The World He Loves

(published in Bayou)

The trees are mostly naked in the park, an army of oak and beech rising against the white autumn sky. The few leaves that remain, in burgundy and magenta hues, mutate before my eyes in the dwindling light. Things will be getting cold soon. I look up and see Pete barreling down the hill in front of me, tongue lolling out, a dark blur of motion.

Let me say this about my dog: he uses no half-measures. When he lounges, he is a tangle of limbs gone limp. Telling off other dogs across the valley behind my house, he throws his whole body into the project, from quivering barking snout down to puckered anal sphincter. But what he likes most is to build up a head of steam under his own power. Having romped through a dense area of woods the other day, he returned to me a different color – the vibrant green of sticker bushes from head to toe. I knelt and combed the stickers from his fur, at first grumbling and rebuking him, then, moved by the process of caring for him, acknowledging that I loved this dog and his obstinate, goofy, full-bore ways.

Our daily outings to the park present my black Lab the opportunity to transform his melodramatic housebound moping into pure joy. When, at home, he notices me pulling on my jacket, he begins dancing paw to paw, urging me out the door and to the car, where he establishes himself with his head jutting out the back window; as we pick up speed, his jowls flip inside out, like a test pilot undergoing too many g forces. These trips are a ritual, one I sometimes resist, but for which he lives.

Now Pete bounds ahead through the brush, his loping stride silhouetted against the more distant hills and slate sky. Watching him, it’s my turn to be elated. He is beautiful: a sleek, ebony, muscled body, well-proportioned face and floppy ears that anchor him to a disappearing youth. A small fan of white fur spreads on his dark chest.

There is a spot at the base of these hills, dissected by a creek, where we are spared the sight of creeping development, the mammoth, identical, three-car garage houses encroaching on the park’s southeastern vista. The fresh air does me good. I sit on a favorite fallen log – its rough striated bark woven with green hairs of moss – and try to catch my breath, while Pete runs off to explore. A creek pools at the trailside before bubbling down a draw lined with granite and through a natural dam of clotted six-pointed oak leaves. Here I can sit and think. Pete again comes loping up behind me, circling back to check up on me, making a quick effortless leap over the log, moving forward, always forward.

 

I am not moving forward. I rise exhausted in the morning and retire equally so at night. My head aches most of the time. So do my muscles and joints. Though I crave connection, my health problems make it difficult to be present enough to spend time with other people. Unlike Pete, my life is made up of half-measures.

My body contains energies that can be coaxed and regulated in order to perform daily activities. But there are also blind forces over which it seems I no longer have control – live wires skittering back and forth across the pavement of my viscera, throwing off sparks. This lack of control means I can take on a limited number of activities each day and no more.

When I learned, after several visits to an immunologist, that what I “had” could be classified under the broad rubric of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, for a moment I experienced a strange measure of relief. I’d been living abroad when I became seriously ill, and I never clearly understood what kind of sickness had claimed me. Now, it’s as if naming my bizarre constellation of symptoms grants me a kind of legitimacy to suffer, even though my doctor, and his retinue, and all he stands for, can offer no real cures. I may not feel any better, but at least I feel a little better knowing why I don’t feel any better. The information in the pamphlet he hands me seems about right:

CFIDS is a serious and complex illness that affects many different body systems. CFIDS can last many years. Symptoms include sleep disorder; muscle pain; impairment in concentration; headaches; post-exertional malaise.

Standing in the doctor’s office I watch my bright goals slipping into the middle distance like a sun setting behind the hills. Mine will be, I see, a circumscribed life, revolving around procrastination and a constant checking of reserves. If I go back to school, I’d better not work this year. If I go to the movies, I’d better not go for a walk. I already know I have no energy for marriage, a family. I live alone.

No, not alone. There is Pete.

 

If I allowed him, Pete would spend all his time running. As for me, I chase an elusive equilibrium. I am running to catch up with my own body, and usually falling behind. These competing demands tug in opposite directions, on a retractable leash that, at some point, runs out of line and snaps taut.

When my health takes an especially nasty dive one winter – I am not just fatigued, but flattened – I’m unable to take Pete out, and have to call on friends and ask for help in walking him. Sometimes I simply hook Pete to his chain in the back yard and rush back indoors to get out of the cold. Why have a dog, I wonder dolefully, if I can’t care for him properly?

After days of these privations, Pete’s high-pitched whine wakes me one night. He stares as I switch on the lamp, his pupils glowing ghostly yellow in the sudden light. Then he starts to the door, scratching at it to impart the degree of urgency he feels.

