FISHTRAP HOLLOW – These are dog days in the truest sense. I spend them mostly with my dogs, a healthy complement of found hound, adopted pound puppy and spoiled Lab with an attitude and AKC papers.
In the late afternoons, we convene at the bridge over the branch that Don built. The sun filters through sycamores, and the breeze makes life bearable. Some days the puppy, Jimmy Ralph, keeps his standing play date and arrives from town to run in endless, frenetic circles around the yard. He makes my dogs seem old and slow, which, in turn, makes me sad and cautious. What if something happens to my dogs that can’t be fixed? Something will eventually. These old Mississippi woods are tough on critters.
The deck cat, Lucy, was nearly 16 years old. She wasn’t the prettiest cat on the deck; she wasn’t pretty at all. Nature had dropped the ball when designing Lucy. She had long yellow hair that needed a daily brushing and that she shed by a slow unpeeling process that began each spring and lasted all summer and made her like a rich woman dragging her boa. The older she got, the scragglier she looked until it became almost painful to see her so thin and slow with exposed raw skin that did not believe there would be another winter. I thought perhaps it was time for the Big Sleep.
Lucy never ventured far, a wariness that kept her safe. Until it didn’t. One night when I was away and my friend Terry was babysitting the cats and dogs, a commotion on the deck aroused him. He flipped on the outside light only to witness a National Geographic special, with some dark, unidentified animal attacking Lucy, shaking her in its relentless mouth. Still half asleep and completely shocked, Terry couldn’t see well enough to identify the animal. A bobcat? A coyote? An eagle or heron?
Terry buried Lucy by the barn the next day.
I am dependent on my pets for many reasons, but lately I think I understand the reasons far better than I ever have. Lucy is proof that nature takes care of things when we do not. All the animals, but especially the dogs, illustrate, with such grace and good humor, the seasons of life, including the ones we humans fight so hard.
The dogs are at first young and vivacious and fearless, a la Jimmy Ralph, a regular James Dean. They become, without fanfare or angst, middle-age and more cautious, calmer, taking naps in the heat of the day. They eventually, inevitably grow old, but without fretting or facelifts. They develop dewlaps and thick middles and bad hips and unsteady legs, but never complain. They slow, but with dignity.
Then, much too soon, they die.
We humans have the first part down pat. Careening about our habitats with abandon and style, we are dazzling and delicious. Health and energy and good looks are on our side when we are young. We preen and prance and play.
We don’t do so well with the aging, which takes far more courage and character. When gravity becomes the enemy, when our bodies start to smell like old zinnia water, when flaws can no longer be concealed with loose powder, that’s when we resort to cheap tricks. We grow depressed and fear, as Linda Ronstadt sang, “With nothing to show/but these lines that I know/are beginning to show on my face.”
That’s when we forget the lesson of dogs and cats and gorillas and horses. We forget there’s beauty of a different sort in the slow walk back to the barn.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson