An Old Dog

Dad doesn’t talk about getting older. He would have me believe that the two miles we walked this morning up the notch canyon taxed him no more than hikes we took thirty, forty years ago. He wears the same sweater and the same pack with waterproof coating flaking like skin.

When I was a boy I went ahead to set the pace but now he leads, a change we do not comment upon. He stops to lean on a tree and says, “Look at that.” I scan for bird, cloud, mineral formation. There’s nothing. Dad’s catching his breath. I see he’s taking it easy on the left knee and sometimes, when the pain surprises him, he shakes his head. “Yeah,” he says, pointing at clouds on the ridge. “Might rain.”

Later, we sit on his porch with coffee and watch the river, coiling and brown with run-off. Lucy, his aged retriever, pads out to join us and, after a moment’s sober assessment, sits down with a wincing sigh.

“You’re an old girl,” he says. Lucy, always a meditative dog, has set her eyes at half-mast.

“Time for the vet,” I say, meaning the one-way trip.

On a recent run to the store I saw our local veterinarian, or thought I did, loading groceries into his car. Then I looked closer and realized it wasn’t him but the man’s son, who is also a vet though more likely than his father to prescribe arthritis pills or antidepressants than to put an old dog down.

Dad sips his coffee and reaches down to take hold of one of Lucy’s ears, an old bit of velvet. She cannot hear. “That’ll take care of itself,” he says.

Later when I’m washing the coffee mugs and Dad’s asleep, I realize that this is the nearest he’ll come to discussing the medical directive form we got from the attorney, with her note: “Please find time to review.”

There isn’t time. Or rather, the time was today when Dad looked at the river and told me how Lucy liked to go down at dusk to look at dragonflies hovering above the water, though it might take her an hour to get there and back. It is the faint signal I learned to intercept as a boy. Let her go to the river if she wants, and drink. Leave the leash behind.

Kris Willcox lives in Arlington, Massachusetts with her family. Her work has appeared in Beloit Fiction JournalCimarron ReviewPortland ReviewVela magazine and Tin House online, among other publications. She is a contributing editor at UU World magazine.