Beneath Echo Bridge

Yesterday was a brisk and brilliant October day, so J and I walked from our house to Hemlock Gorge and back.  Nestled along the Charles River near the junction of Routes 9 and 128, Hemlock Gorge is a hidden jewel that offers a pocket of wildness is an otherwise suburban setting.  I drive past Hemlock Gorge five days a week on my way to teach, so it’s a delight to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon walking there, soaking in the golden light of autumn.

Leaf-strewn stairs

Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a Japanese term for the restorative practice of spending time in nature.  We’ve reached the point of the semester where my students are submitting essay drafts faster than I can grade them, so I welcome any excuse to step away from my paper-piles and into the woods, even for a short time.  An afternoon walk along a river fringed with trees is therapeutic, the natural world going about its business in blithe disregard of human tasks and to-do lists.  For the brief time you’re outside, walking, the obligations awaiting you at home don’t exist, and all that matters is the whisper of wind through the trees and the dapple of sunlight on water.

Autumn reflections

Arch - April 8 / Day 98

One year ago today, we put Reggie to sleep. I’ve been anticipating this one-year anniversary, wondering whether it would feel like a momentous occasion or just another day, and now that the day is here, it somehow feels a bit like both. In many ways, it feels like an entire lifetime ago—far more than one year—since I spent so much time carrying a thin, increasingly decrepit old dog up and down the stairs, helping him get settled comfortably when he wanted to lie down, helping him turn over when he grew stiff or sore, helping him to his feet when he wanted to eat or drink, and plying him with treats and tasty bits at all times, trying to coax nourishment into a creature who was gradually fading away to fur and bone.

Under the bridge

The first few months of last year, my entire life revolved around Reggie and the routine rituals of his care: the feeding and cleaning and medicating and relieving. On days when I taught in Keene, J was in charge of Reggie-care, and the first thing I’d do when I got home was climb the stairs to the second floor to check on Reggie: was he resting comfortably or restless? Long gone were the days when Reggie would meet me at the door of my apartment in Keene when I came home from teaching, his entire body wagging with gladness to see me. In his final months, Reggie could no longer stand up on his own, much less jump and prance around. In his final months, Reggie couldn’t even wag his tail, that once-emphatic exclamation-point having grown limp and lifeless from a debilitating combination of spinal arthritis and degenerative myelopathy. Given how much emotion a dog expresses through his tail, this particular indignity of Reggie’s old age seemed particularly cruel.

(New) stairs to Echo Bridge

One of my most vivid memories of Reggie’s final months was an otherwise unremarkable morning when I’d gotten him comfortably settled after our morning walk. I was stroking his fur, rubbing his belly, and feeding him bits from my breakfast granola—our usual morning ritual—when suddenly Reggie rested his head in my lap and wagged his tail, thumping it firmly on the floor as he had when he was younger. Both arthritis and degenerative myelopathy are incremental in their onset: you don’t notice gradual impairments until your pet can no longer do things he always used to do. At that moment when Reggie thumped his tail, I burst into tears, realizing how long it had been since he’d been able to do something so simple. When your pet can no longer energetically express his gratitude, you focus on more subtle cues: a kind of quiet communion. When Reggie’s body permitted him to wag his tail on that otherwise unremarkable morning, I accepted it as a kind of gentle reassurance: inside, he was the same dog with the same gentle spirit, and it was only his body that was faltering.

Echo Bridge

The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep isn’t the simple reality of his absence, as you can (and do) brace yourself for that. The biggest shock of putting an elderly dog to sleep is the massive gap that’s left in your schedule, your life no longer centered on the mundane, almost liturgical routine of caretaking. In retrospect, it’s been helpful to have other pets to tend: had Reggie been our only pet, J and I wouldn’t have known what to do with ourselves in the immediate aftermath of his passing, when we suddenly didn’t have an old dog to tend to constantly. These days, the energy we’d devoted to Reggie’s care is divided among our other pets, with our twelve-year-old yellow Lab, MAD, showing the first signs of arthritis, too. As the Buddha knew, old age, sickness, and death are an endless cycle: the wheel of life and death never stops turning. One year after Reggie died, we’re re-using with MAD the oral syringes we’d used to give Reggie his arthritis medication: same malady, same medication, different dog and dosage. For now, MAD can still wag his tail, jump to his feet, and otherwise prance around, but his days jumping on beds and racing up the stairs are over: different dog, similar story. As J remarked when the movie “Marley and Me” premiered: “I don’t need to see that movie, because I know how it ends.”

