Well into his later years, Happy was mistook for a puppy. Maybe it was the bounce in his step, his obvious enthusiasm for the blooming, buzzing world, or perhaps because he still pulled on the leash as if he were brand new to being “obedient.” (Not that these are the exclusive attributes of the young!) Often, it wouldn’t be until someone who didn’t know Happy would come up more closely to him and see his grey beard and hunched over shoulders that they’d realize he wasn’t a puppy, but a creature who had lived a long life. (There’s a visible and energetic difference between how a puppy moves through the world and how an old dog moves through the world. You know what I mean?)
Happy and I used to run together. Three times around our park was just about as many miles. Then, as he started slowing down a bit and suffering from post-run hip pain, we began alternating running and walking (what I like to call “doggie intervals”). Now, we take stunningly slow, meandering ambles. We spend the same amount of time as we used to, but we cover so much less ground. Happy can’t sustain a straight line or forward momentum for very long. Smells possess him even more strongly than before. As Simeon jotted on a bit of scratch paper after one of these ambles, “He’ll spend twenty minutes smelling everything in a half block and know things about which I don’t have images or feelings to even dream.”
(It has occurred to me not only once that Happy’s travels through the life-course offer an other-than-human example of adaptation, compensation, and optimization as his capacities change: His vision and hearing aren’t as good as they used to be, so his olfactory sensitivity seems to have become even more acute and a greater source of pleasure. As well, because I am in a close relationship with Happy, I, too, am engaging in a process of adaptation, compensation, and optimization so that I can greet and meet his changing needs…and my own!)
There are also some more worrisome patterns that have emerged. We’ll be walking along and Happy will suddenly and jarringly stop, plant his feet stubbornly, pull in a direction other than the one in which we were heading, and then – here’s the worrisome part – stare off into space and wobble back-and-forth. (There’s a nighttime corollary: Intermittent periods of wakefulness, pacing back and forth, and barking at his bed.) I wonder if Happy is experiencing some confusion…cognitive impairment…a series of small strokes…an altered state of consciousness? We’ve taken him to the veterinarian for countless “Senior Canine” check-ups and while it is becoming clearer over time to all of us that something serious is going on with him, the results of his various lab work-ups are unremarkable. He’s doing great for his age, we’re told.
I periodically attempt to mind-meld with Happy, hoping to suss something about his inside experience. Through the swirl of our mutual confusion, the message he transmits to me is: Love.
As Happy and I are ambling together in our meandering way along the barkdust path on the west side of the park, making our slow way home, I notice what looks to be a man – a father? – teaching another person – a child? – to ride a bike. The person learning to ride the bike (a small mountain bike) is wearing a heavy coat and a bike helmet; by their size they appear to be at least in their teenage years. As Happy and I get closer to them, I see more detail. The teacher is an older Asian man, and the learner is…an older Asian woman!
The woman is giggling so hard she’s almost sliding off the side of the bike. The man is giving her rapid-fire but jovial instructions in a dialect I suspect is Mandarin (but what do I know?).
Because I’ve taught people to ride bikes and because I used to be a serious cyclist (did you know that about me?), and because I’m bossy (did you know that about me?), I feel an overwhelming urge to intervene in this situation. The balls of her feet, not her heels, should be on the peddles! The seat is adjusted much too high! Barkdust isn’t the proper surface upon which to learn to ride a bike! Also, her helmet is too far back on her head when it should be covering her forehead! I’m saved from meddling by the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin. And I am just self-aware enough to not bust into such a scene without invitation.
Once Happy and I are a bit past the pair, I turn around, smile, and give the thumbs up, which I’m hoping has enough universal positive meaning that they get the message I am trying to transmit.
I am pretty certain they receive my message, as they both smile back at me – huge, happy smiles! —and giggle with joy.