There’s a little black dog curled up with his head under my chair as I sit here typing.  He has shaggy, spiky-haired ears that make him look like Gandalf suffering from bedhead. There are fluffy, long tufts of hair between his large front toes, furthering the wizardly image.  When furrowed, which is often, his ginger-colored eyebrows create a facial expression of intense scrutiny and concentration.  Usually when I look down, he’s watching me (can he hear my head turn?) and those eyebrows telegraph a lot of questions.

I’m not sure how he got here.  No, that’s not quite right.  The brain knows the facts, dates, and details about it, but my heart is still puzzled about the whole thing.

When your dog dies, people quickly ask, “Are you going to get another one?”  I had been pondering this myself for some time, long before my ailing 13-year-old Basset Hound fell victim to cancer just about eight weeks ago. She had been declining for more than a year, so I had lots of time to consider it.  I decided, and even said to a few people, that it was time for me to take a break from dog ownership.  I’m gone all day, there’s travel occasionally, it’s tough to always find dog accommodations. Then there’s the constant wallet punch, as veterinary expenses continue to skyrocket.  Maybe later in life, after retirement from a regular office schedule—that’s what I said.  And some part of me believed it.

Yet, here is Gandalf the Frowner dozing quietly, hairy toes curled contentedly under his chest as he recharges his batteries from a fierce game of fetch.  GTF, whose real name is Gus, puts roughly 500-percent effort into everything the universe brings. Then the balance of nature requires the restorative nap.

I honestly can’t remember when I began to realize how deeply lonely I would be without a dog.  The timetable is fuzzy, but some time over the summer, as my old pal got slower and sadder and sicker, I began looking at breed rescue sites and a couple of shelters that are well-run, just to watch what was happening and acquaint myself with the process.  I put in a couple of queries on dogs with irresistible photos, but all had been claimed.  That was just fine.

Then the Big Bang happened. Within a matter of less than four weeks in late summer, my old girl was diagnosed as terminally ill, she died, and Gus came here to live.  That sounds as though he showed up at the door, rang the bell, and demanded entry, and of course he didn’t; he’s way too short to reach the doorbell. He appeared on a website for rescued Dachshunds in Tennessee, I put in an application, was approved, and drove a couple of counties over to bring him home.  The whole process was strangely surreal and watching myself do it almost an out-of-body experience.  Though a deeply Christian person, I don’t put much credence in the concept of being “led” to do something.  Yet wherever the pilot resided, there was another power somewhere driving me to connect with this dog.

If that weren’t strange enough, Gus is in many ways–nearly all ways, come to think of it–the dog I never wanted before.  Let’s start with size.  Raised with big dogs, I was fooled into thinking that small dogs are dumb and yippy. Gus is a long-haired, standard Dachshund, a sturdy and muscular 20 pounds, twice as large as the most-common wiener dogs.  That’s still small to me.  Moreover, his energy level sparked a shocking adjustment; Bassets are soul relaxants in canine form, ever-mellow, relaxed, and universally happy to live and let live. Dachshunds are intense little thinkers, bustling problem-solvers who move everywhere at a rapid clip, miss nothing, and insist on explanations for the unidentified.  Apparently, they are also astute listeners.  Two nights ago I said, more rhetorically than anything, “I wonder where your ball is, Gussie?” He stared at me briefly (translation chip processing, perhaps?), then trotted off out of sight to another room and returned with it.

Ask a Basset such a question, and the return is likely a look that indicates, “Beats me. If you find it, have fun.  (Yawn.)”

As anyone who has ever rescued an animal will tell you, you must prepare to work with whatever you agree to take on.  With Gus, it’s been surprisingly easy.  Estimated to be about three years old, he arrived fully house-trained, very sociable with adults, children and other dogs, and game to achieve detente with a dominant and opinionated cat.  He doesn’t chew or beg.  His adjustment to routines of the household and the new days of his life was—rather like his dancing little gait—fast, efficient and precise.

Yet stashed somewhere among the new dog beds and lighter leashes and different treats there is a tiny hoard of guilt that lingers.  It’s too soon for me to return in equal measure the grateful adoration he works so hard to express. The adjustment that has not yet arrived is the one deep in the heart, where the pain of losing my long-eared friend and housemate of 13 years stubbornly remains.  The other day I heard a deep bark and thought for a split second it was her.  I need to take the unopened cans of food she never ate to one of the shelters and clear space in the cabinet, but I can’t make myself pick them up.  I have been forced to realize, all predictions to the contrary, that this little guy who fetches like a demon and burrows deep next to me on the couch is not the wizard (however Gandalf-like) who can wand that grief away.  It is wonderful that he is here, but healing and surrendering the heart again is a different matter, something on a different plane, with its own timetable.

“How’s he doing?” the neighbors ask when we are all out walking the dogs, and I respond, brightly, “Great!” Because it’s true.  They don’t ask how I am doing, thank goodness, because some days the answer would be uncertain. Grief is the most unpredictable of all companions.  All that can be done is to walk on through the days (or, rather trot on, lest I get left behind) and apply faith to the forward motion.

