Break

There’s an empty parking lot not far from my house that runs the width of a city block. It’s a common dog-walking route for me because I can let the dogs out on a long leash and just sort of meander without worrying about traffic or distractions. Today, I took Heidi out by herself (that is, without Scout, whom I walked earlier) and gave her the “break” command.

It’s an old school word from our Germany days when off-leash walks were common and she had to know the difference between “heel” and “freedom”. Today, I first held up the leash and said her name to get her attention. Then I dropped the leash and said, “Break!” I swear she grinned from ear to ear before taking off at a run. Well, a trot. Her stiff hips and arthritic knees hobbled her and her body resembled a see-saw as she made the best of what mobility she has.

But her ears and her eyes were joyous. She never gets off leash freedom with me anymore, and while I’ll never know if her mind remembers the vast fallow German fields, with their poppy edges in summer and mounds of sugar beets in the fall and deep snow in winter, I can’t help but feel her muscle memory is sound. Her body remembers, and her exuberance is real.

She had all the happiness this afternoon. That’s the benefit to being a dog, I guess. I was overcome with the grief of knowing how brief her life is, how unfair it is that she’s fettered by both living arrangements and biology. I grieved for the life we both had five years ago, the happiness that I’ll never know again but that her body remembers. There’s a popular sentiment that we should strive to live moment to moment like our dogs do – finding joy in the present and exploiting it fully. I’ve never been able to do that, nor believed that we should. Heidi and I have always shared the full range of emotions – she gets the joy and I take the burden of sadness. It’s just the deal I made with her: I will make you happy, and you will breathe with me when I’m sad. And between the two of us, we live fully.

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