Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 22, 2014

Discovering a hint of puppy in the graying face of an older dog

— — Rays off a slowly setting sun dance upon the Bluestone’s ripples as she courses through rocks and shallows. I know where the deep holes are in the bend — the place where redeye are waiting for a tasty bite of earthworm served on a hooked skewer.

It’s a perfect summer early evening. One meant for fishing, hiking and exploring the great outdoors.

A few years ago we would have made the trek to the river’s edge without a second thought. Grabbing tackle from the basement, we would have climbed down the precarious mountain edge. Skimming through fields of ferns, walking under hardwood canopies and, finally, gingerly hiking down steep inclines, we would have made it to the sun-warmed rocks with an hour’s worth of daylight left.

Honey, the water-loving yellow Lab, would reach the water first. Plunging in, she would scare away the fish in her quest for a cool swim. Penny, probably the only Lab on the planet to hate water, would greet the Bluestone with suspicion. Two paws in two-inch deep water is her limit. She would take a drink then retreat to the shade near the forest’s edge. Pugsley, the giant Neapolitan mastiff who thinks he’s a Lab, would become confused at the girls’ conflicting behavior. Eyeing the blondes with a befuddled look, he would first take a refreshing dip with Honey, then join Penny on the riverbank for an afternoon nap.

For so many years, this was our fun, our routine, our relaxation.

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On this day, the Bluestone’s twinkle is visible between the foliage of the hardwood trees. We stop to take a look, and Pugsley glances at me with an excited, expectant stare. Beside him, the Labs perk up with anticipation, and their tails begin to wag.

They are ready for an adventure. Looking at Pugsley’s graying muzzle, I pet his neck, ruffle his ears then bend down to hug the girls. “Not today guys,” I whisper. “Not today.”

Finishing our leisurely walk on the driveway, I think back to our last hike to the river. The steep incline had become too much for Pugs’ aging joints. Pushing and prodding, I had to help my gentle giant up the riverbank. Once in the forest, they all needed a break. They rested in the shade while I watched, seated upon a rock. I realized the once-easy hike to the river had become an intense obstacle course for my pets.

They were aging. And so was I.

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The pet cemetery under the chestnut tree is a timeline of my life and the pets who accompanied me on the journey.

Collie and Smoky are buried here — the Lassie lookalike and mixed-breed German shepherd who guarded me as I toddled around the yard as a precocious 2-year-old. Their images are captured on 8 mm film, flanking a toddler on her first adventures into the world.

Stephen King’s book and a later movie gave pet cemeteries a bad rap. In our family’s world such places are a spot for remembrance, reflection and recollections of unconditional love.

Brownie, my first childhood “mutt,” is also buried under the sweeping boughs of the chestnut, as are beagles Ned and Joe, white German shepherd Hannibal, Pekinese Hiccup and, finally, Mom and Dad’s last “together pet,” black-and-tan shepherd Duke.

Several times each summer, I wander by the tree and think of the pets who nurtured me on my road from childhood to adulthood. I think of the ball chases, nose nuzzles and hours spent in play roaming the land around our home. The moments are a warm, familiar blend of happy and sad.

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I sigh when viewing photos on my iPhone’s camera roll. The fur on Pugsley’s face is growing ever whiter; in the background Honey and Penny sleep peacefully on the ground, resting limbs and joints.

They seem to grow older so quickly, and there’s no stopping time.

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I arrive home to find half of a chewed flip-flop greeting me at the front-door entrance. In an instant, Pugs comes barreling down the hallway, the other half of the shoe clenched firmly in his mouth. Suddenly, the gray on his face is not so noticeable. All I see is the gleam in his eye and slobbery grin on his mischievous face. I feign anger, while trying not to smile.

Walking out the back door, Penny shoots off toward the woods in avid pursuit of a chipmunk, while honey checks the yard for deer. Pugsley, meanwhile, begins a ridiculous, fruitless chase of robins on the lawn.

Watching their antics, I recall there is another path to the Bluestone — a kinder, gentler trail that’s more friendly to aging bodies.

Suddenly, Pugs swoops onto the patio, the birds forgotten. I scratch his head and make a promise. “Just wait ’til tomorrow,” I tell him. “Tomorrow we’ll go to the river.”

On his face, I think, is a smile.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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