We’re fortunate in so many ways. Not the least of the benefits of growing up in the US is our ability, for the most part, to provide our children with a sustained bubble of innocence in which to grow up. All children should be so blessed, should be given the opportunity to learn to trust their environment and the people around them before that bubble, like all bubbles, disappears.
The bubble of innocence pops early in many parts of the world, if it ever exists at all, but here, and for most of us, childhood is carefree and magical and immortal, until it isn’t. My own bubble shrank significantly when I was about eleven and my grandfather, after too many years working in a concrete plant and too many Camel cigarettes, developed lung cancer.
Ernest Beckom was a powerful man who could bend rebar with his hands. When he was 70, I saw him lift a donkey clear off the ground trying to reposition that unreasonably stubborn Equus Asinus for a saddle. Grandaddy was as gentle as he was strong, and he was our hero, and it’s hard for kids to understand why their hero has to cry out in pain in the night. He died when I was 12 after a long and painful struggle that left him spent and frail.
Childhood did not end there, but it was much diminished for a while. However, our culture is adept at creating distractions from our own mortality, and those distractions attempt to replace the bubbles of innocence that we lose when we grow up. We emerge from childhood into our teens and young adulthood immortal, and all those whom we love live in an undying land as well.
My own illusion of immortality was threatened again when my dad was in his seventies. He was still quite fit and active, but one day he wanted to drive my new truck, a 4 wheel drive Toyota with a high ground clearance and a big step up into the cab. After our drive, he stepped down from that height and I saw his leg tremble as he almost lost his footing. That may sound like a small thing, but it was a turning point for me. From that moment on, I realized that he would not last forever, and the prodigal gypsy who loved to travel started spending more time with his folks.
That was the best decision I ever made, and fortunately, Dad had many years of vitality left. It was not his time yet, and I don’t know if he sensed my concern, but that was about the time when he began telling the story of our other grandfather, Albert Shook, who suffered a stroke in his seventies. The doctor told Pa’s family that he would not live. He lived. Then the doctor said Albert would never walk again. He walked. He also outlived his doctor by several decades. It was not his time yet.
Like it or not, one day we all have to squint to see childhood receding in the rear view mirror. We become well acquainted with mortality, and the empty seats around the table attest to that familiarity. A puppy or kitten born into such a home is fortunate indeed for the attention that can be lavished upon them.
They don’t fill the empty seats or replace the kids who have departed the nest, but they bring with them their own bubbles of innocence and youthful exuberance. Dogs, in particular, have a great lesson to teach us about living in the moment.
Bonnie and Babu are the puppies that came into our lives in the February that my mom passed away. The lying old calendar says that they are “ten” now, but they will forever be “The Puppies” to us. They are two hundred pounds of trouble, well worth it for the joy they have given us.
Babu Underfoot Valentine is a gentle giant. Had I known who he was going to grow up to be, I might have named him “Ernest” after my mother’s father. He has eyes that melt your heart no matter what he chewed or where he pooed.
About six months ago Babu started suffering from hip dysplasia, a tragic side effect of long term human meddling in the wolf clan. Once dysplasia sets in, the loss of mobility can occur rapidly. It is heartbreaking to watch.
It does not help that as soon as you mention hip dysplasia, many people, including the veterinarian, began to speak of your canine companion in the past tense. It is assumed that you will immediately begin making plans to end the life and the suffering of your furry friend.
When the morning arrived that Babu first realized he could no longer chase the ball, we thought he was ready to go, too. He would not be the first furry friend to cross the Rainbow Bridge and hunt in the Elysian Fields.
But dogs are wiser that us in many ways. One evening I sat with Babu, grieving. He responded by picking up a tennis ball and dragging himself over to me, shoveling his pushy nose under my arm to drop the ball in my lap. He laughed, as dogs do, and continued to prod me with his nose. As clearly as a bell ringing he said, “It’s not my time yet.”
It is remarkable how our little black 110 lb puppy has adapted to his malfunctioning hip, and how we have adapted to him. Babu has a racing cart now, and boots, and Ace bandages to protect his ankles. I’m getting extra exercise lifting him into the garden cart for more extended trips around the farm, and we still play ball every day.
Plan for the future like a human, but live in the moment like a puppy. We do not know when our time will come, but with each conscious breath, and every tennis ball we pick up and throw in anticipation of joy, we are in that moment, immortal.