On the first Saturday in October, our church honors the traditional Feast of St. Francis with an annual Blessing of the Animals.  Gussie and I made our way carefully through the mixed crowd of small and gigantic (at least, to him) dogs and stepped around a crate of lovely red hens.  The service is a favorite rite of fall for me, and last year, my old hound dog received the blessing.  We stood in the cool sunshine in a circle, people and their animal friends, and as we bowed our heads for the opening prayer, I looked down at the little face looking up with a gaze of utter focus, those ginger eyebrows knit in concentration.  Tears sprang suddenly out and down, big fat ones like the first drops that smack the windshield to herald an unexpected summer storm, as the pastor began to read out the Saint’s familiar words:

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.”



As high school reunions go, our 45th was pretty darn good fun.  A core group of stalwarts who stayed in my hometown have been great about planning these gatherings regularly, and hats off to all of them for excellent planning and hospitality.  As a regular reveler at these affairs, I can testify that after you attend a few you begin to anticipate some basic, recurring fundamentals.

There will be those who looked exactly the same, and those who are utterly unrecognizable.  (You can only hope to be categorized as the former, but who knows?  The mirror is a tricky partygoer.)  There are always surprises with those who journey from long distances, especially characters who you wouldn’t have recalled giving a rip about high school. Inevitably, there are poignant absences among classmates who live a stone’s throw away but don’t show, due to life’s heartbreaking difficulties. As the decades progress, conversations at these soirees migrate from career arcs and notable achievements (I try to leave my envy hat at home, but in our crowd, it’s a tough one to shed) to the tallies that matter more in late midlife:  Headcounts of grandchildren, losses of parents, and retirement travel plans.

On the relationship and behavior scorecard, there’s always one who you wouldn’t have expected to get plastered so early in the evening; this time, a svelte athlete, perhaps too thin to hold the liquor, or too dedicated to sport to know how to imbibe responsibly. There’s going to be someone you wish, at an awkward moment strangely reminiscent of teen angst that should have dissipated a half-century ago, would remember you.  And as surely as bourbon flows from Kentucky, there will be at least one attendee you’d desperately prefer to forget, or just as frantically hope has forgotten you.   (And possibly even think: If he pats my shoulder or rubs my back one more time, I’m going to shriek something that my mother would describe as “most unattractive.”)

And if you are one of the lucky ones, as I have been these 4.5 decades, you have a steady friend with whom to attend and navigate these choppy waters as a team.  My best high-school pal, Jane, and I have attended nearly all of these together, still being the best of buddies after all these years. Facing the music together adds immeasurably to the side-splitting moments and helps to assuage the others.  Even better, we’ve got a circle of additional friends from the old gang who keep in touch and generally turn up, so for us it really can feel like old times.

As much fun as it was to catch up with everyone, and to gab about people we hadn’t really known well in high school but thoroughly enjoyed seeing—the reunion that mattered most to me was the smaller, quieter one that followed.

The following morning, Jane and I drove the short ride to a tiny town less than an hour east, in Central Kentucky, to visit my 88-year-old mother and take her to lunch.  It was to be the first time they had seen each other in person in more than 30 years.  What a long litany of changes on both sides in between meetings—marriages, divorce, children, death and widowhood, cancer, unemployment.  It’s been a life saga no one could have chronicled when Jane and I were bouncy teenagers, spending as much time in each other’s homes as we did in our own, growing to love each other’s parents as extended family, the kind you could count on to lend an ear or a 10-spot for food after the game, maybe even provide your first approved cocktail in the safe environment of home.  When her mother’s health began failing three years ago, I was determined to get in a good visit while time still allowed. Other losses had taught me that nothing prepares the heart for loss more profoundly than the chance to say anything that needs to be said, while we can still say it.  While we didn’t discuss it in those terms, perhaps Jane felt the same, this trip. My mother in many ways is holding her own, but the last two years have brought serious bumps, and who can forecast the time and seasons to be given to an 88-year-old?

Timing, as fate would have it, was not great.  Mom moved just two days before our visit to a beautiful new home with all the help she needs, but moving is a tough gig for anyone.  Jane and I were prepared; we discussed it and agreed we would roll with whatever we encountered on arrival. A preview phone call from my brother, followed by a text, forewarned us that Mom was not having a good day.

When we arrived, Jane thoughtfully asked if I wanted to go in first, just in case. I found the main entrance and was preparing to search Mom out, but there she was, waiting for us at the door, dressed in bright Sunday best, jewelry on, nails painted, hair fixed.

Leaning carefully her walker as I approached, she accepted my kiss on the cheek, but without preamble for me, demanded, “Where’s Jane?

So, I went and fetched her. And then stood back, out of the way of the bear hug that went on forever, with the tears on both sets of cheeks, and watched as the past and the future melded into one warm, glowing arc.