“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Day 49: What the Dog Sees in Him

Last March I was shopping for lunch at the market in Cassis, and I met a lovely dog.  She was black and white like a big saddle shoe, with soft fur and big eyes.  She looked like a springer spaniel but reminded me of a border collie in the way she watched over her domain with such vigilance.  I longed to pet her. 

I bought fruit and cheese and bread for a picnic, but I kept checking back.  Who is this dog's person?  I tried to get her attention, but she only had eyes for her companion, whom I knew could not be very far away.

After a few moments passed, and the dog inched closer to the crowds, I couldn't contain my curiosity. Who was this dog's person?  I had to know.

That woman, there?  A Korean woman in her early twenties walked past carrying a bunch of yellow jonquils.


What about him?

A middle-aged man with a white goatee and a beige raincoat approached with a newspaper tucked in his elbow.  He sat on a bench to read, but the dog did not acknowledge his presence.

Definitely not him.

The dog now could clearly see her person.  She pulled herself further out from under the bench.

This is exactly the intensely focused look Zoe has perfected over the years.  It's a herding dog look, I think, although other dogs seem to have mastered it.  The world revolves on its axis inside the pupils of this dog, and that world is one human being.  I have seen Zoe assume this same position: she lies down with her head and neck straight down on the earth and stretches forward as far as she can go.

A tall blond woman in skinny jeans and knee-high boots walked past.

No.  Not her either.

Finally the dog began wagging her tail in joy.  A tall man appeared in a tan, ragged coat.  Some of his teeth were tan as well.  He had the blurry, unfocused eyes of a hard drinker.  In France, a street person like this is called a clochard.  He had bought a small amount of cheese and meat for himself and the dog.  Then he took a sip from something in a paper bag.

The dog was calm now.  The man sat on the bench and dog climbed underneath, order restored to her world.

I was on the opposite bench.  I resisted taking a picture of him, so you only see his legs here.  I said, "La chienne est contente maintenant," the dog is content now.  But he didn't seem to understand me.  It could have been my accent.  It could have been that he wasn't used to having people speak to him.  Or maybe he was already a little drunk.

I wanted to respect their privacy, but if you look closely, you can see the man's legs and the dog.
I don't know if I have ever missed Zoe more than I did as I watched those two be reunited after an endless separation of maybe ten minutes.

Yesterday I met a woman who told me about her father's decline into dementia, and how he no longer remembers her name.  She is just, "sweetie," which works for her.  He knows he has a son named Richard, but he doesn't recognize Richard when he sees him.

Nine years ago, Richard adopted a dog from the humane society.  Every day for eight years, he left the dog at his parents' house when he went to work.  The dog's name is Rusty.  Rusty loved spending her days with Richard's parents.  What she would do when she came in the house was kiss both of them, and then sit on the father's feet.  The man would read the newspaper, or watch TV, and there Rusty would be.

Last January the man's wife died and he began to lose his bearings.  Now he lives in a nursing home.

The dog visits often, and does what she always has.  She licks his face, then sits on his feet.  "Hi, Rusty," he says.  And sometimes, "Rusty, next time you come, you should bring Richard."  Richard will be standing there when his father says this.

I asked the woman if the dog treats her father any differently now than she ever did.

"She's a little distracted by all the people coming and going in the nursing home, and all the new sights and smells," she said.  "But no, when it comes to being with my dad, she sees him the same way.  She loves him the same way.  And the two of them, Dad and Rusty, are the same way together as they've always been."

I thought about this for a while.  I imagined how this man's two adult children have been forced to say and do different things in his presence now that his reality is so irrevocably altered.  He doesn't reliably know them.  He believes his dead wife visits every day.  He doesn't always know where he is.  But the dog still knows him.  The dog knows the "real" him that is still there and has always been there.  And he knows the dog.

When he is with Rusty, then, he is still himself.  He is still the man who loves Rusty, his companion for eight years.  He is still a man with a dog at his feet.

I couldn't wait to get home and see Zoe.

Sometimes when Zoe has been in the yard and doesn't want to come inside, I use my husband as enticement.  "Let's go see your daddy!" I will say, and she comes running up from the river and into the house.

What does the dog see in him?  What does Rusty see in the man in the nursing home who is losing his memory and doesn't always know his own son?  What did the French dog see as she tugged at the lead to get as close to her person as possible while he shopped at the market?

Love.  Home.  Or whatever those words are and mean in a dog's world, in a dog's bottomless eyes.

photo by Francois Bernier

1 comment:

  1. tender examples of themes that are so universal. This one really hits home for me as a member of the boomer generation. Many parents looking "through" their children, but have such strong connections to others in their lives. Connection is good, when and where ever, eh?