Sam was sick. She threw up several times, sat alone in the corner of the living room, lethargic and disinterested, and wasn’t much into the idea of taking a walk. And I’ll admit, I was worried.
Like most dogs, Sam gets into things she shouldn’t—the garbage, chewing my eyeglasses, chomping on books. Once I caught her gnawing on the hard plastic end of a screwdriver. And now, with her throwing up, I was concerned she might have swallowed something bad, really bad, something that would harm her, something dangerous.
Years ago, I had a Golden Retriever that would eat rocks. He would chew on small pebbles like hard candy and swallow them. The vet said as long as he was passing them, it was not a problem. But I should try to keep him from doing that. It wasn’t easy. That same dog used to chomp on tennis balls, and once I thought he had swallowed a large portion of one. It prompted a frantic trip to an all-night animal hospital. There was no tennis ball in his belly, but there could have been, considering the way he loved to munch on them.
For two days, Sam was not herself. She was the walking dead. And for two days my thoughts went to the dark side. What if she swallowed something that’s now stuck in her belly? What if she needs surgery? What if she ate something poisonous? What if…she died?
How in the world did I go from a reasonably concerned pet owner to someone who was preparing to bury his dog?
Come with me for a moment, back to several days before Sam started throwing up, and all of this might make some sense.
* * *
It is mid-morning. Sun is bright. Good day for anything outside. Certainly a good day for a walk. Sam and I feel alive. So, we plan a long one—one mile to the village downtown, a walk through the neighborhood nearby, and then to the park. It is there, however, that the mood changes.
In all the many times I have walked this park, it is only now that I notice the tributes to the dead. On plaques attached to benches and concrete markers next to saplings are the memorials to aunts, grandmothers, and friends. Not just one, or two, but five, six, seven, and more—small markers, like gravestones, with words of solemn remembrance. I am told the park would sell these memorials as a way to fund the maintenance.
Sam sniffs the words engraved on a plaque tacked to the seatback of a wooden bench near the park’s big shelter.
“Who is that person, Sam?” I whisper.
Sam’s sad eyes look to me, longing.
The woman was Sarah. Sarah Butler. And on a small marker near a growing tree, there is another name—Zach. A grandmother named Nina is remembered on another bench. Lauren is memorialized on a plaque near the monkey bars. Wives, mothers, fathers, children. The entire park—bench after bench, sapling after sapling—is littered with monuments to the lives of many—small tributes, silent and simple.
Why here? Why this park in the middle of suburban Chicago, next to a middle school, a soccer field, four bedroom homes?
There is sadness as we step along the far end of the walkway and out of the park, like the gloom one feels leaving a wake. Sam appears to have lost the zip in her step.
We walk west. Meet a man with a new puppy—all black, like Sam.
“What kind of dog?” he asks from the other side of the street.
I tell him and I ask about his.
“Lab and Poodle,” he says “Just two months old.”
“Sam will be two years this summer.”
“Young,” he says, “A lot of life left in them.”
Sam tugs on the leash. The dog owner notices.
“She’s still very much a puppy,” he says.
Yes, she is. Sam has another good ten years, maybe. I think about that now. I think about that often. When Sam’s time is up, I’ll be an old man. Sam might be my last dog.
“Good luck,” I tell the new dog owner. “Looks like you’ve got a good one there.”
He smiles, waves.
Sam and I take a turn northward. I think about my age. In ten years, I’ll be 72.
In less than a block, Sam spots a dog in a front lawn. The dog is black with a white stripe on its nose, brown paws. It’s tied to the front entrance banister on a long leash and stands in the middle of the yard, slumped and hunched. It moves only its head to get a look at us. No emotion. Sam respects the dog’s reluctance to engage. She watches, but does not lunge toward it. There is no bark. No whimper.
“Look at the old guy, Sam,” I say.
He’s lived a good life, Sam says. But he’s tired. So tired.
Around the bend eastward and then south, and there is another dog. A big Golden Retriever. He’s prone in the front yard of a brick home, a brown lump in the lawn, facing away from us. Sam watches as we walk by.
“Another one,” I say softly.
The old dog slowly drops his head to the ground between his outstretched front paws.
“Hey buddy,” I say. The dog does not move. I say it again. Nothing. Deaf, I presume, old and deaf.
I think of the memorials in the park. I think of those names. I think of the people left behind, and the ones that loved them.
We are near home now, and I ask, “Sam, you never think of getting old, do you? Not once.”
Sam spots a robin, hopping near the sidewalk. She pays no attention to the question or me. The robin bounces up a driveway and across a lawn. Sam’s eyes are locked on it. It’s another season and the birds know it. The robins are everywhere now. And Sam is right there with them on this new day, this new beginning. Life is awakening around her, and Sam is pulling toward the bird of spring. Sam is not thinking of aging; death is far from her thoughts, as it should be for the young and the bold and those who believe in immortality.
Time marches on, whether we are aware or not, and so do we, one step at a time, and so Sam and I head home from yet another walk on yet another day in our lives.