Walk #20: Dog Years

It is the weekend of our annual Cubs holiday. Each summer, my sons and I plan on two games at Wrigley, just the three of us. Casey comes in from his adopted home of Seattle and joins his brother and me for a Saturday-Sunday series. One game is in the books—a loss, sorry to say—but Sunday’s is in front of us, and I am up early, before anyone else, walking Sam around the block and thinking about the passage of time.

We first started going to Cubs games, the boys and I, when they were youngsters. The played T-Ball and Little League like so many other kids; they liked baseball, still do as men in their mid-twenties. They don’t play any more, but they watch the game with enthusiasm, which spikes on weekends like this. Since the start of the love affair with the Cubs and the game, several dogs have been in their lives—Hogan, Mike, Cody, and Franco—their childhood Wheaton terrier, their boyhood Labrador, Casey’s dog, Graham’s dog, and of course, Sam, generations of baseball alongside generations of dogs. Time marked by America’s pastime and cute puppies, boyhood to young men.

Sam is the youngest in this timeline, and her youth is showing this morning. Her girlish energy pulls us along the sidewalk. There’s a bounce in her pace. But I know, in time, she, like the boys and me, will lose some of her zip and steadily grow older. And someday, she’ll be old like me, the one feeling it this morning—tired legs, achy back. It had been a long day yesterday. We returned home at midnight after the game, fueling ourselves through nine innings with mustard-covered hotdogs, break-the-shell peanuts, and plenty of beer. Indulgence, routinely dismissed by the young, has clearly worn out the old. But maybe the walk, I believe, can regenerate an aging man.

The boys are men now, too, I’m reminded, as Sam tugs towards the trunk of a towering maple in the parkway to sniff its base. Graham will be getting married in the spring; he’s buying his first house. Casey is settled in Seattle—home, friends, dog. He, too, is considering a new home in his city, a new venue closer to his work. Growing up. Grown up. Older. And how old, I wonder, is this maple tree Sam is now sniffing with unwavering interest? How many rings would it show if we sliced it open? Some say trees talk to each other—this maple in conversation with the oak next to it and the smaller maple just a house away, the roots exchanging words about soil, water, sunshine, and maybe, the ills of aging. Tree talk about dead branches, about old peeling bark, about how a dog sniffing at their trunk has become annoying, no longer cute as it once was in their younger days. Change, it has been said, is the price we pay for becoming. And we become through days, weeks, and years of engagement—the boys and their father, the boys and their dogs, Sam and me, even Sam and the trees. These are not our only encounters, of course, but they are a chapter in the ongoing exchange. And they lead us to our true selves. In part, Sam is who she is because of the walks with me. And I am who I am, partly, because of my walks with her. The boys are who they are, in some tiny way, because of our years of Cubs weekends.

Sam and I cut through the edge of a neighbor’s front yard and I notice how curious she is about the home’s front door. She watches it as we move, the alertness of youth, eyes locked on the doorway. What’s over there? I ask. Another dog, I presume, one just on the other side of the entranceway, out of sight. Another encounter, one she won’t have today, but one she wishes for. And as she ages, will this impulse, this urge to connect still be there? When Sam no longer pulls on the leash with excitement, no longer chases the tennis ball, when she no longer paces with anticipation before our walks, will that be the end of her becoming? I wonder, too, if that is true for me. Will age and its inevitabilities, dampen my need for the meaningful encounter or change how I feel about these Cubs weekends? I hope not. I hope never. For both Sam and me. For all of us.

Pablo Picasso said, “Don’t waste your youth by growing up.” But, at some point, we don’t have a choice, do we? The attitude, the zest, the exuberance for a life of youngness is ratcheted back, not by our own battle against the timeline, but instead because it is life’s design. Age is a thief. It steals pieces of us. And that’s just the way it goes.

Sam and I turn at the crossroad to go back home, and she shows no signs of ever aging. There is only honest youth. Pure. Authentic. This is the walk of a teenager—spirited, a gangly grace. It was only a week ago that Sam turned two-years old, an adolescent in dog years, but maturing is not on her mind. Like all teenagers, she believes only in immortality. And maybe, on most days this is how we all should think, that life is forever, that time does not alter us, and that aging is nothing more than hands on a clock. That we should believe in living forever, that we will never grow old or creak our way through a morning-after walk, and that the boys and I will always have our Cubs weekends even when they have to wheel me into the centerfield bleachers.

The walk is short today, just once around the block, and Sam and I are back home quickly. We enter the house through the rear door. The morning light is low and soft through the blinds. It is quiet inside. No one is yet awake. Sam lifts herself onto the leather chair and curls into its seat, paws crossed, head on the chair’s arm. She appears to be sinking into the silence, the stillness that is accepting her as she is right now, in this moment, in her youth, strong and capable of anything, And I take the seat next to her, me too, easing into the quietude, watching the silent empty street through the window, believing that the stillness after an early walk and all the walks to come, can serve us both well, move us together through the days, and maybe somehow, allow a bit of our youth to remain.

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