by Kathy Kehrli
The sun casts a mild and extended glow this warm early autumn evening, making this leisurely walk possible. As Coolidge and I stroll past the neighbor’s pond, I’m struck by a flurry of avian activity. Two white ducks float atop the surface while a lone Canada goose watches them contentedly from the corner sideline. In the foreground, a blue heron, balanced on long slivery legs, tiptoes on the water’s fringes.
I’ve seen all these birds before, in this same place, in various combinations. The goose and the quacking fowls with which she’s become so enamored have been residents here since spring, with the heron joining them in late summer. Today, however, I’m presented with an unprecedented opportunity to contemplate these creatures.
Triggering this opportunity are the walks that we’ve enjoyed together for almost a dozen years. They have slowed to an almost painful amble. Coolidge understands as well as I that this slow down in pace signifies a coming end to our companionship, but neither of us wants to admit it. So we make concessions, filling in the gaps once occupied by intent-full speed—me with my nature observations and he with frequent sniffing stops, his long ears brushing the ground.
Because he’s attached to me by leash, my deceleration happens of necessity now, but 12 years ago that wasn’t the case. The same year I brought Coolidge—then just nine months old—home to live with me, I traversed this same ground without him, accompanied by human walking partners instead of a canine one.
As I set off past the pond with my grandfather, grandmother, aunt, and cousin by my side, I quickly find myself outpacing them. Realizing my abrupt solitariness, I draw to a halt and turn around, ashamed suddenly of my urgency. My grandfather notices my hesitation first.
“If you want to walk faster, keep going,” he urges me between soft, yet undeniable—even from this distance—wheezes.
I’m reminded at once of my youthful exuberance versus his declining heart and I’m guilt-ridden. I shake my head, wait for him and the others to catch up.
My grandfather didn’t see that year out. The November day he passed away, as I stood over his deathbed at my grandmother’s side, I never wished more that I could slow down our time together in a way I’d failed to do on that walk. I won’t make the same mistake with Coolidge.
We’re past the pond now, and despite his arthritic back legs and congestive heart failure, Coolidge is having a good day. That means he wants to push onward—as far as he can—and so we proceed at our tortoise pace. Although she’s now out of my sightline, the sole Canada goose begins to consume my thoughts. Geese are not solitary entities, and throughout the summer other birds of her species skirted the shoreline. Why have they deserted her? Or, why has she stayed behind? These temperate autumn days are dwindling. How will she migrate south without her flock to guide her?
By this point, Coolidge has decelerated even more and I’ve turned him around lest he tire too much to make it home. As we approach the pond again, it dawns on me: my obsession over this goose’s welfare might well be thinly disguised concern for my own.
The vet has already told me to take Coolidge home and “let nature take its course,” which it is barreling at breakneck acceleration to accomplish. While I can slow my marching pace to match his, I’m powerless to slow the march of time. These precious moments between Coolidge and me are no longer for the taking anymore than the goose’s warm autumn days. How will I—like she—make it through winter’s wrath without my faithful hound by my side?
I note the blue heron has ventured farther into the water. The unexpected contorting of his S-shaped neck rips a seam in my melancholic reverie. That’s when I spot the flopping frog legs dangling from his beak. The vision of this majestic creature torturing another is horrifically transfixing … and then I must turn away—turn back to the excruciatingly slow matter at hand.
The next time I pass this pond, chances are its avian tenants will have soared to parts less elementally harsh. The odds are about the same that Coolidge will have taken flight to a more temperate climate of his own. As for me, I can only pray that my transitional landing will be half as smooth as theirs.
Image: Blue heron by Matthias Zomer via Pexels