Dammit, Pete! I’ll never get back to sleep now; tomorrow is shot. Besides, the wet air outside has left the aggravating residue of a bronchial infection in my chest. I really, really don’t want to go out, especially not on one of Iowa’s bitterly cold winter nights.

What should I do?

Pete lays his head on my knee and stares up into my eyes.

 

Sociologist Talcott Parsons, in writing about “the sick role,” notes that as long as people adhere to certain established parameters, they are granted license by others to be sick. That is, look the part, if you expect to be treated as a sick person. For a dog, of course, such explanations do not fly. What’s important is the sense of care and connection, which means, in Pete’s case, indulging his need to move. This knowledge forces me to accept that I am bound by the role caregiver, even as I long for someone to take care of me. But then, life is always asking for what you thought you weren’t prepared to give.

In the end, Pete’s needs usually overpower my inertia. I feel some kind of injustice is committed when he can’t satisfy the longing to run that burns in his lean frame. Once over my acute health slump, I can juggle my energy reserves a little. So, especially where trips to the park are concerned, I allow Pete to pull my body into the world he loves.

 

There are always surprises. Winter turns to spring. One day in the woods, I catch Pete’s long tenor howl emanating from a grove like a freight train whistle. This is followed by an unnerving cacophony of squeals and grunts and barks. I make my way to the spot, where the unmistakable odor of shit stings the air. Parting the weeds I come upon a scene that takes my breath away.

Pete has a foot-long raccoon backed into a ditch. The animals stare at each other, fear and hatred facing off. As I inch closer, he rushes at the creature and sinks his teeth into it, lifting it into the air and shaking it wildly, then dropping it. The coon doesn’t move, and I can’t tell if it is just stunned, or mortally injured.

I shout at Pete to leave the raccoon alone, but he seems mesmerized, driven by something deeper than either he or I have any control over. Though he usually obeys my commands, when it comes to chasing a wild animal, he seems heedless. My heart pounds as I consider my options. Should I stop him? Could I stop him? The animal’s squeals convince me that Pete is well on his way to killing it. If I do rein Pete in, maybe the coon will lie there, wounded, half-dead, suffering more than if Pete finished him off. Besides, reaching my hand into the middle of this melee does not seem like a good idea.

Yet the stink of death urges me to do something, anything. Thinking uncharacteristically fast, I grab Pete by his hind legs and haul him back a few yards. The raccoon lies there, motionless amid brown specks on the snow.

A cloud scuttles overhead and angled light plays across the forest floor. Shakily, I pull Pete to another part of the woods. The image of that animal fighting for its life has branded itself into my mind. Everything is strangely magnified. Perhaps it is the adrenaline rush, or my acting to stop suffering – something I have not always been able to do for myself – but the encounter leaves me feeling as if I have seen into the heart of something essential.

 

Autumn comes again, the spiral of seasons jogging the recollection that cycles exist in most things, and that includes illness and health. One morning I let Pete out to do his business, and when he comes back in, he is favoring his left front paw. I check the paw pad for thorns and find none. I run my fingers along his sinewy foreleg, around the knuckled knee-bone, into his fleshy haunch. I can’t figure it out. Maybe he is just getting old. We take it easy that day.

But in the evening, he wants to go out, so I leash him up. He hobbles down the back staircase, and we are off on our walk, just around the neighborhood. Every so often he looks back quizzically at me. It pains me to see him suffering. Still, he pulls me toward a path that would take us on a longish walk and so I decide to rein him in. Besides, I am tired, too, so we turn back. And at the stairs leading up to my second-story apartment, he stops. I see what I will have to do.

Wrapping my arms around his stomach and back, with a concentrated effort I hoist 70 pounds of dog. There he dangles, in my arms, looking a little foolish, as I begin to inch my way up the stairs. With this active, independent, dog pressed close against my body, his heart beating against mine, I realize that for the moment, he is the limited one, and I am bearing him through this limitation. A feeling wells inside of me. Pete is ready to be set loose at the top of the stairs, but I kneel and hold him for a little while longer.

 

The trees are starkly etched against the sky above the hills. Sometimes, out here in the park, I feel as if Pete and I were tiny figures in a landscape painting, moving around the bend of some great mountain, the world swallowing and opening up for us at the same time. Out here we are a part of something bigger than both of us. Moments of clarity come, sometimes when things seem most out of control. I can’t explain it. But I also can’t argue with it. Pete helps me to engage the world.

Here he comes again. My dog has a goofy grin on his face as he passes me, and his bright eyes flick toward mine, in affirmation of our circumstances – “There’s so much here for us, you see that, don’t you?”

I do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can get your copy of "Curve of the World" at the following outlets: Direct from the publisher, Bottom Dog Press, or at Amazon.com