Today’s photos come from Hemlock Gorge, which I’d first explored in 2008, when Reggie was showing the first signs of old age.

Under the bridge

Saturday afternoon was bright, sunny, and perfect for walking, so J and I took a brief break from our household chores to walk to Hemlock Gorge in Newton Upper Falls, where we crossed (and photographed) Echo Bridge before turning around to head for home. It’s been over a year since I blogged photos of Echo Bridge after having visited with Leslee and a mutual friend: how quickly water flows under this or any other bridge.

Under the bridge

It’s been more than five years since I finished my dissertation and became “Doctor” in the spring of 2004; it’s been almost five years since I separated from and then divorced my then-husband in the summer and fall of that same year. Looking back on the past five years, I’m amazed at how smooth the flow of time seems. Finishing my PhD was a major milestone, and divorcing was a major upheaval…but as soon as the shock of those two life-changing events quieted, things quickly returned to a state of “normal” that has remained, for the most part, uninterrupted. Whenever I talk to people who are currently pursuing a PhD, I have a hard time believing I used to chase that same goal; whenever I for some reason remember that I used to be married, it feels like I’m remembering some other person, not “me.” How can the skin of time knit so flexibly over what once felt like an open wound?

Boston Water Works seal

Karen Maezen Miller recently blogged about the differences between her first and second marriages: “I’ve stopped thinking that one husband is different than the next, or even that my husband is different than yours.” It’s an interesting and relevant observation. When I first divorced, I worried that all future relationships would follow the same doomed pattern…and here, almost five years later, I find myself almost-married once again. I could count the ways that J is different from C, or I could count the ways that J and C are remarkably alike…but what would either accounting add up to in the end? Almost five years later, I still face the same old “me” in the mirror every morning: the title “Dr.” doesn’t change the same old mind-habits, nor does a status switch from “married” to “divorced.”

Echo Bridge

One of the things I’ve learned from years of Zen practice is that everything changes…except, of course, the things that don’t. The images of Echo Bridge I snapped on Saturday don’t look substantially different from the ones I shot in 2008, or from the ones featured on 19th century postcards. Seasons change, and so might the names of one’s spouse, friends, or very self, but some things remain the same. Rivers still flow and grass still grows; regardless of whom I’m in relationship with, I still face my same old insecurities, irritations, and shortcomings. Am I doomed to repeat in this relationship the faults, flaws, and foibles of a failed marriage? Of course I am: that’s exactly what Buddhists mean when they talk of karma. Until I figure out how to divorce myself–an act still outlawed and impossible in every state–my same old behaviors, impulses, and inner tantrums will repeat, repeat, repeat, as incessant as echoes.

Atop Echo Bridge

But where exactly is the problem with that: why is it a bad thing simply to repeat? When I teach writing, I encourage my students to revisit and revise the same old page, same old paragraph, same old sentence. If at first you don’t succeed, they say, try, try again: one way that writing is better than baseball, I tell my students, is that you can take as many swings as you like without striking out. As Zen Master Seung Sahn was fond of saying over and over and over: “Only go straight – don’t know! Try, try, try for ten thousand years, non-stop, get enlightenment, and save all beings from suffering.” It’s not the having nor the getting: it’s the trying that counts, time and again.

Stairs to the bridge, with weathered sign

We want liberation from our Groundhog Day lives, presumably, because we can’t stand the monotony of yet another Saturday spent on household chores, but perhaps the repetition (and presumed stupidity) of our same old selves making the same old mistakes over and over is the Universe’s way of inundating us with second changes: an act of both generosity and grace. Do we extend to ourselves the same courtesy? Can we forgive ourselves, not just our fellows, the Biblical seven times seventy? Our karma leads us to make the same old mistakes over and over, but our precious Dharma–the fruit of our life-practice–allows us to forgive ourselves–our spouses, our friends–an infinite number of times, if necessary. Only then, it seems, have we made progress, taking a step up while the rest of our lives, like sound waves, echo back again and again across time.

Steps to Echo Bridge

When Leslee, a mutual friend, and I decided to explore Hemlock Gorge on Sunday, I initially thought I’d ask if they’d mind my bringing Reggie, but I quickly reconsidered. Even if we’d figured out a way to carpool three women and a squirmy dog to the Gorge, there’d be the Echo Bridge steps to navigate.

