Charley’s Last Walk

I never appreciated dogs until I met Charley. She and Bob lived next door to me for a while, and as I became friends with him, I became friends with her. Charley and I truly bonded the day she crawled out from under the fence around his backyard during a thunderstorm when he wasn’t home. I found her flattened on the sidewalk with a foreleg stuck through her chain collar a result of her desperate scramble. Unable to move, terrified by the thunder, she gave me the most pleading, vulnerable look I’ve ever seen. After I extracted her leg from the collar, she still stuck to the ground in fear. Somehow, I persuaded her to get up, then gently led and nudged and prodded until I could put her inside Bob’s trailer.

She was medium sized and golden-red-brown, with a black spot on her tail and a matching black spot in the middle of her tongue. Her features were dingo-like, her body solid—and amazingly strong when she was being stubborn about where to walk. I used to try to convince her enjoy some variety, but when she didn’t want to do something, she would put on her brakes and just look at me, so we settled on a fixed route that made her happy and gave her a long enough walk. Once she won that argument, she kept up a brisk pace like she was on a mission, making me almost jog to stay with her. Sometimes I wondered if Charley thought she was walking me, and since Bob insisted that she take me out, she should be the boss. And why not? She was smart and responsible. She cooperated with a wide variety of verbal commands, if not suggestions about where to walk.

In her old age, she acquired new skills in avoiding dog-to-dog conflict. If a dog was on a leash in the distance, she paused to let it go past. If it was off-leash and coming toward her, she sped up to a trot and evaded the encounter, making me speed up with her. This impressed me, because even two years ago she would crouch and low-walk as if ready to spring when she saw a dog she didn’t like, and when she was young, she “got a ticket,” as Bob put it, for tearing the bandana off a pit bull. When it came to humans, though, she was a loving, sociable dog.

On what turned out to be her last walk, she chose the same route as always and did all the same things. Her key destination was the T or C Brewery and the people drinking on the patio. I made her keep her distance, though I could tell by those longing glances she really wanted to go up and put her nose in people’s hands and be petted, like she could in the old days before the pandemic. (Bob would ask her, “Want to go grab a beer, Charley?” And she would jump to attention.) She also liked to walk past a certain Akita and make him bark, and past her old home from before Bob moved. She took an interest in the smells along the bottoms of buildings without breaking her stride, only stopping to sniff at one specific corner where all the important canine information seemed to be, then headed home with me in tow.  Neither of us had an inkling it was her last walk.

The next afternoon, Bob called to ask if she’d acted normal on her walk, because she was sticking close to him nonstop and having some symptoms. I assured him she’d been fine. He made arrangements to get her to the vet the next day. She didn’t whine or make any fuss, but by night she had trouble standing. He lay beside her on the floor, and once in a while she laid her front paw on his arm. At six a.m., she quietly slipped away. After twelve good years of life, she had around twelve hours of knowing something was wrong. Love was her last moment. Her last walk was filled with the simple pleasure of her familiar neighborhood, and perhaps her memories of being the most popular dog on the Brewery patio.

She’s not taking me for walks anymore, but she guides me in spirit. Some of my most serene moments have been in her company, as we headed up Marr Street at sunset toward the church from which the bats emerge. Something about the sight of her sturdy back as she paced along and the bats in the sky framing my view of Turtleback Mountain silenced all the chatter in my head, as if I could enter Charley’s mind-state, immersed in the act of walking and the experience of my senses.

She taught me this: Live today with love and enthusiasm, fully present. Be yourself. Grow wiser with age. Thanks, Charley.

Embracing Darkness

On an ordinary quiet night, I took a break from writing to make a cup of herbal tea. Suddenly, I was in the dark. Tea freshly brewed, and I couldn’t even see the mug. I had to feel the doorway to get out of the kitchen. Funny how the mind works. I have to find light, I have to find light. In the living room, my laptop had gone to sleep on the coffee table, and I found it by the tiny red dot on its rim. I woke it up and used it to see my way around, searching for things I knew I didn’t have. Matches. Flashlight.

Sudden change and loss are hard to accept. I’ve been reading two books that deal with this topic: Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Marc Ian Barasch’s The Healing Path. The first is a novel about both ecological and personal crises; the second is nonfiction, about facing life-threatening illness. My response to the simple lack of electricity confirmed what these writers say about how humans react to an unwelcome shift in circumstances. We want normal. I kept thinking I could go into another room and turn on a light. No. There’s no power. The whole town was dark. Then maybe, I thought, I could sleep through the outage. No. There’s no fan, no air conditioning. What was I going to do in the dark with my laptop battery running low? It was 11:30 p.m. and that’s when I do my best writing.

I shut off the laptop after I’d found my Nook, which had more charge, and took it and the mug of tea outside, using the Nook as kind of dim little flashlight. I thought, I can read.

No. Not once I’d seen the stars. Then, all I wanted was the stars. Even in the desert in a town with little night glare, the removal of all manmade light was … breathtaking? No. Awe-inspiring? Too weak. Sacred.

I didn’t do anything to pass the time in the powerless night. I just lay back and looked at it. Thoughts drifted in. How long will this last? Should I pack up and go to a hotel in another city? I didn’t move. Stars. The lingering craving for electricity grew weaker and weaker.

This is it. The dark still night, afire with diamonds in its endless depths. The ordinary and normal gone. Someday my power will go off, and that will be it. Maybe it will be like the kitchen was, blind nothingness. Maybe it will be like the brilliant, hidden, undiscovered sky. All I know is that I had that sacred moment under the stars, and that I chose not to miss it.