The aspen leaves are only yellow for a short time. I want to be there for it. This was my first thought. Second thought: Let’s take Yedder, my dog who has kept me company for 13 years on my 45-minute walks. A piece of me hesitated. She’s old these days, and, when I get to the top of the driveway and turn left down our dirt road, she often turns back down the drive and won’t follow me. I wonder if this is her last season with the yellow leaves, but, if so, isn’t that the reason to bring her with us?
My husband, David, and I load her into the car and begin to drive up the Grand Mesa which is golden in September. The first few miles my windshield is filled with sunshine embedded on the hillside in millions of heart-shaped leaves, each of them waving at us. Our old dog is overwhelmed with the travel and poops, filling the car with the aroma of elder care.
We pull over and clean up. I open the car door and yellow and the September sun embrace my nose. I hear the crunch of a few leaves as my husband and Yedder make their way through a few of the aspen trees’ clean white trunks. We decide to take the easy trail around the lake and Yedder’s front end is acting like a frisky puppy even if her back end is dragging a bit.
This is how it goes. Yedder’s life is peppered with this front end/back end dilemma. Her back end drags. Her feet get tangled. Perhaps it is a neurological problem or weakness. Those back legs just don’t work well anymore. That back-end weakness is also the reason for the poop accidents, which are frequent these days.
She can no longer hear much, and her eyesight is failing. So people see her tumble in one way or another and ask me, “How will you know when it’s time?”
But her front end is happy. Her ears perk up when I walk in the room. Those front paws manage to carry her entire body romping about in the woods so that she can enjoy smelling the beginning of this autumn decay that smells like the hint of spring that promises it only needs a long nap. Her tongue lolls about and seems to smile when I give her a cookie from my pocket. She heads part way down the trail and doubles back for me.
She still wants to keep me company, and I want her company on the trail. I don’t know how I’ll know when it’s time, but I know that it isn’t time yet. There is too much front end life carrying us forward.
We hike and she is still patient with me while I pause to snap photos. She has always been patient with that. Finally, we come to a clearing and I see a spot where I imagine she might enjoy getting into the lake. I watch her rise up and over the tiny hill and, while she puts her paws into the lake, I think, I’ll take just one more photo of these gorgeous changing aspen trees.
She is not getting her paws wet in the lake. She is not just up over the rise as I expected. I call to her but I know it will do no good because she can no longer hear me. I dig deep inside to the psychic connection we have, but I am unable to access that deep voice of connection because all I hear in that reservoir inside my skin is fear. “I’ve failed her. I’ve left her where she can’t hear my voice and now I won’t find her before dark.”
I begin to run down the trail, frantic about where she may have gone. There are two additional trails that branch off. Did she take this one, looking for me with her eyes that are failing her? Is she wondering where I went? I call to her, but I know she cannot hear me.
After I have run almost a third of the way around the lake and convince myself I haven’t seen a single paw print, I double back. I locate my husband who has been looking as well. We agree to divide up more strategically with me tracing my way to the car where the hike began. We will meet up in 20 minutes. I start off and, within 60 seconds I see my dog’s bright front end pop out from the yellow aspen leaves. She is happy to see me, but it is clear she has been happy the whole time. She is glad I brought her to this wonderful place.
And then she falls down.
Because, young as her front end is, her back end is getting old. “Could you run back and get the car?” I ask my husband. “I don’t think she should walk back.” He takes off in a hustle because the sun is going down.
20 years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, Logan, I was hiking with my daughter, Kaitlin, and my husband near the Oregon coast. Every rock was covered in green and moss and smelled of the salt that was in the sea. I began to have contractions. Because I was only seven months pregnant, we determined it was best to have David run back to the truck and drive to the beach, rather than me hiking back and risk losing our precious baby boy.
Kaitlin and I sat on the beach amid a herd of elk. I didn’t know to be afraid of the elk. I went closer and closer to the dozen elk with my tiny three year old girl, getting nearly close enough to toss them my sandwich. I was naïve to all that my son, then growing in my belly, would eventually teach me about how fierce these great animals could be when protecting their young. As he spent time with them in the years to come he would amaze me with stories about how fast they would travel through the Colorado aspens. So fast he’d need binoculars to sight them as they disappeared. But this day I was simply filled with puppy wonder, as I held my daughter’s hand and went closer.
It took David three hours to arrive with the truck and Kaitlin and I spent all that time sitting with the herd of elk on the beach simply watching them as we ate our peanut butter sandwiches. I think about it now, knowing what I know about how skittish elk are and how impossible it seems.
Today, here with the aspens, I am grateful to be holding my dog again and I keep her within sight, speaking very calm and touching her so she knows where I am. I try to lead her to the water I thought she would enjoy more than half an hour ago.
She slowly starts in, but the bottom is mushy and her legs buckle under her. She falls. My Labrador. My water dog who has been a swimmer for 13 years, is struggling in the lake. I forget that I am wearing hiking boots and jeans and splash my way in after her, hoisting her out of the mud and drag her to shore. I haul her out and, suddenly her front end is happy again, dragging her back end along for the ride.
I show her the serene lake at the end of the day, reflecting the leaves and sky. I show her the yellow leaves about to let loose from the branches. I beg her to hold still for a couple photos before the sun leaves the sky.
David arrives with the car and I lift her in.
I get into the passenger seat next to my husband who is behind the wheel and he says to me, “Do you remember when I ran back to get the truck…”
I interrupt him. Yes. It is all I have to say. Because we have shared a life. We have been there for the front end and the back end. For the births and the deaths. Many of them and he only needs to say the first half of the sentence and I know the whole story.
Suddenly, so much of the discombobulation of this day is unwound. In this season of my life when my kids have graduated and moved on, and now the puppy we got when they were little to make our family complete is now showing signs of moving on too. I feel hollow and full at the same time and my insides are tangled. But to be beside this man who references my stories about my children and my dog and my walks and my memories….well, somehow, the falling down feels like falling more deeply in love and it is as yellow as the autumn leaves against the blue sky.
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