Silk mill as viewed from Echo Bridge

Reggie has never been fond of steps: even when I adopted him in 1998, he was reluctant to climb stairs. When my then-husband and I owned a two-story house in Hillsboro, NH, Reggie could climb the carpeted steps, but he did so only reluctantly. At my parents’ house, it’s something of a production to get Reggie to climb the slick linoleum stairs to the basement apartment that serves as their guest room, and on the handful of times over the years I’ve tried to lure Reggie up open stairs–the kind with horizontal steps but no vertical step-backs, a style common at motels with outdoor stairways leading from one level to the next–he’s balked and downright refused. At dog-eye level, open steps look like no steps at all, and who but the most enthusiastic dog would actually believe you could climb from one level to another on thin air?

Charles River as viewed from Echo Bridge

In the past few years, now that Reggie has resolutely aged into the double-digits, stairs have become even more of a problem. Although glucosamine and chondroitin supplements have minimized his overall creakiness, it still takes a while to coax him up the slippery hardwood steps in J’s house, where a dog’s attention is as likely to be distracted by passing cats as it is to be focused on the scary steps at hand. Slowly, slowly, slowly Reggie and I climb the steps after every walk and bathroom outing–and now that Reggie is older, the frequency (and, sometimes, urgency) of bathroom outings has increased. But learning to respond gracefully to an inevitably aging dog offers many lessons in how to respond gracefully to an inevitably aging self, with neither one of us getting any younger. If climbing from one floor to another takes longer than it used to, well then, what really is the rush?

Literal and metaphoric passings

J and I have an ongoing tongue-in-cheek joke about the “Rainbow Bridge,” the otherworldly place where dearly departed pets presumably go to wait for their eventually mortal owners. Although Reggie is my first dog, J’s already weathered the passings of a dog and several cats, so he knows from experience it takes more than a warm and fuzzy poem about heavenly reunions to quiet the sting of pet loss. Reggie’s not ready to cross the Rainbow Bridge, but I have no illusions about his lifespan, either. Already, we’ve crossed the dietary Rubicon toward “Active Maturity” dog food, and once those glucosamine and chondroitin supplements aren’t enough for increasingly creaky joints, I’ll learn how to administer stronger medications: it seems the least I can do. But in the meantime while Reggie and I both have our wits and relative health about us, we’d both prefer to explore actual rather than rainbow bridges, our time together being precious exactly because it is (eventually) finite.

One recent reminder of Reggie’s eventual mortality involved an incontinence scare where several housebreaking accidents had me convinced that Reggie was suffering from diabetes, kidney failure, or worse. A vet visit and subsequent blood-work proved my imagination is more active than Reggie’s bladder. According to test results, Reggie’s kidneys, liver, and other necessary internals are normal and healthy, which means a handful of inside leg-lifts really were the result of an Old Dog being confused by the New Trick of J’s house with its feline distractions (and an Old Owner’s slow realization that a senior dog’s request to go “out” really means “now,” not later).

Echo Bridge

I know death is a passing we all make eventually, and lifespans suggest Reggie will cross that bridge before I do. But really, what’s the rush? During that vet visit where I described Reggie’s recent housebreaking accidents, the vet’s subsequent questions pointed to how youthful and (relatively) healthy Reggie still is. “Does he still remember where the front door is,” the vet asked, “or does he try to out ‘outside’ through the closet?” Yes, Reggie still has his wits about him; he still knows the sound of my laptop powering down means “Walk!” “Can he see well enough to recognize you across the room,” the vet continued, “and can he hear well enough to respond to his name?” Again, I answered yes, twice: the way I find my car in a crowded parking lot is to look for the bushy tail that starts wagging in the backseat as soon as Reggie spots me across multiple car-lengths, and although he’s in the habit of ignoring my calls when he wants to, Reggie’s sense of hearing is still acute enough to recognize the sound of a treat-bag being opened.

Echo Bridge

So Reggie, it seems, is as ready to cross the Rainbow Bridge as he is eager to climb a whole story’s steps to get to the top of Echo Bridge, and that’s just fine. Now that Leslee, our mutual friend, and I have done our advance scouting at Hemlock Gorge, I now know the precise parking lot I should head to the next time I want to walk Reggie on that side of the Charles River rather than this: no bridge-crossing or step-climbing necessary. Saving my best four-legged friend from the indignity of having to struggle up steps a boisterous puppy would take in leaps and bounds is a small price to pay for companionship. It seems the least I can do.

Click here for Leslee’s account of our dog-free outing at Hemlock Gorge, or click here for my complete photo-set of images. Enjoy!