Monday, February 8, 2010

A Dog On Wheels Gets Me Thinking About Mortality

I went for a walk from Monahan’s Dock, along the wall, onto the beach, and all the way to Narrow River. This is one of my favorite walks. I estimate I’ve done it 1,976 times; once a week for thirty-eight years. It never gets old. On this particular walk, going out and coming back, I passed a woman with a dog who has lost the use of his back legs. His hips were harnessed to a set of wheels. He pulled himself along with his front paws. Periodically he barked. I’m not much for interpreting the emotional lives of animals. When people describe what animals are feeling, I assume they are saying how they would feel if they were the animals. I said to myself, “Remember this image of the dog on wheels. Remember that it is a mistake to stay alive at any cost.”

He was a big dog, I think a German Shepard. Other people have told me they have seen a small dog also attached to wheels along this same route. The woman walking the crippled German Shepard was about my age. I made the judgment that the situation had much to do with the woman’s needs and not much to do with the dog’s. It is not unusual for me to have fast, judgmental reactions to things. It is also not unusual for me to think things over and feel differently.

I moved to Rhode Island when I was twenty-seven. When I was thirty, I started running. For the next twenty years I was a dedicated runner and an occasional tri-athlete. This stretch of coastline was prime running, biking and swimming territory for me. A few times, I swam from Monahan’s Dock to the beech. I routinely ran on the beach, often doing three laps to make a six-mile run. I was never a competitive athlete, but I was consistent, usually logging fifteen miles of running, and/or a few hours in the pool at the YMCA, and/or ten-mile bike rides. However, in my late forties my knees began to give out. Now I walk the same course I use to run. I can walk four miles at a fast pace and feel great the whole way.

On the day I encountered the dog on wheels and thought I wouldn’t want to be alive if I were in his situation, I was fully enjoying the walk. I was filled with gratitude about being out there in the sunshine, putting one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t bemoaning the fact that I was walking instead of running. My feelings about the dog and mortality began to shift. Just walking along, seeing the ocean, hearing the surf, setting a pace that caused me to sweat a bit, brought me joy. Inevitably, there will come a time when I won’t be able to do this walk. Maybe I will need to be wheeled along the wall and down the beach. How can I be sure what my feelings will be as my level of ability declines? Maybe it will be easier than I think to be grateful to be alive

And yet, the initial thought that it is a mistake to stay alive at all cost seems valid. Maybe it all comes down to timing. The timing is going to be damn tricky, if I’m lucky enough to get to worry about timing.

The self-portrait above is an "archival" drawing. On NPR's Fresh Air, when Terry Gross is on vacation and they play old shows they say it is an archival broadcast. In 2007, Deb and I had just gotten back from the Peace Corps in Honduras, and were driving across the country, taking our time getting back to Rhode Island. In western Washington state I got quite taken with the magpies. I was trying to do a self-portrait everyday. I think I did thirty or so before I gave up. Some more of them may appear here.

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