred eggs, in batches of five to twenty, among several trees.  When the eggs hatch about six weeks later, tiny nymphs emerge, fall to the ground and begin tunneling into the soil, launching the next seventeen-year subterranean phase.  

Brood X has gone silent and still, but their physical presence will be with us for some time.  Cicada bodies, often perfectly intact, are strewn along the ground and nestled into foliage.  The cicada above, though deceased, appears to be napping comfortably on its back in a pleasant rhododendron hammock.  The insects’ wings and body parts, frequently snapped off cleanly like 3-D puzzle pieces, are all around.   The discarded exoskeletons will remain for quite a while, as well. 

I’m glad that Kiko got to experience the cicadas of Brood X.  They gave our old boy the rare opportunity, in his own little mind, at least, for successful hunting.  Many of his fellow canine colleagues immediately recognized the big insects as tasty treats and gobbled them up as soon as they began appearing.  My dog, dainty and fastidious in eating as in every activity, took his time to warm up to the idea of snacking on Brood Xers.  The mob was on the wane before he developed a taste for their flavor.  We would watch as he slowly approached a cicada, stared intently at it for a while, before moving in quickly and decisively to devour it.  As far as we could tell, he never ate a live cicada, but he clearly thought he was participating in the thrill of the chase.  My daughter noticed that he seemed to relish rooting around for them in the grass like a truffle pig.  A cicada wing dangles from his mouth in the photos above and below. 

The cicadas of Brood X have accomplished their goal.  While tangible evidence of their brief existence will fade, their legacy endures.  Soon, their progeny will be underfoot everywhere in our northern Virginia neighborhood, invisible in the above-ground world, but nevertheless thriving as intended.  We can read countless philosophical insights into the brief appearance and long apparent absence of these periodical cicadas.  I can imagine the question appearing on SAT and ACT essay prompts.  One lesson from Brood X that strikes home with me is this: what we see in everyday life is only a small slice of that which is real.  And, even more importantly, a shift in perspective may render the unseen visible.  As I age, I’m becoming increasingly aware that some things are not what they seem, or at least not the way I’ve previously understood them to be.  I’m learning that, to see more clearly and understand more comprehensively,  a new and occasionally uncomfortable viewpoint is sometimes necessary.

Brood X also reminds me that the imprint we humans leave on our world and on those around us, for good or bad, may not be immediately apparent.  The fruit of the cicada’s short life is long delayed.  But with the fullness of time, its effect is significant.  And while human actions and  words may not produce instantaneous and seismic changes,  they will indeed have consequences.  May we work for good even when we cannot expect to see the products of our labor.  May we strive to build bridges with the blocks at hand. And may better building blocks and methods be developed in the future, by our children and our children’s children, if we consciously choose to guide them in that direction.  Our days of toiling, buzzing and flying, like the cicada’s, are relatively brief.  May we use them well.    

Out with Kiko, as Morning Breaks

My dog Kiko turns fourteen this summer.  His face is now mostly white, but otherwise his appearance has barely changed since he reached adulthood.  He’s as lean and trim as always, and because of his small size relative to the Labs and Doodles prevalent in our neighborhood, he’s still occasionally mistaken for a puppy.  But recently he’s begun to show his age.  When descending the stairs, his back legs move stiffly, as though tied together with an invisible cord.  On walks, he’s considerably slower, especially on the way home.  Walking with our usual pack means little these days, because we’re quickly out of step and far behind.  Kiko has always set his own pace, paying scant attention to the fellow canines he sees regularly.  He’s a very social animal in that he wants to greet every new dog he meets (or even glimpses at a far distance) but after that initial encounter, he’s off on his own.  For many years he typically led our pack, despite frequent stops for extensive sniffing, but now, more frequently than not, he dawdles and dithers.  He rambles, he meanders, he doubles back, then stops absolutely, as though gripped by indecision. And once home, he spends the greater part of the day in a sound sleep. 

Kiko, sampling the copious smells of a vinca patch..

Kiko’s hearing seems to be less keen.  Has his sense of smell become more acute, to make up for the other loss?  Sometimes he appears overcome by the sheer volume and variety of aromas he’s attempting to untangle.  He has always preferred smells to the actual dogs or humans associated with them, but now the preference is more pronounced.  I’ve heard that as long as a dog can smell, a dog enjoys life.  According to this measure, Kiko is enjoying life immensely.  I find this thought comforting. 

Usually now, Kiko and I head out alone.  We’re a pack of two, just as we were during his puppyhood, before I had a number of friends with dogs.  We tend to walk early, soon after sun up.  We go then because the day is at its loveliest, and because it leaves me the option of joining my friends later.  If it’s socializing or exercise I want, it’s best to leave Kiko behind.  Of course, he doesn’t like this.  If he’s home, he wants me there, particularly after all the togetherness we’ve shared during the last pandemic year.  After we return from a walk, he eyes me suspiciously, like a jealous boyfriend.  I pretend to settle in at the computer, and soon he hops up into his bed.  I sneak out quietly if I go.  

I’ve come to appreciate walking alone with Kiko in the early mornings, though.  There is little to divert my attention from the pervasive beauty around us.  I’m attuned to the springtime world, which often glows in a rosy, golden light, especially when filtered through deep pink cherry blossoms and tangerine-hued maple buds.  The birds are at their most active and celebratory.  Kiko lingers, his nose at the base of a clump of daffodil foliage, takes a few hesitant steps, then pauses again, and again.  There is no point in rushing him.  I summon patience, and breathe in the sights and sounds of the sparkling new April day.   If I surrender to the moment, and release the urge to speed things up, I can sense the natural world regenerating and rejoicing.  I can be part of all this daily morning glory, because my odd, old dog brought me to it.  Together, we’re fellow creatures basking in “God’s recreation of the new day.”  The words and melody of Morning Has Broken* seem to float in the sweet-smelling air:

Morning has broken like the first morning;

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.

Praise for the singing, praise for the morning!

Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!
 

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning;
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day!

Kiko, sniffing, and sniffing, and sniffing some more.

*While Cat Stevens made this song famous, the words were written by Eleanor Farjeon in 1931, inspired by this verse of scripture from Lamentations 3:22-23: “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies begin afresh each morning.”  The tune is a traditional Scottish Gaelic one called “Bunessan.”