Canine Lessons

Sue Gelber, First Prize Winner Realize Writer's Contest!

I’m in love with an elderly basset hound. I don’t know his name – I’m not even sure he’s male – but I call him Ben. Ben the Basset Hound. I see him every morning, lumbering along the walking path behind our house. His daily pilgrimage usually takes place right when I’ve sat down to nurse a cup of coffee over the newspaper. Ben is mostly dark with a white patch on his belly and a big white spot at the tip of his tail. He has long ears, and although I can’t quite see them from my kitchen window, I imagine he has the classic forlorn basset hound eyes.

The walking path has a slight downhill grade, and sometimes Ben trots ahead of his owner, gravity helping his stretched-out torso move along. But some days Ben lags behind, waddling slowly, repeatedly stopping to sniff the plants, even though he’s certainly smelled them all before. Most days he goes at a slow crawl, covering the path in 15 minutes when it really should take five at the most. Many days, especially in winter, Ben doesn’t even make it all the way down the hill. He digs in his paws and stops. He and his owner do a power-struggle dance, replete with tugs on the leash and a few exhortations to get him going. He puts his head down, refusing to give in to the pressure on the collar around his neck. On those days, his owner simply turns around and heads back up the hill towards home.

On days like that, I want to yell out the window, “Ben, I’m with you! I’m just not feeling it today!” Some days are easy and full of energy, but other days are a struggle, when the body feels like a traitor. Does Ben have hip pain? Does Ben wake us some mornings with an ache in his shoulders that won’t go away? Does Ben sometimes feel too tired to go on?

What strikes me is the patience of his owner, even when Ben has paused to take entirely too much time inspecting a bush. His owner stands waiting – sometimes tugging at the leash, more often looking around, passing the time, taking in the view. Some mornings she stands with her head hung down, in resignation or exhaustion. Some days she turns her back to the wind and looks up at the sky. But she always waits, never giving more than a quick jerk on the leash. And usually Ben moves again, plodding slowly, but with a rapidly wagging tail. The white tip makes the cadence of his wag easy to see, even from my kitchen window. He never fails to wag enthusiastically.

Over cocktails with friends one night, the conversation turns to aging parents, as it often does. We launch into a litany of observations that evolves into a clutch of complaints. She’s not taking her medication. He’s not following the doctor’s diet. They refuse to move out of that big old house, and it’s just too much work for them.  She left the stove on again. He shouldn’t be driving anymore. They refuse to change. They’re being unreasonable. 

Inevitably, we weave our own woes into the discussion: knees that may or may not need to be replaced, hormones that are out of whack, neck pain that won’t go away. We segue from one generation of medical woes to the other, as if they are intertwined. We’re the caregivers, but we’re also the ones who need care. And hovering above our conversation is the unstated cloud of concern: someday our children will be sitting around complaining about us. She’s not doing what the doctor said. She should be getting more exercise. She’s not trying hard enough. She’s being stubborn.

I consider telling my friends about Ben, about how he makes such a valiant effort every morning, but some days his best efforts aren’t enough to get him down the path. When he digs in his paws, he’s not being unreasonable, he’s just done all he can. I want to tell them about his owner, standing there in her red jacket, pulling at the leash while Ben merely wags his tail. 

I’m too embarrassed to admit I’m learning life lessons from a dog I’ve never even met, so I say nothing about Ben to my friends. Still, I’m struck by the balanced grace of Ben and his owner – the effort and the patience. Ben’s relentlessly wagging tail acts as a translator, making it understood that he’s trying to do what’s expected, but he’s just not able. His actions could be seen as stubborn, but the wagging tail makes the message clear: he’s doing the best he can.

 One day recently, Ben made it no more than 30 feet down the path before he slowed to a halt. It was all he could do – just one of those days. His owner kept walking until the leash yanked her back. She turned and looked at Ben. He started wagging his tail. She paused for a moment and then trudged back towards him. His tail picked up pace, bobbing like a metronome. She walked up next to him and gave him a pat on the head. Then they both proceeded up the hill, their legs moving slowly, Ben’s tail waving rapidly. I watched them disappear around the corner.

Every wag of Ben’s tail that morning, like every wag every morning, told a story about growing older. I’m trying. I’m grateful. I still love you. I’m still here.