Often we read in bed. I walk Oso around ten and when we return, Beverly and I start closing up the house for the night. We so rarely go out after midnight these days.
Beverly settles under the covers and starts cursing at the newspapers and I work on my required reading or chip away at the stack of books that sits on the night table.
And lately, Oso joins us. Bribed by the promise of additional cookies he jumps up on the bed and settles between us as we read. But with the arrival of the dog, I usually stop reading and look at him. Dogs live in a constant state of present tense. The book will always be there, but the dog must me looked at now.
His brown eyes, which know nothing of blue and red states, must be looked into. His sigh when he rests his head on my chest, must be acknowledged now. It is a sigh free of agenda and frustration, signifying nothing other than a sense of satisfaction at the completion of another day of squirrel chasing, cat taunting, looking for possums and an impressive schedule of high-powered napping. My work, he sighs, is done. God is neigh.
Looking at a dog resting on your chest at the end of the day, scratching his ear till his eyes close in casual ecstasy, is like spinning a canine prayer wheel. It directly reduces your time in purgatory.
Time does not exist for dogs. When they get old they don’t understand why they can’t run like puppies anymore, but I don’t think they associate this with the passage of years. It’s just something they can’t do right now.
Dogs are timeless creatures, four-legged bundles of now. One of the things they do for us is remind us how there is only this particular moment and as good as the book may be, it will not do the karmic good of looking at a dog willing to look at you.
In as loving a way as possible, Oso looks at me to remind me that I will die with books unread and I might as well put that dog treat on my nose and accomplish something meaningful with this brief span I’ve been allotted.
So, I put the lemon wedge gourmet dog treat on my nose. Oso leans down, his face filling my vision. I see his teeth, the texture of his nose, the segments that make up the roof of his mouth, and feel a puff of not unpleasant dog breath. A brush of wet nose, then loud crunching.
Between cookies he dives his face against my side and lets me scratch behind his left ear, something I did within seconds of meeting him for the first time more than three years ago.
And time does not so much stop as it seems to catch its breath.
Stars spin slower outside the bedroom window and the world with all its challenges and terrors contracts to the very manageable size of a bed containing two people and a dog. A dog who knows the next cookie will be as sweet as the previous cookie. What more can you ask of a universe?
Written in December 2004
It is eight years later and Oso is still with us. He no longer has interest in getting up on the bed, but he might never have had much interest in it. He may have been indulging us. The evening walks have ended, replaced by an inspection of the perimeter of the property.
Over the years we have discovered his heart defect and seen him through surgery for stomach torsion that left him without a spleen. He has experienced the dignity shattering realities of hospitalization and recovery, as have I. But, being a dog, he did so with more grace and resignation.
He is more than fourteen-years-old now and continues to teach us how to be human. There are bursts of energy during a day built around the joys of sleeping. The profundity of the nap and the dream.
We care for him. It is our job. It is our role. It is our honor.
Squirrels are ignored, cats tolerated, enemies excused...some enemies, there’s still that damn spaniel. But, for the most part, there is no need for animosity now. He has made his point many times before and has nothing to prove. But that spaniel...
I worry that he is troubled by growing old and try to remember what I wrote about the timeless life of dogs. The now-ness of them. He is Oso. He is on the floor, the pillow, the rug, the lawn, now. Right now. And now is all there is.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.
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