what the living do: go in.
It’s a long way.”
– from “San Sepulcro,” by Jorie Graham
This weekend I have been ill with a cold, sapped of energy and clarity of mind. I had many plans: first, attend a film festival with a great friend, go for cocktails after. I had a picture in my mind of my body swathed in black silk pants, feet perched on four inch heels; a backless lace sweater, vodka gimlet held delicately by ringed fingers. We’d solve the problems of the world and I’d only think of the children a few (hundred) times.
Well, that did not happen. Jeans and tissues instead. I also had plans for ballet and pointe classes, yoga too. But no. My body exhausted after half an hour of effort, feet done in.
Illness of any kind, whether of the mental sort (such familiar soil for me) or physical, is a reminder to go inward. Here, infinity. Of course, one must push through or patiently sit with every form of fear, boredom, impatience, and fantasy, but occasionally there is the Glimpse, like a breath between orchestral movements. In this way, illness is a bit like an unwanted friend, a friend who stubbornly sticks around.
This morning I knew, despite the ache in the body, that I wanted to be out, and see the sky, feel the light wind against my hot skin. I took my two dogs with me, and we saw a few interesting things. My larger dog, Sophie, is dying. She is old, in pain, and not happy. Soon she will be gone, after 13 years of companionship. So anything we see together holds tender meaning now.
Sophie moves slowly, her hips in constant protest. I remember so well the three hour romps we had in her puppy and young-dog-days; now she struggles to walk more than a couple blocks. Canine sweet and sad and hobbled.
But she still likes to crunch her paws through frozen ground, sniffing for other creatures.
As a young dog she chased anything that moved, usually in a worried way, always reminding us of her Collie ancestry. But now, when we see other quick-moving animals, it’s just for the watching. On our outing this morning, as she rested her hips, we saw some crows. When one flew up to a wire (reminding me of Messiaen, who used to watch birds on a wire while he composed his music), Sophie didn’t flinch.
As we came upon an open space of winter field grass, I remembered Sophie’s loping joyous runs, all open mouth and hard pant, muscles young and pulsing strength. Fading now, her body softened, weak, more memory than future. Still loved.
These grasses near our house always remind me of the famous lines by Auden, from the poem “As I Walked Out One Evening:”
“As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.”
Such a perfect poem, with its child-like rhyming at wonderful odds with the despairingly sad content: the passage of time inexorable, death inevitable, the separation death bestows upon the living a sort of madness. So, as Sophie takes her leave of our family, these lines, too, stay present in the mind:
“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And time shall have his fancy
To-morrow or To-day.”
When we returned home from our elongated stroll, we discovered that a neighbor, a squirrel, had taken a few meals from our pumpkins. Greedily hollowed out thing, the pumpkin told a story of clawing hunger sated, life efficiently lived, and the quickness of blessed instinct followed.
No more digging for Sophie. I hope she’s had her fill. Even in my love, I will never know.