by Rebecca Falzano
“We long for an affection altogether ignorant of our faults. Heaven has accorded this to us in the uncritical canine attachment.” -George Eliot
The pitter-patter of paws on wood floors made its debut in our home a few weeks ago. The sound now resides alongside alarm clock beeps and tea kettle whistles and doorbell rings. The culprit is part border collie, part labrador retriever, part imp, part charmer. His paws and tail look like they have been dipped in white paint and his chest boasts his softest patch of fur. He leaps in the air like a jackrabbit when he wants to play tug-of-war, and when he grows tired, he quietly excuses himself and heads up the stairs, where he gives in to doggie dreams in the spare bedroom. He cocks his head to the side when we say “walk” and “cookie” or any word that sounds remotely close to either. At 8 years old, he is sweet and well trained, and in the morning, when his ears feel cold, I invite him up on the bed “just this once.”
Around the age of 3, he was adopted from a shelter as a stray. Five years later, his family had to give him up. His records show a vague birth date, and on our first walks together, I contemplate his anonymous beginnings. What did he look like when he was a puppy? How did he become a stray? Is there a teenager somewhere who still wonders where his boyhood dog went? He focuses on far less profound things, like where the next suitable tree is and how he can score a treat from my pocket.
Together we explore the beginnings of summer, he with his nose and I with my eyes. I lead him around Munjoy Hill, weaving up and down inclined streets until we make our way to the waterfront. On the glistening sheet-like rocks, he maneuvers easily with webbed paws. He lifts his nose to the damp, salty air and sniffs, absorbing the scene through his snout. His ears move about his head like little satellites with each sound he hears: people on bicycles, the seagulls above, the rustle of the treat bag. We pause for a few moments to watch the dinghies in Casco Bay, the sun on the water, and blue as far as the eye can see. Today—each day here—is a painting. With so much to see and sniff, he wants to move on, though, and so we do. As he trots alongside me, the Narrow Gauge Railroad approaches slowly, teeming with families and children. He lets out a bark and people wave and smile. His heavy panting accompanies our climb back up the hill toward the house. At the door, he lunges inside, happy to be home.
Days like this repeat, and as we get to know each other, we master our rhythm together and learn to trust one another.
On a recent picture-perfect summer Saturday, the kind you store in memory for the dead of winter, he was hard at work burying his precious stuffed duck in the yard. As he methodically used his nose as a shovel to cover his treasure with a neat pile of dirt, I sat reading nearby, one hand draped over his back, petting him in between page turns. He stopped digging suddenly, and as he lifted his mud-covered face out of the debris, blood gushed from his nose, a flash of crimson that soon gave way to a steady flow of deep red. He had sliced himself on a hidden piece of slate. Something inside me switched to autopilot as I jumped up, hurrying to try to fix him while showering him with soothing reassurances. As I attempted to steady his head with shaky hands, I realized he couldn’t be in too much pain; his gaze was fixated on the half-buried duck behind him. Once the bleeding had stopped, I rushed to erase the specks of blood that were drying on the patio—rushed to erase the memory of his first injury, knowing there would likely be others and hating the thought. It is easy to give an animal love; it is hard to recognize the fragility of life in our hands.
It has been a few days, and a long pink scar has formed above one of his nostrils. As he settles at my feet after another walk along a sun-soaked Eastern Prom, I say his name. It is the name he came with, one we could not bring ourselves to change despite the armory of potential names we had built over the months. At the sound of it, the one constant in his life, he looks up at me. He knows who he is. And he knows who I am: the keeper of boundless love and attention.
For now, the pitter-patter of paws and thoughts is silent.